Sefi Atta grew up in Nigeria, was schooled in England, and lives in Mississippi. Her excellent new collection, News from Home, touches on a wide array of lives, from privileged Nigerians in London to a villager facing a possible death sentence.
How has your experience as a Nigerian who was schooled in England and now lives in Meridian, Miss., informed your fiction?
In my work I feel free to revisit those places. My mother is Yoruba Anglican, my late father was from a Muslim family, though nonpracticing. Because my parents both spoke different languages, we spoke English at home. Nigeria was a British colony, so it wasn’t unusual for people to speak English. Coming to England at 14 years old, I wasn’t alone; there were other students from Nigeria. But I think that was the first time I understood what it was to be a foreigner and to deal with others’ perceptions of Africans.
You have lived in Mississippi for 13 years, yet create Nigerian characters with such a fresh and irreverent immediacy—corrupt officials, Muslim zealots, pampered émigrés, hustlers, polygamous husbands.
News from Home was informed by online news reports. My characters are imaginary, but imagination for me is just playing around with reality and fact. So my characters are based on people I know, people I’ve met, seen, or heard about or read about. I go to Nigeria often and have always been part of Nigerian communities overseas. Naturally, I’m drawn to the more interesting headlines. I think I have a curiosity about religion coming from a family like mine, and I believed what they told me, that you can follow both religions without conflict. But in the real world it doesn’t work like that. People take their differences very seriously.
At what point did you make the breakthrough from being an accountant to being a writer?
I became a writer because I had stories to tell. I did an M.F.A. at Antioch University in 2001 and worked on radio plays, short stories, and also worked on my first novel. My experience has been very old-school, publishing story by story, some in Africa, though mostly here, in contests. In Mississippi, I’m so far removed from what’s going on in the literary marketplace. I look at Meridian as a writer’s retreat. People here don’t know I write. I’m free, in a sense.
Is it difficult for you living in the Deep South?
In my life I’ve had to deal with xenophobia and sexism, here in Mississippi as well because the culture is conservative and patriarchal. I also have to deal with people who don’t understand my culture, or people who treat me differently because I’m a woman, but I never see myself as a victim. If I had to fight every battle, I would be fighting every moment. I live quite peacefully, and through writing I express a lot of frustration.