Back to Archives

Sefi Atta, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin



PC:  Thank you for doing this interview.  Youíve said in other interviews that you started writing when you took a weekend workshop at NYU (1995).  Could you tell us a bit about what led you to take that workshop, who taught it, and what about it spurred you to continue writing?


SA:  I was an accountant when I moved from England to the US in the summer of 1994. I came here with my husband, a medical doctor. I had our daughter in the fall and sat the CPA exams a few weeks after. We lived in New Jersey and I worked in New York, so I was commuting and raising a toddler. I needed time to myself. I saw an NYU continuing-ed brochure in my bossís office and decided to take an introduction to creative writing class. I started to write at home and I enjoyed it so much I couldnít stop. I would write after midnight and even at work. In 1997, my family moved to Mississippi and I was out of work, so I began to write full-time.


PC:  Would you tell our readers a bit about your childhood and family life? [I'll come back to one aspect of your childhood in a question about your writing plays, but there's so much more, including having both Islam and Christianity as you grew up, the early loss of your father, etc.]


SA:  I was born and raised in Lagos. My family lived in Ikoyi, in a neighborhood where most parents were civil servants and professionals. My father was the head of the civil service and my mother stayed at home, though she was always involved in one business or another, as Nigerian women are. In their spare time, he took us fishing and she kept chickens and geese, and tended a vegetable patch, which we called a farm. I was usually outdoors with my siblings, digging up iguana eggs, catching tadpoles and climbing up trees. Our house was five minutes away from Five Cowrie Creek, and my siblings and I would go there to watch fishermen or play on the dunes. Indoors, I read comics like Archie and Buster, or Enid Blyton books. Sometimes, I listened to Yoruba fables about Ijapa, the tortoise, which ended with call-and-response songs, and that was a treat. There was a lot of music in our house: opera, jazz, juju, classical, pop and soul. One minute weíd be sliding across the floor to "Say it loud, Iím black and proud," and the next weĎd be bellowing, "It ainít necessarily so." Television didnít come on until six and we were only allowed to watch programs like Village Headmaster and Bonanza. I had a wonderful childhood. My father died when I was eight, but because my mother was so strong, I never missed having a father figure. I missed my father. My mother is a Christian and my late father was from a Moslem family, though he wasnít a practicing Moslem. My mother made sure we learned about both religions, so even though I attended an Anglican church, I also had Koranic lessons. After my father died in 1972, I continued Islamic studies as a student at QueenĎs College. By then, weíd moved to another neighborhood in Ikoyi, where there were more expatriates than Nigerians, which was odd, but we had the water for comfort. Our house overlooked Lagos Lagoon.


PC:  What is there about that period that draws you to it as a subjectóor the settings you knew as a child?


SA:   Itís the history of my childhood. I was born four years after independence, then we had the civil war, followed by a succession of military coups. General Gowon, who was head of state during the civil war, was my fatherís boss. I donít know how old I was when I learned that my auntís husband, the poet Christopher Okigbo, was killed fighting for Biafra. I was twelve during the coup of 1975, when General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated. His daughter and I were classmates at Queenís College. My childhood was an epic time in Nigeria, and I had all these personal connections to our political history.


PC:  What have you found to be some of the attractions and perils of autobiographical writingóor writing that may appear to be autobiographical but isn't?


SA: Readers often tell me my stories are authentic. Thatís probably because I have so much factual detail in my stories. I donít have much of an imagination, but I have a mind bank of details, which I play with. Itís how I daydream, so writing like that is natural for me. The trouble is that readers assume Iím writing about myself. I donít write non-fiction because I get bored. Some of my writing is autobiographical, but not the way readers imagine. I use my memory of settings, events and people. I weave history into my stories, but my narratives are made up.


PC:  When you wrote stories based on news items, what attracted you to them as subjects? At what point did you decide to make a collection of them in Lawless, which was published in the US and UK as News from Home?   And congratulations on the recognition, the NOMA award for "an outstanding book published in Africa." 


