Sefi Atta, A bit of difference (Review)
Nigerian writer Sefi Atta was once an accountant. Interesting switch that, accountant to writer, but Atta seems to have made it with great success. Her first novel, Everything good will come, won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and received an Honourable Mention in the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize. Her short story collection, News from home, won the Noma Award for Publishing. I don’t usually itemise awards but it seemed appropriate to do so for a writer who is probably little known to most of my readers. It provides some context to her standing.
However, I mentioned her previous profession for another reason. The main character in her most recent novel, A bit of difference, is a Nigerian accountant. I’m not sure how autobiographical the novel is but Atta clearly understands something about the world of accountants!
The novel is set in the early-mid 2000s, just post the war in Iraq, and takes place over a few months in the life of its protagonist, Deola (pronounced, we are told in the first chapter, “day-ola”). Aged 39, Deola is the director of internal audit for an international charitable foundation. Her role is to audit organisations that receive its grants. The novel starts with her travelling to the Atlanta, USA, office and sets the tone for her dissatisfaction regarding where she is in her life, that is, an unmarried, childless Nigerian expat living in London.
Deola and I have little in common, but I have lived the expat life twice, once in my early 30s and again in my late 30s-early 40s and I understood her desire to be with people who have a “shared history”. The trouble of course is that having gone to boarding school and then worked in England for many years, her “shared history” is a little muddy. However, she starts to feel it’s back in Nigeria, despite her own misgivings and those of her English and Nigerian friends in London.
This is not a book with a page-turning plot. It simply follows several months in the life of an unsettled woman who’s trying to make a decision. It’s told 3rd person, but from Deola’s point of view, and is chronological, with flashbacks to explain to us how she’s got to where she is. Despite the potential, given its setting, it’s not a grim novel. There’s humour – in some funny scenes, entertaining dialogue, effective use of irony. And there’s a wide cast of well-diffferentiated and rather colourful but very real characters – from the thirty-something sister in Nigeria who still likes hip-hop to the not-yet successful Coetzee-enthusiast Nigerian novelist friend in London.
What is most interesting in the novel is its multiple, intertwining themes: the often lonely life of the middle-class expat, race relations in England, African identity and politics, and the way even the enlightened or educated people in both cultures don’t always meet eye-to-eye. I was reminded, as I was reading the book, of Anita Heiss’s talk at the Readers Festival I attended last month. She said she wanted to write novels about young, professional, urban indigenous women to show that their concerns are much the same as their anglo-Australian contemporaries, with the added issue of racial identity and politics to contend with.
And so, as I believe Heiss’s “chicklit” novels do, Atta’s novel explores those universal concerns of belonging and identity, but set against a particular environment where ethnic distrust and/or racial and class hierarchies threaten the self, both at home and in the “adopted country”. Deola feels somewhat of an outsider. In England, she feels her views or experience are not respected by her employing organisation and she is conscious always of being black in a white country. Back home in Nigeria, she’s aware of corruption, and of the way Nigerians rank and distrust each other on a whole range of grounds. England may be characterised by “phony egalitarianism” but Nigeria doesn’t seem much better. Through a character like Deola, Atta can tease out the misunderstandings – or arrogance even – of western organisations trying to “do good” for developing countries while also showing the lack of cohesion in those very countries receiving the help. Fortunately for Deola, at least on a personal level, help might be on the way in the form a man she meets on a business trip to Lagos. But, like most modern novels, nothing is quite as simple as it seems …
Two motifs run through the novel – the fear of HIV/AIDS and the threat of “armed robbers”. These are the “bogies” of contemporary Africa, and serve as a constant reminder that for all the universalities, this novel is also particularised to Africa. A bit of difference is an interesting and satisfying book primarily for this very reason, for, that is, the fact that it so beautifully integrates an engaging personal story with one having a wider political resonance.
A bit of difference
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2012
(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)