Review by Robyn Cadwallader
Sefi Atta’s third novel, A Bit of Difference, begins with a deceptively simple scene: a woman arrives at Atlanta airport, Georgia, USA, and notices a huge poster image of an African woman with Afro hair wearing hoop earrings and a pin-stripe suit, the desert stretching out behind her. The caption reads, ‘I am powerful’. The traveler, Deola, ponders the message:
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 … (1)
In a few sentences, through the wry observations of its main character, we see the complexity of the portrayal of Africa to the world: the status of women; the investments of power; the uses and abuses of charity; image and reality; tradition and change. These are just some of the novel’s themes.
Deola Bello is a Nigerian woman educated in London. After some time with her family in Lagos she has returned to take up the role of auditor for the London branch of the international charity, LINK. Thirty-nine and single, she is generally frustrated and restless. In her job she travels to examine the state and ordering of the charity’s finances in other countries, and we see her visit Atlanta and Nigeria. The trip to Nigeria coincides with the five-year memorial of her father’s death, and during her short visit Deola views her family and hometown with a mixture of familiarity and distance, compassion and scrutiny. LINK provides support for AIDS sufferers in Africa, and though the ethics and validity of such work is debated in her orgnisation and in the media, Deola has been able to maintain a certain intellectual distance. During her trip home to Nigeria, however, a first-hand encounter with AIDS forces her to reassess her position. She must finally decide where ‘home’ – both physically and emotionally – will be.
Atta’s writing is clear-eyed and to the point, economic in using only the ‘telling’ detail to show rather than explain, and enlivened with ironic humour — Jane Austen was Deola’s favourite author at school. The story is told in limited third-person so that Deola’s voice speaks through the narrative. Her description of her hometown Ikobo is detailed and evocative, the family interactions are funny and warm, with a mix of compassion and frustration that draws the reader into familiar dramas of family life. But the novel’s interests are much wider than this, concerned with the shades of grey (can we use that phrase any more?), the complexity of issues implicit in Nigerian government and culture, the theory and practice of charity, feminism and tradition, religion, racism and guilt.
While those at home in both England and Nigeria have generally learnt to live with the problems around them every day, to Deola they stand out starkly. She is fond of both places, but her sense that neither is really home has given her an eagle-eyed objectivity, and the writing is sharp and perceptive. In her childhood town, Ikoyi, she observes the contradictions that changes in government bring: her mother lives between the overwhelming noise of evangelical songs from the church next door, and the fear of armed bandits that keep people indoors at night. Wealth brings some comforts of the West, but Deola feels that the country itself is resistant to such change. She travels in her family’s luxury cars, but on roads so full of potholes that drivers are forced to move onto the footpath. ‘The land is too damn African, stubbornly so’; it is ‘passive-aggressive’, resisting development not by hurricanes or earthquakes, but when ‘a car dealership opens…the road in front of it splits, as if to say, “I told you I couldn’t handle it”.’ (85) Many women struggle to move beyond the traditional role of wife and mother: ‘The pressure to marry is relentless. Being single is like trying to convince a heckling audience your act is worth seeing’. (25) The observations are sharp, informed, humorous and quotable. The writing ‘sizzles’, as one reviewer has said.
Early in the novel Deola observes race relations in both London and Nigeria with dispassionate clarity:
She also detects some guilt, that aftertaste of the sumptuous meal that was empire. England is overrun with immigrants; African and Eastern European children they granted asylum are leading gangs, Islamic clerics are bragging about their rights and the English can barely open their mouths to talk.
