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