by Sefi Atta
Paperback (17 Dec 2012), 224 pages.
Publisher: Interlink Books
A new novel from the winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.
At thirty-nine, Deola Bello, a Nigerian expatriate in London, is dissatisfied with being single and working overseas. Deola works as a financial reviewer for an international charity, and when her job takes her back to Nigeria in time for her father's five-year memorial service, she finds herself turning her scrutiny inward. In Nigeria, Deola encounters changes in her family and in the urban landscape of her home, and new acquaintances who offer unexpected possibilities. Deola's journey is as much about evading others' expectations to get to the heart of her frustration as it is about exposing the differences between foreign images of Africa and the realities of contemporary Nigerian life. Deola's urgent, incisive voice captivates and guides us through the intricate layers and vivid scenes of a life lived across continents. With Sefi Atta's characteristic boldness and vision, A Bit of Difference limns the complexities of our contemporary world. This is a novel not to be missed.
The great ones capture you. This one is illuminated and magnified. It is a photograph of an African woman with desert terrain behind her. She might be Sudanese or Ethiopian. It is hard to tell. Her hair is covered with a yellow scarf and underneath her image is a caption: "I Am Powerful."
An arriving passenger at the Atlanta airport momentarily obscures the photograph. She has an Afro, silver hoops the size of bangles in her ears and wears a black pin-striped trouser suit. She misses the name of the charity the photograph advertises and considers going back to get another look, but her legs are resistant after her flight from London and her shoulder is numb from the weight of her handbag and laptop.
She was on the plane for nine hours and someone behind her suffered from flatulence. The Ghanaian she sat next to fell silent once she mentioned she was Nigerian. At Immigration, they photographed her face and took prints of her left and right index fingers. She reminded herself of the good reasons why as she waited in the line for visitors, until an Irish man in front of her turned around and said, "This is a load of bollocks." She only smiled. They might have been on camera and it was safe for him, despite the skull tattoos on his arm.
I am powerful, she thinks. What does that mean? Powerful enough to grab the attention of a passerby, no doubt. She hopes the woman in the photograph was paid more than enough and imagines posters with the prime minister at Number Ten and the president in the Oval Office with the same caption underneath, "I Am Powerful." The thought makes her wince as she steps off the walkway.
She has heard that America is a racist country. She does not understand why people rarely say this about England. On her previous trips to other cities like New York, DC, and LA, she hasn't found Americans especially culpable, only more inclined to talk about the state of their race relations. She has also heard Atlanta is a black city, but so far she hasn't got that impression.
At the carousel, a woman to her right wears cowry shell earrings. The woman's braids are thick and gray and her dashiki is made of mud cloth. On her other side is a man who is definitely a Chip or a Chuck. He has the khakis and Braves cap to prove it, and the manners. He helps an elderly man who struggles with his luggage, while a Latina, who looks like a college student, refuses to budge and tosses her hair back as if she expects others to admire her. There is a couple with an Asian baby. The baby sticks a finger up her nostril while sucking on her thumb.
It takes her a while to get her luggage and she ends up behind a Nigerian woman whose luggage is singled out for an X-ray before hers is.
"Any garri or egusi?" a customs official asks the woman playfully.
"No," the woman replies, tucking her chin in, as if she is impressed by his pronunciation.
"Odabo," the customs official says and waves after he inspects her luggage.
The woman waves back. The camaraderie between them is tantamount to exchanging high fives. Before 9/11 he might have hauled her in for a stomach X-ray.
"Will you step this way, ma'am?" he asks, beckoning.
Walking into the crowd at the arrival lobby makes her eyes sting. She always has this reaction to crowds. It is like watching a bright light, but she has learned to stem the flow of tears before it begins, the same way she slips into a neutral mood when she sees Anne Hirsch holding that piece of paper with her surname, Bello. She approaches Anne and can tell by Anne's involuntary "Oh," that she is not quite the person Anne is expecting.
"It's nice to meet you," Anne says, shaking her hand.
