‘Feminism is not a glamorous magazine cover with a condescending headline’
A Chartered Accountant by profession, Sefi Atta is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, playwright and screenwriter. She is the author of novels Everything Good Will Come, Swallow, A Bit of Difference, The Bead Collector and The Bad Immigrant (a collection of short stories), News from Home; Sefi Atta: Selected Plays; and a children’s book, Drama Queen.
Her novel Swallow, about a naive secretary in 80’s Lagos contemplating drug trafficking, was one of three original feature films adapted for the screen by acclaimed Nigerian filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, for Netflix.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she spoke on her latest work, the country’s literary space, her dream for Nigerian women, women’s voices she admires amongst other issues.
Did you always know you were going to be a writer and what has your experience been like all these years later?
When I was a girl, I daydreamed a lot and I sometimes imagined plays and brought them to life with my siblings. I continued to do so with my classmates as a student at Queen’s College, Lagos, but I stopped at the age of 14 when I was sent to Millfield, a boarding school in England, where I went on to study French and English literature for A levels.
I’d always enjoyed literature because I grew up in a home where reading was encouraged. I admired writers, but I had no idea I would become one. I started calling myself a writer after my first novel, Everything Good Will Come, was published, although I didn’t feel worthy with one book and a couple of radio plays under my belt. Now, I think of myself as a storyteller, like women in villages who remind people of their past and caution them about the future, except my usual terrain is a megacity called Lagos and my audience is global.
I was once in the business world. I worked as a Chartered Accountant in England and a CPA in the United States until my husband, Gboyega Ransome-Kuti, and I moved to Mississippi with our daughter, Temi, who was then a toddler. I started writing full time there in 1997, in a city called Meridian, and I’m immensely grateful for how my life has turned out 24 years later. I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is exactly what I’m meant to be doing.
With the literary space-changing often, how are you able to stay alert and reinvent yourself?
Stay alert, that’s funny. Mind you, it’s hard to at the age of 57; I don’t have the energy I once had when I could write for hours non-stop. Seriously though, I never think about reinventing myself. However, I experiment now and then.
For instance, in 2019, I republished a short story, Unsuitable Ties, and got my cousin, Fauzi Fahm, to do the illustrations. Then shortly after I shipped copies of it home to Nigeria, the pandemic started and I completely forgot about it. It is now available and would make a suitable gift if I say so myself. I also collaborated with Chibundu Onuzo, who read a monologue I wrote, Ikoyi Girl. I enjoy collaborations and I’m always open to learning something new.
Are you satisfied with where the country’s literary space is now, what more do you think can be done to improve it?
This is difficult because I must admit that I’m a little troubled by what I observe in the arts and culture space in general. I feel it’s in the process of being occupied by people who are more interested in money and power than they are in arts and culture. I’m sorry to be so harsh, but having access to bank funding or government officials doesn’t make you creative. Those of us who are constantly in search of truth and beauty recognise this, but some of us are forced to deal with these people to get where we want.
I tried to be open to them, I really did, hoping we might find common ground, but it was hopeless. We just don’t speak the same language. I don’t even know what can be done to make things better, except to hope they get bored with arts and culture and find some other sector to occupy. Waste management would be a great one; they’d be very useful there.
While writing Everything Good Will Come, did you ever think it would travel the way it did?
No. It wasn’t even popular when it was first published. Some critics attacked it with such ferocity that it seemed as if they saw the renaissance of Nigerian literature as a chance to re-enact the civil war. I can joke about it now, but back then, I couldn’t understand it. Perhaps, I’d been protected from tribalism, because of my multi-ethnic Nigerian experience, but it was shocking to learn that educated, intelligent people could be that narrow-minded.
Then, I came to Nigeria on a whirlwind book tour. I remember on one occasion running with copies of my books to make a local flight. On another occasion, I had a reading in a park and no sooner had I opened my mouth to speak than a thunderstorm began. Nigerian readers eventually took to the book, despite their misgivings about feminism.
So, what does feminism mean to you?
I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean since I’ve spent a lot of time in the past talking about what it means. It is not a glamorous magazine cover with a condescending headline. It is not aspirational lists of top females on International Women’s Day. It is not an exclusive club for privileged women. It is not a means of exploiting or capitalising on other women’s pain and it will never be a way to brand myself.
In your works, you usually speak from the female perspective. Is this a way of projecting the female voice, especially as women are usually silent/ignored?
No, I am a woman and I don’t know why I have to justify writing from my point of view.
Your latest work is already generating massive interest locally and internationally. Tell us about it?
I don’t know about the interest being massive; I had positive reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist; that’s about it. My books are published by Interlink, an independent press in Massachusetts. There’s only so much that small publishers like them can do to get attention for their writers, and I don’t have a literary agent. The Bad Immigrant is about a Nigerian family who win the green card lottery at the dawn of the new millennium, after which they immigrate to the United States. It is told from the point of view of the father, Lukmon Karim, my first male protagonist in a novel. I considered writing the story from his wife’s perspective, but I had more in common with him. He loves books, he has a weird sense of humour and he’s a stay-at-home parent.
Can you relate personally to the storyline of The Bad Immigrant?
