Sefi Atta

THE LITERATI

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Your sto­ries are so re­lat­able, they re­ally cap­ture the Nige­rian heart or con­scious­ness, you can feel it when your char­ac­ters speak and in­ter­act. To what do you credit this skill – are you a so­cial ob­server or do you com­mit what peo­ple say around you to mem­ory?

You’re right that I’m a so­cial ob­server. I think most peo­ple are, but I just hap­pen to turn my ob­ser­va­tions into sto­ries. I don’t com­mit what peo­ple say to mem­ory; I only re­mem­ber what is im­por­tant to me, whether it is pro­found or silly. Mind you, my hus­band may beg to dif­fer. It frus­trates him that I can re­mem­ber ex­actly what he did or said twenty years ago. That is a skill that wives ac­quire. What I might have is a nat­u­ral abil­ity – if I can call it one – to make up en­tire con­ver­sa­tions be­tween imag­i­nary char­ac­ters so that each voice is dis­tinct. But it’s not enough to rely on abil­ity alone. Writ­ing dia­logue well re­quires de­vel­op­ing and pay­ing at­ten­tion to craft.

There is a tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ence in the flow of your prose, ac­tu­ally quite eco­nom­i­cal in get­ting a point across, com­pared to other Nige­rian lit­er­ary fig­ures. Do you agree? And what would you say in­flu­ences this – the top­ics of your writ­ing, your gen­der, gen­er­a­tion, or a per­sonal trait?

I can’t draw com­par­isons, but my prose has be­come more con­cise over the years, to the ex­tent that I would de­scribe it as jour­nal­is­tic. I pre­fer to write that way, but my de­ci­sion to do so would depend on my nar­ra­tive voice. Some of my sto­ries are in­spired by news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and good jour­nal­ists are eco­nom­i­cal and pre­cise with lan­guage. If they make a point, they make it ac­cu­rately and only once. I ap­pre­ci­ate that. Even my emails are short and to the point. I also speak that way in pub­lic, out of cour­tesy to my au­di­ences, but in pri­vate I can be talk­a­tive.

You have two new nov­els com­ing out soon, “The Bead Col­lec­tor” and “Made in Nige­ria”. The main char­ac­ters vary quite dif­fer­ently. Tell us what these sto­ries dwell on, and can you try to ex­plain what it is like be­ing in the head of a male char­ac­ter, or a teenage girl?

I read some­where that Tol­stoy viewed lit­er­a­ture as one of two sto­ries: a man goes on a jour­ney or a stranger comes to town. I guess I’ve cov­ered both sto­ries in my nov­els be­cause “The Bead Col­lec­tor” is about a friend­ship be­tween a Nige­rian woman and an Amer­i­can woman who vis­its La­gos, and “Made in Nige­ria” is about a Nige­rian fam­ily that im­mi­grates to Amer­ica.

It doesn’t mat­ter whom you write about; to cre­ate con­vinc­ing char­ac­ters, you have to know them well and like them. To build my char­ac­ters, I vi­su­al­ize them and ob­sess about them un­til they are fully formed. When I be­gin to dream about them, that is good sign. I’ve been a teenage girl be­fore, so it’s a ques­tion of re­mem­ber­ing what my ex­pe­ri­ence was like and reimag­in­ing it. It is not easy to, but it’s eas­ier than imag­in­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of a man. My great­est chal­lenge with male char­ac­ters is that men and women are not al­ways com­pletely honest with each other, so I can’t go by what men say. Con­se­quently, in cre­at­ing male char­ac­ters, my most ac­cu­rate guides are lit­er­ary works by men.

It doesn’t mat­ter whom you write about; to cre­ate con­vinc­ing char­ac­ters, you have to know them well and like them. To build my char­ac­ters, I vi­su­al­ize them and ob­sess about them un­til they are fully formed. When I be­gin to dream about them, that is good sign.

You re­cently had an event at Free­dom Park in La­gos with ex­cerpt read­ings from your book “Sefi Atta: Se­lected Plays”. Many who at­tended felt you had the drama­ti­za­tion per­fected sim­ply by the tone of your char­ac­ters. Is dra­ma­tiz­ing your work im­por­tant to you? What are your fu­ture plans in this re­gard?

For a play to be rec­og­nized, you ei­ther get it pub­lished, read or staged. Now that I’ve pub­lished my col­lec­tion, I’m no longer un­der pres­sure to have my plays staged or read, and if all goes well, they will be pub­lished in the US next year. I’m still open to pos­si­bil­i­ties in Nige­ria, though. I’m talk­ing to in­ter­ested par­ties.