SA:   Thank you. Per Contra has been a good friend. I did not intentionally set out to write stories based on news reports. I started writing short stories in 2002 and at the time, Nigerian newspapers were going online. At some point, I realized that a lot of my stories referred to newspaper articles. In retrospect, it made sense, but I wrote a lot of stories that had nothing to do with the news. I decided to have a collection in 2005 when I had enough stories with a common theme.


Itís more than the news, though. I was listening to a lot of Fela at the same time, because his music became more widely available after his death. His music influenced me as well. News From Home is in the spirit of afrobeat. Itís a shift in consciousness. I turn away from my Ikoyi girl roots and travel far. My language is coarser and each story is a protest.


PC:  Kudos also for the PEN International David T.K. Wong award in 2006 and the Wile Soyinka Prize that your debut novel, Everything Good Will Come, received in 2005.  They must have been gratifying.  Do you recall your response to the news?


SA:   The David T.K. Wong award was a surprise. I got an email, but there was no ceremony and the year I won was the last year of the award. I had a one in three chance of winning the Soyinka Prize. The shortlist was announced a couple of days before, so I didnít have enough time to get myself to Lagos. My mother attended the ceremony and she called to tell me Iíd won. I was very happy, but quietly so.


                                                              Sefi Atta


PC:  In what ways, if any, does your education and experience as an accountant affect your writing?


SA:  Iím disciplined about writing. I get up every day knowing I have to produce work. Iím less concerned about other aspects of the job, such as the prizes and promotions. Promoting my work can be awkward, unless I feel sociable enough. Prizes encourage me to work harder on my next project.


PC:  Do you begin writing your novels in a way that's different from your short stories?


SA:  I get stage fright with short stories. For me it feels like standup comedy: kill or die. Iím more confident when I begin a novel because I know I have space to fail.


PC:  Some writers use outlines, others don't.  Where do you fall in this spectrum?  How soon in the writing process do you know the ending?


SA:  I always begin with outlines, but they change and so do my endings and beginnings.


PC:  Could you describe your notebook? When did you start keeping one?  What do you write in your notebook?


SA:  Iíve had notebooks, but they are nondescript. All I care about is that they fit in my hand. I scribble down ideas. The problem is my best ideas come while Iím driving or showering.


PC:  Do you keep a journal, too? 


SA:  I tried to once, but it didnít last. I guess it comes down to getting bored with non-fiction.


PC:  Some writers have rituals associated with their writing.  Do you have any? (Favorite type of pen, for example.)  Or a schedule for your writing?  How does it vary when school is in session?


SA:  I donít have rituals, but I have a uniform: gray sweats. I live in them. I also canít do without my computer, which is old and fat. I donít have a schedule, but I can write for hours non-stop. If Iím drafting a book, I try and do a chapter a day. I dislike first drafts. Revision is a lot more fun, but it takes years. I love teaching, but I canít write when Iím teaching.


PC:  Ionesco wrote his short story "Rhinoceros" before he wrote the play.  Have you translated a play you've written to a storyóor vice versa?


SA:  Yes, I adapted a short story into a radio play: ďThe Miracle Worker.ď  I also wrote a short story that Iíd initially conceived as a play: ďLawless.Ē


PC:  What's the difference (for you) in writing dialog for the different forms:  stage play, radio play, fiction for the printed page?


SA:   For each form, and really for each work, I have a different relationship with my audience. I canít describe it better than to say itís a triangular relationship between the work, the audience and me, and I have to decide what shape the triangle takes. My decisions are instinctive and my dialogue is driven by what I need to tell the audience and also by silences. Novels need the most dialogue, as Iím responsible for creating the visual and other possibilities. With stage plays, I rely on visuals and actions, so my silences are longer. With radio plays, I rely on voices and substitute sounds for silences. For all forms, writing dialogue is almost like writing music. I pay close attention to rhythms and tones.


PC:  Would you tell our readers a bit about your childhood experiences with plays, at home with your siblings and in school?