Nigerians can never be that sorry for their transgressions, so sorry that they can’t say to immigrants, “Carry your trouble and go”. Nigerians made beggars out of child refugees from Niger and impregnated their mothers…Nigerians aren’t even sorry about the civil war. They are still blaming that on the British. (13)
Later, struggling with the tension between LINK offering immediate aid as opposed to enabling self-sufficiency, Deola notices that her English colleague, Anne
swings easily from guilt to having a monopoly on compassion. And always over a fairly decent meal, Deola thinks…Back home, people are more dispassionate when they talk about other people’s suffering, which may be more honest…They speak with humility, not compassion, and Nigerians are not naturally humble, but they do understand that someone else’s suffering could easily become theirs. (148)
Deola’s capacity to see with such precision is borne, as I have suggested, from having no real home, no urgent investment in either country, nor in a close relationship. In turn, it is this clarity of mind, and her quotable thoughts, that make her interesting, but tend to keep her at a distance from the reader. It is only in the second half of the novel, when she begins to make intimate and costly choices, that she moves closer as a character.
It is perhaps because of this initial distancing that, in places, issues rather than the characters become the guiding concern, where a conversation, an action or a character are included in order to introduce a concern such AIDS, government, religion or charity. This is especially so in the early parts of the novel in London, where Deola visits three friends: one a Nigerian writer who is scathing of African self-pity and announces that it is not his home; one an English woman who is deciding whether to move to Australia with her husband; and one a born-again Nigerian woman who refers to Nigeria as home, but will never go back because it is too tough. Each of these characters is quite well drawn, but their presence in the narrative seems to serve primarily as a way of exploring different views of Africa and home.
I hesitate to offer any criticisms of a woman writing from a tradition I know little about and I have pondered whether my unfamiliarity with African literature and culture has brought the issues into greater relief for me. Is there a tendency to expect a particular style of character-driven Western fiction compared with other ways of communicating where urgent dilemmas, such as those Atta depicts, are the main concern?
Atta was recently a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival and appeared on a panel with two other African writers to consider ‘Is there such a thing as African writing?’ A conversation with Michael Cathcart on ABC Books and Arts Daily included a discussion of the choice of genre as a means of communication. Nigerian-born, Uzodinma Iweala, doctor and author of fiction, chose non-fiction for his latest book, Our Kind of People: Thoughts on the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, specifically, he says, in order to speak from a more complicated standpoint, providing a multiplicity of narratives to counteract the usual themes, especially the stereotyped image of the African AIDS sufferer as promiscuous. On the other hand, south-Sudanese Majok Tulba, who as a young child had seen other village children drafted into the Red Army and had himself been forced to flee as a refugee, chose fiction instead of autobiography. Such enforced recruitment of young children occurs in Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and possibly other countries as well, and Tulba says that in writing Under a Darkening Sky, he wanted to move away from the specifics of his own situation, using fiction to offer a broader picture and make clear how widespread is the practice. Such choice of genre faces any writer considering how best to communicate their concerns, but the African men on the panel were cognisant of the need to reach persuasively into and beyond their own culture.
Atta writes fiction: three novels and a book of short stories, as well as radio and stage-plays, but she shares with Tulba and Iweala the acute awareness of representations of Africa, in her case, specifically Nigeria. She says her audience is like-minded people: Nigerians, Africans, anyone interested in her experience of Africa, and she does not seek to judge but rather to explore the complexities of contemporary Nigeria. Unlike Tulba, she uses fiction to focus on one place, rather than broaden the picture she paints. However, the range and complexity of the issues she explores move well beyond one country and figure largely in the narrative. Hence, the discussion of whether to use fiction or non-fiction is relevant in my reading of A Bit of Difference: are there urgent matters that push through the fabric of the created fictional world?
Atta’s second novel, Swallow, tells the story of two women tempted into drug-smuggling by swallowing condoms of cocaine. The tight focus on these characters brings conditions and dilemmas for women clearly and naturally into view, and allows Atta to explore the tensions of traditional and contemporary ways of living. Its reach is narrower than A Bit of Difference, but the depth of characterisation makes their struggles real and intense. A Bit of Difference has other concerns, and a comparison with Swallow shows the breadth of Atta’s abilities and awareness. It is intelligent and enlightening. It offers an honest and complex view of Nigeria and international race relations, and refuses any comforting resolution of political or personal problems.
A Bit of Difference
Spinifex Press, 2012
220 pages, $24.95