Not exactly, my experience in the United States has been so odd I can’t recreate it. The Karims’ story is more common for Nigerians who immigrate. I did draw on my experience in Meridian, but not as someone who has lived there for almost twenty-five years. Lukmon is new to Middlesex, the imaginary city he ends up in. I guess we have that in common, too, because I’ll always feel like a newcomer in Meridian.
But there is a false idea that Nigerians in America are elite because we arrive there with a certain level of education. This notion is reinforced whenever a Nigerian-American celebrity makes an arrogant public statement that offends African Americans, but it is just not true. Nigerians in America are there because they believed it would be easier to make progress there. The Nigerian elite may go there on vacation and educate their children there – they may even buy property there – but they stay in Nigeria because, on the whole, being here works better for them than being there.
How do you deal with issues of race and colourism seeing as you spend some time outside Nigeria?
Racism infuriates me, and by the way, I didn’t have to travel outside Nigeria to witness it; I remember being aware of it right here in Nigeria. I grew up in Ikoyi, which was a lot more international in the sixties and seventies. We had family friends in the expatriate community. I would also come into contact with their kids when I attended ballet classes at St Saviour’s School or whenever I went to places such as the Lagos Motor Boat Club. My mother was one of the club’s handfuls of Nigerian members and there was one waiter in particular who was such an Uncle Tom. I didn’t know the term at the time, but the way he ingratiated himself with ex-pats annoyed me.
I have always felt compelled to speak out about racism and I don’t understand Nigerians who are reluctant to, even now that it’s socially beneficial to do so. I’ve met Nigerians who are actually hostile to other black people who speak out about racism, which is again shocking to me. My instinct is in the spirit of Afrobeat; I resist any kind of domination.
As for colourism, I don’t give it much thought, but I’ve observed it here as well. If there is any doubt that we have a problem, just think of skin bleaching. The other day, I was at a restaurant in Lagos and I spotted two young women whose skins were practically as translucent as wall geckos. They were taking selfies and in walked a striking young woman with very black skin; she turned the head of just about everyone in that place.
Being creative can be tough, especially when you don’t have the zeal or will to produce anything. How do you manage this?
I always have the zeal and the will; stories keep coming to me. I can’t help it. I don’t suffer from writer’s block unless I am writing non-fiction, and I write in all forms except poetry – novels, short stories, plays and screenplays.
How much of your growing-up years influence your works, seeing as you write about Lagos and the Lagos life a lot?
I represent a generation of Nigerians who were born in the Lagos of the mid-sixties. We came of age during the oil boom and graduated into a recession in the mid-eighties. I call us oil boomers. We were the first generation of Nigerians who knew we would probably not do as well as our parents. None of us became writers; we took up practical professions, as I initially did. Some of us stayed in Nigeria, while others emigrated overseas, as I eventually did. Still, Lagos has been a constant source of inspiration.
However, what is happening here now is so vile and terrifying; I find it hard to even speak of it. We had gbomo-gbomo in my childhood. We were warned about them, even as we laughed with our friends about getting kidi-papa’d. When the Naira was new, we were also warned about ritualists who used children to make money; we were not shielded from evil. Now, evil is so rampant. We hear about kidnappings and ritualist killings all the time. Imagine growing up in Lagos today, how can you write fondly about your childhood?
You recently had one of your books adapted into a film, are we going to see more of that?
Who knows? Maybe if I find the right team. Writing Swallow with Kunle Afolayan was an educative experience, for which I’m most thankful. I am currently adapting one of my plays for the screen and we’ll see how it goes.
Life as a creative, especially in Nigeria, can be unpredictable finance-wise. How do you deal with this?
Please don’t ask me about money. No matter how tactfully I answer, I’m bound to upset another writer.
What changes would you like to see happen for Nigerian women?
I would like to see an end to infant and maternal mortality. I would like to see an end to cultural practices that are harmful to women and girls and impede their progress. I want an economy that is favourable to the majority of Nigerian women who derive a level of financial independence through trading and are finding it harder to do so as the Naira devalues. Free-market economics in Nigeria is a feminist issue.
If you were speaking to young women who intend to write, what would you tell them?
I tell them to do what pleases them. Sometimes, I advise them not to follow my path, which can be a difficult one if they’re not as stubborn as I am. I don’t mind being in the spotlight for a moment, especially when I have new work to share, but it is too taxing to remain there and I would feel desperate for trying. I like to retreat to a quiet room to think and write.
Who are the Nigerian female voices you admire?
I admire all my peers and the writers who came before us, for different reasons. I’m particularly impressed by two writers who were published immediately after me, Chibundu Onuzo and Yewande Omotoso. Chibundu, because her prose is precise and full of dry humour and Yewande because she writes beautifully and sparingly. They both have an ability to portray people from other cultures accurately and they are super-intelligent and nice.
Having won awards and gained recognition both home and abroad, what do you want to be particularly remembered for?
In your opinion, what is the future of Nigerian literature? Does it look promising?
Absolutely. It seems as if a Nigerian writer is discovered every month and the more the merrier, I say. Let people read our works and find their favourites. No select group or individual can speak for us all anymore; we’re done with that.