Anne is wearing contact lenses. Her gray hairs are visible in her side part and the skin on her neck is flushed. She looks concerned, as if she is meeting a terminally ill patient.
From A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta. Copyright © 2012 by Sefi Atta. Excerpted by permission of Interlink Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I found myself feeling very much at home as I read Sefi Atta's descriptions of adult sibling dynamics the familiar ways that sisters and brothers, no matter how old they are and how far away they live from one another, fall back into their childhood taunts and jokes and tensions when they go back home. And yet I also felt like I was in unfamiliar territory. The landscape was completely foreign to me the heat of Lagos, the fenced homes, and the drivers, not to mention the actual taunts and jokes, which are decidedly Nigerian. A Bit of Difference is both universal and specific at the same time. It explores the subjects of family life (i.e. the adult sibling relationships above), feminism, charity work, racism, and religion all of which cross country and cultural lines but this is a Nigerian story, and each of these subjects is explored from a nuanced, multi-faceted Nigerian point of view. In addition, it offers a look at these particular subjects from both American and British viewpoints too. Layers and layers of different perspectives on identity, and one dynamic woman at their center. Through a whole assorted set of characters, we get a wide perspective of Nigeria in the early 21st century.
Deola Bello is a thirty-nine year old expatriate Nigerian living in London. She works as an accountant for an international charity organization. She appreciates her life. She enjoys her singleness and freedom; her work and her friends. She is smart and thoughtful, and she is sharp and sharp-tongued. A Bit of Difference opens in early 2000, when Deola is about to travel home to Lagos on business, at a time that coincides with the five-year anniversary of her father's death and a memorial service to commemorate it.
When Deola returns to Lagos, something is unlocked within her. Maybe it is her memories, or maybe her roots, or her family, or perhaps her visit coincides with an internal transition. Both her personal and professional worlds begin to break open. The author, Sefi Atta, has described Lagos as "the place I return to most. It is the beginning of memory for me and the seat of my imagination. It is also a storyteller's city. We have extremes and contradictions here, and most of all we have conflict." Perhaps Lagos is the same kind of place for Deola a place that wakes her memory as well as her musings about her future and thus a shift begins to occur.
A Bit of Difference is diasporic, as it is a Nigerian story set on three continents Africa, Europe and North America (specifically the Southeast of the United States where Deola's co-worker works). Atta, herself, has lived in all three places too. She was born in Lagos, has lived in Britain and now resides with her husband and daughter in Mississippi. Atta's canvas is social realism. She explores social issues as they intersect with her characters, and as such, her multi-continent home reflects this perspective.
In an interview, Atta says about the character of Deola:
"She is apprehensive because she sees how difficult marriage and family life can be. She has a brother and sister who have problems in their marriages. Her brother is bored with his wife. Her sister is dealing with a philandering husband. Her cousin is living with a married man. These situations are not out of the ordinary, but Deola has been away from home so long that they spook her. She doesn't know if she could cope with domestic conflicts as they occur in Nigeria. Her age also contributes to her apprehension. The older women get, the more they are pressured to get married, but the less likely they are to put up with marital arrangements that don't suit them."
This is the beginning of Deola's internal shift. And then, when something life-changing happens to her, Deola is forced to truly examine that apprehension, as well as her ever-changing sense of home. This examination makes up the bulk of A Bit of Difference. This is not a story heavy on plot, but is instead, a fascinating and deep study of the heart and head of one woman at one pivotal moment in her life. The details of Deola's situation and life are vastly different from my own. But because Atta crafts them so vividly and writes social realism so well, and because she beautifully plumbs emotional and psychological as well as physical and situational details so well, I felt connected to Deola.
In the end, A Bit of Difference is, for me, just as its title articulates a study of the subtle but vital differences between people, cultures, circumstances and even moments in time. One small shift changes everything. And while the details may be dissimilar, the consequences of these kinds of change are universally the same.
Reviewed by Tamara Smith
Starred Review. Wholly believable, especially in its nuanced approach to racial identity, the story feels extremely modern while excelling at the novelist's traditional task: finding the common reality between strangers and rendering alien circumstances familiar.
Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street
Atta's splendid writing sizzles with wit and compassion. This is an immensely absorbing book.
Nii Parkes, author of Tail of the Blue Bird
An up-close portrait of middle-class Nigeria exploring the boundaries of morals and public decorum. Pitched between humor and despair, with stripped-down, evocative prose, A Bit of Difference bristles with penknife-sharp dialogue, but its truths are more subtle, hiding in the unspoken. Ultimately, A Bit of Difference explores - with a hint of mischief - the problem of how to look like you have no problems when you have abundant problems-the universal problem of the socially-motivated classes.
Nigeria is a country fertile with writers, full of wonderful literary figures like Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ben Okri. But then there was a quieter spell, a time of especially intense corruption and dictatorship, when Sani Abacha was in power, and the literary scene seemed to fade. But stories never fully disappear, and the need to tell them only grows stronger during repressive times. New writers have slowly emerged and now - both in Nigeria and overseas - Nigerian literature is vibrant, brilliant and on the rise.
These new authors - quite a few of them expatriates - are focusing more on personal politics and the quest for self-identity. The expats were born in Nigeria, and live and work abroad, but have an intense connection to their place of origin. The city of Lagos, rich in history and with a population of 21 million, the largest in Africa, inspires many of these writers.
Sefi Atta is one such writer. She says of Lagos: "[It is] the place I return to most. It is the beginning of memory for me and the seat of my imagination. It is also a storyteller's city. We have extremes and contradictions here, and most of all we have conflict."
"You can never have writer's block in Lagos," says Toni Kan, one of a new generation of Nigerian writers who finds inspiration in the city. "Saying you haven't got material to work with, it would be a lie. There is a novel behind every shuttered window."
Chris Abani was born in Nigeria though he fled to Britain after his criticism of the Nigerian government lead to multiple arrests. Like Setta, Abani now makes his home in the United States. A prolific writer, Abani has won critical and popular acclaim for his novel Graceland. Of the use of city landscapes in much of his work, Abani said: "...cities are the modern unconscious, right? If you look at old stories, the forest is always the place of the unconscious. That's where Red Riding Hood gets attacked, it's where Hansel and Gretel get eaten. The modern forest is the city, right? It's this urban, sprawling, huge landscape that is as terrifying as a medieval forest would have been."
Nigerian writer Teju Cole, is working on a non-fiction book about Lagos. Born in the United States to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria, and currently living in Brooklyn, he has published one novella and one novel, to great acclaim. Cole also manages a unique tweet project called "Small Fates," which is comprised of small, unusual, tweet-sized bites of Nigerian news. Of this project, Cole says: "I think what all of these have in common, whether they are funny or not, is the closed circle of the story. Each small fate is complete in itself. It needs neither elaboration nor sequel. The small fates, I feel, bring news of a Nigerian modernity, full of conflict, tragedies, and narrow escapes. Similar to the French papers' fait divers, they work in part because whatever that strange thing was, it didn't happen to us. They are the destiny that befell some other poor soul, which we experience from a grateful distance."
In the coffee table book, Lagos: A City at Work, news reporter, civil servant and writer Odia Ofeimun writes: "A city is like a poem. You enter into it, and you are into a world of concentrated time. Different ages are brought together. Different histories spanning a common geography. And so, you are in the City of God but have not left the City of Man." In 2012, Ofeimun launched The Lagos Review of Books and Society, a long-awaited journal of Nigerian literature, comparable to The Times Literary Supplement.
Lagos is certainly a city of stories, ancient and contemporary, real and magical, political and personal. It is a city tucked in the pockets of Nigerian writers around the world, offered back to the world by this diverse, talented group in their short stories, novels, poems and many other narrative forms.
Picture by jrobin08
By Tamara Smith