The read­ing was my farewell to pro­duc­ing. I never in­tended to be a pro­ducer. I was forced to be­come one be­cause it was an al­ter­na­tive to speak­ing to cor­po­rate spon­sors who didn’t know any­thing about theatre and some­times wanted me to jus­tify my plays on the grounds of so­cial causes, such as na­tion build­ing or women’s rights. In an ideal en­vi­ron­ment, art for art’s sake should be enough and plays should be more than PR tools. I am on my com­puter and typ­ing line af­ter line, edit­ing my

drafts with a red pen un­til I am sat­is­fied, that is fun for me. I don’t even care to di­rect plays. I took a course in di­rect­ing and all it did was help me un­der­stand the role of a di­rec­tor bet­ter. Pro­duc­ing a play feels like real work, though my busi­ness knowl­edge has en­abled me to ap­proach my pro­duc­tions as com­mer­cial ven­tures and my ac­coun­tancy qual­i­fi­ca­tions have been use­ful when it comes to man­ag­ing bud­gets.

You have be­come more in­volved in the pub­lish­ing process of your work. What did you find the most un­eth­i­cal prac­tice in the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try?

You re­mind me of an­other rea­son for becoming a pro­ducer. In the theatre world in Nige­ria, par­tic­u­larly in La­gos, you have no con­trol over how other peo­ple treat your work. As a vet­eran play­wright re­cently told me, “Your work is pub­lic prop­erty here.”

I’m self-pub­lished in Nige­ria for the same rea­son. You have to take charge of all as­pects of your work if you care about it. The worst part is that if you protest over copy­right in­fringe­ments, peo­ple get of­fended and quar­rel with you. You de­velop a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dif­fi­cult. An ideal writer, I pre­sume, is one who al­lows his or her work to be ex­ploited and just grins and bears it.

As we move into an age where the bound­aries be­tween lit­er­a­ture and other me­dia be­come more blurred, es­pe­cially with copy­right is­sues, what steps are you tak­ing to make sure your work is ap­pre­ci­ated in the form in which you in­tended – or is this not high on your agenda? And what have you found are the best ways to mar­ket your work?

I only work with re­li­able peo­ple who have shown they have in­tegrity and re­spect my work. I used to mar­ket my work the old-fash­ioned way, build­ing an au­di­ence and a read­er­ship, story by story, novel by novel and play by play. It was the only way I knew how. I can’t say it was the best way, but I was quite happy to do that. I felt as if I earned the recog­ni­tion I got. Now, I plan to reach a wider au­di­ence on dif­fer­ent types of on­line plat­forms I’m less fa­mil­iar with and I’m look­ing for­ward to that.

Is lit­er­ary suc­cess im­por­tant? What did it look like to you at the start of your ca­reer and what does it look like to­day? If you could tell your younger writ­ing self any­thing, what would it be?

From the be­gin­ning of my writ­ing ca­reer, I have worked with blin­ders on and kept my eyes solely on my work. That way, I don’t know what is hap­pen­ing in the lit­er­ary mar­ket­place un­less some­one tells me. Liv­ing in a place as iso­lated as Merid­ian, Mis­sis­sippi, helps as well. Peo­ple won­der how I can live here, but it is a writ­ers’ re­treat for me. Of course lit­er­ary suc­cess is im­por­tant, but I don’t fo­cus on that. I fo­cus on pro­duc­ing works I am proud of. That is how I de­fine suc­cess pri­mar­ily, so, when I have the other kind, the kind that comes with prizes and recog­ni­tion, it is on my terms. Ev­ery writer has his or her own path, so I would not change a thing about my jour­ney. I might tell my younger writ­ing self to take bet­ter care of her eyes, but she prob­a­bly wouldn’t lis­ten.

Is there an early ex­pe­ri­ence you had, where you learned that lan­guage had real power?

Yes. That would be read­ing the head­line “Atta Is Dead” in a news­pa­per when my father, Ab­dul-Aziz Atta, died. I was eight years old.

Some writ­ers have in­cred­i­ble egos, and this is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with their writ­ing tal­ent. You may be de­scribed as mod­est to a fault. Is it a case of let­ting your work speak for you or do you find the whole rig­ma­role of be­ing a pub­lic fig­ure a dis­trac­tion?

Don’t get me wrong, recog­ni­tion is huge part of the re­ward of be­ing a writer and most of us ap­pre­ci­ate it. I cer­tainly do. Writ­ing can give you a plat­form if you’re in­ter­ested in stand­ing on one. Hav­ing a voice gives you power and I feel priv­i­leged to be able to use mine.

Too much is made of my mod­esty. When I worked as an ac­coun­tant, I was an au­di­tor and no one wanted to see me or hear from me, and they made it clear. Now I’m a writer, I walk into a hall and peo­ple clap. I talk in the hall and peo­ple clap. Get­ting ap­plause for my work takes some get­ting used to.

Don’t get me wrong, recog­ni­tion is huge part of the re­ward of be­ing a writer and most of us ap­pre­ci­ate it. I cer­tainly do. Writ­ing can give you a plat­form if you’re in­ter­ested in stand­ing on one. Hav­ing a voice gives you power and I feel priv­i­leged to be able to use mine. Be­ing in the pub­lic eye is dis­tract­ing when you’re writ­ing. It can also be un­nerv­ing, but it is a nec­es­sary part of mak­ing sure your work is read, so I get on with it un­til I’m ready to re­treat.

I’m 53 and be­long to a gen­er­a­tion that was raised to be­lieve that pro­mot­ing your­self was show­ing off. These days, I see Nige­rian women my age car­ry­ing on like celebri­ties. It ap­par­ently works for them, but it wouldn’t work for me. My daugh­ter is 22 and, as she would ad­vise, “Just do you.”

With re­gard to writ­ers be­ing ego­tis­ti­cal, tal­ent is not enough. To get away with be­ing ego­tis­ti­cal, you have to be a ge­nius and I don’t meet many writ­ers who are. Sorry.

Nige­ria is un­der­go­ing changes and there are many pros and cons to this: many win­ners and also many losers. If you could write a fu­ture for Nige­ria what would that be like?

Who are the win­ners, though? If you’re re­fer­ring to Nige­ri­ans who have enor­mous wealth and power, they don’t even live in the coun­try any­more. Or should I say they spend most of their time overseas. Their chil­dren are ed­u­cated overseas. If they fall ill, they fly overseas for treat­ment. What kind of life is that? If you’re able to es­cape to an­other coun­try, that is not win­ning. You can con­vert travel miles into brag­ging rights, but it doesn’t change the fact that your life is not ideal.

My hus­band and I choose to live overseas and we visit Nige­ria. That is not ideal, ei­ther. When we come home, we make plans and no mat­ter how sim­ple and straight­for­ward they are, they go awry, in ways we can­not an­tic­i­pate.

There are no win­ners. What we have are those who sur­vive Nige­ria and those who don’t. Or­di­nary Nige­ri­ans, as we call them, fully ac­cept their lives are tough, whether they’re com­mut­ing to work ev­ery day, pro­vid­ing food for their fam­i­lies or ed­u­cat­ing their chil­dren. Send your daugh­ter to Queen’s Col­lege, Yaba, which was the best sec­ondary school for girls when I at­tended it in the 70s, and she is in dan­ger of fall­ing sick and dy­ing. Send your son to Uni­lag and he may fall prey to stu­dent cults. Fall se­ri­ously ill and if you don’t have the means to fly overseas for treat­ment, whether you’re in a pri­vate or teach­ing hos­pi­tal, your chances of sur­viv­ing are next to noth­ing.

I don’t want to come across as a pes­simist but the fu­ture looks bleak. If you don’t agree, let me list some of the prob­lems that plague us: our three branches of gov­ern­ment are mal­func­tion­ing; we can­not trust our fourth es­tate; in the strug­gle be­tween truth and lies, the re­vi­sion­ists are win­ning; we have ac­tivists who are only in it for the money and pub­lic­ity; we have char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions and NGOs that have the same du­bi­ous agen­das; we look to churches for hope and guid­ance and find de­cep­tion and greed in or­ga­nized re­li­gion; above all is the threat of Is­lamic ter­ror­ism.

What scares me most is that it feels as if the coun­try is on the verge of war – a class war, an eth­nic war of the blood­i­est kind, a re­li­gious war. I don’t care to stand on plat­forms, but my forth­com­ing works ad­dress, with­out flinch­ing, all of this and what it means to be a Nige­rian, at home and overseas.

THISDAY Style Vol. 20, No. 7362 Sun­day, July 2, 2017

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