SA:  My siblings and I were always putting on plays at home. I was ashamed whenever we put on a bad play, but they didnít seem to care. All they cared about was the collaboration, which I enjoyed, but I was territorial about storytelling. At Queenís College I was the head of the drama society. I studied Shakespeare in class, so my plays were always about Nigerian kings, witches and empires. I always cast myself as kings. At the age of fourteen, I went to Millfield, a school in England, I joined the drama society, but it was different. I had to play female or black roles. Iíd studied Shakespeare and none of my English classmates had studied Soyinka. Not that I knew much about Soyinkaís works, but it made me think my Nigerian plays were no longer relevant.


PC: How often do you go back to Nigeria?


SA:  I was there three times last year.


PC: You have the storytelling  traditions of Nigeria as well as the Southern storytelling tradition in your new home of Mississippi.   How do these factor into your work?


SA:  I went through a period of reading Southern literature when I moved to Mississippi, the result of which is my second novel Swallow. I find Southern literature similar to Nigerian oral literature. It is quirky and rambling. You canít ask a simple question in Mississippi. You will get a roundabout answer with local idioms and history thrown in. 


Swallow is like that. I asked myself why so many Nigerian women become drug mules and ended up with a wider textile, much like the adire cloth I describe, showing a pattern of treating women as chattels, vessels of procreation and at the same time expecting self-sufficiency of them. Swallow is not about the drug trade, though it has that element. My language is deliberately conversational as a tribute to Nigerian oral literature and history. I have two narrators, a daughter who works as a secretary in urban Lagos, and a mother who is a cloth dyer in a provincial town. Again, with hindsight, I see that my connection to their stories is personal. They mirror my dislocation, when I went from working as an accountant in New York to writing in Mississippi.


PC:  You've spoken in other interviews about the "colonization" of writers.  Would you say a bit more about what you've observed?


SA:  Iím an African writer published in the West. I have seen how publishing industries in the West accommodate African writers. For a start, our stories are either about post-colonial traumas or human and civil rights abuses. As an American writer once said, which surprised me because he sounded so Nigerian, ďFor an African book to be successful here, a leg must cut.ď I laughed so much. Some writers can do whatever is necessary to get published and win awards, and the marketplace here rewards you if you meet its expectations. All I can do is keep on telling stories that interest me in honest ways. Now, itís hard to define honest, but itís very easy to tell when a story lacks integrity.


PC: What role, if any, do you think that the internet plays in supporting the community of writers in diaspora? 


SA:   The Internet connects us. I can contact my fellow African writers wherever they are, so long as they have Internet access. I donít contact them often because I understand they need time to themselves. I do ask for blurbs, and most of them have been very generous.


PC: Do you have any advice for writers?


SA:  I never wanted to be a writer; I just had stories I needed to tell. What works for me is that I read widely and stay focused on my writing. Iím no longer concerned about what happens in the literary marketplace. It is distracting and can lead to discontent. I speak to writers who worry about what other writers are doing. I want to tell them donít compare yourself to anyone. Start with the premise that what you have to offer is unique and keep producing work. Longevity matters. Finally, be prepared to go it alone. You donít need attention to write. All you need is passion for your work and an overwhelming desire to tell a story you genuinely care about. Readers can sense your sincerity and it separates you from pretenders. At some point, practicality requires that you reach out to people in the business. You have to take care of business if you value your work. IĎm learning that now.


PC:  What are you working on now?


SA:  A novel that is very much like Everything Good without the burden of politics. After Swallow and News From Home, I drafted three books, one after the other, because I dread first drafts so much. It was crazy and exhausting, but I figured it was better to get them out of the way. Now, Iím revising and enjoying this phase in my writing life. I know what Iíll be doing in the coming years and it gives me a sense of calm. Itís worked out well for my family life as well, because Iím completely inattentive while Iím writing first drafts. My family rarely complains, but as a wife and mother, I canít afford to be self-absorbed for long, particularly as our daughter is now in her mid-teens.



Read Sefi Atta's Grief Mongers from Per Contra, Issue 10.



© 2005-2010 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas