In her new novel, A Bit of Difference, Nigerian-born author Sefi Atta, now a resident of Mississippi, puts cultural concepts under a powerful microscope.
To what extent is A Bit of Difference intended to counter Western misconceptions about Africa?
I begin it with a short description of the poster of an African woman advertising a charity, and the rest of the novel is a profile of Deola, a young Nigerian woman who notices the poster at an airport. Her views are similar to mine: If the occasional stereotype is all she has to deal with as an African woman, then she is fortunate. I don’t set out to challenge Western perceptions of Africa, but I might by writing honestly.
Where do you place yourself with regard to Nigerian literature?
I’m not sure how Nigerian writing will progress, but I hope we continue to have wonderful surprises like [Teju Cole’s] Open City. My work is classified as new Nigerian writing, but I started writing because I wanted to tell stories about Nigerians of my generation, who were born in the politically turbulent 1960s and came of age during the oil boom of the ’70s. I call us oil boomers. We graduated into a recession and a cycle of military coups. Some of us stayed in Nigeria and others, like me, went overseas to work.
How similar are your experiences to Deola’s?
Deola’s story is the closest I have come to relying on my own experiences in a novel. Her schools are based on schools I went to in Nigeria and England, and her work experiences in Lagos and London are based on mine. We have been to the same places. Her story is entirely fictitious, though, and I would not make the decisions she does.
Does the perspective of the book’s writer character, Bandele, speak to your own?
Yes, but rather than write about my own literary frustrations, I wrote about Bandele’s because it was more fun. He is out of control, and I find his lack of subtlety and civility hilarious. I don’t know a Nigerian writer like him, but I know a few Nigerians like him, who went to boarding schools in England when they were very young and struggled with their identities. Deola doesn’t struggle with her identity, but she distances herself whenever she senses it is being threatened. Bandele, on the other hand, expands. He becomes the overblown English gent. Because of him, Deola realizes her aloofness is a cop-out.
How do you find your adopted home of Mississippi?
So far, it has felt like a writers’ retreat. I have a room of my own. I wave to my neighbors as I drive past them. We don’t talk about politics or religion, so we get along. They don’t know I write. I have moments when I am reminded that I’m African or a woman, but that could happen elsewhere. I also have uniquely Mississippi moments, which I have written about in short stories. Right now, I am working on a novel about an American woman in Nigeria, after which I will work on a novel about a Nigerian man in America.