For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Sefi Atta: The Short Form Interview

Outsiders have influence. We change the norm. As a Nigerian writer, I change how English is written.

Nigerian-born author of three novels and a short story collection, News from Home.

The Interview

There is a difference in being a writer and an activist, but sometimes the personal can hardly be separated from the political. Is staying out of politics a privilege available to only some fiction writers?

I write what I want to write and I imagine that all writers do the same. I can’t say it is impossible for African writers to ignore politics, but African literature does have a longstanding involvement with politics, so it is easy to come to that conclusion. I also think that as an African writer published overseas there is an expectation that your story have a strong political content, whether it is about wars, military coups or imprisonments. I have written stories about Nigerians in everyday situations that never saw the light of day. It broke my heart and I got rid of them and gave up writing short stories altogether. Getting short stories right is hard enough and the idea that I had to suffer my characters unduly to get attention overseas bothered me. I meet readers in Nigeria who are tired of stories like that. They want to read stories that resemble their ordinary lives.

I am preoccupied with power rather than politics. Power within the family, mostly – who has it, who doesn’t, and how it is gained and lost. I think a writer’s relationship with politics is what matters. Fiction itself is pure – a pure extract of life as it were – but we can’t be too precious about its state. The impurities, such as a writer’s preoccupations and biases, give each work of fiction its uniqueness.

The idea that I had to suffer my characters unduly to get attention overseas bothered me.

Your father is a Moslem and Igbirra and your mother a Christian and Yoruba. Plus you're a Nigerian who lives abroad and speaks primarily in English. Does a writer benefit from the feeling of not fitting in?

I’m not sure. Writing necessitates standing apart but too much is made of that sometimes. Who fits in really? And with what? Before I was a writer I was an accountant. Going from business to business I became aware that it was a daily struggle for employees to assimilate into corporate cultures.  I have also seen writers getting along just fine at literary events, drinking wine and chatting about the latest publishing deals and prizes, only to later confess they felt out of place. 

Living abroad and speaking and writing primarily in English is not uncommon for a Nigerian writer. What is unusual is my hybrid upbringing. Most Nigerian writers I know were raised as Christians or Muslims and they are from one ethnic group – Yoruba, Igbo or something else. Officially, your father’s ethnic origin determines yours, but I am more familiar with Yoruba culture because I was raised by my mother after my father died. I grew up surrounded by relatives and friends who had parents from different ethnic groups, nationalities and religions, so I never gave my background a second thought. I only became conscious of it when I started writing about Nigerians who were not like me.

You have said that the only time you experience a writer's block is when writing non-fiction: “I fall asleep and eat a lot of chocolate cake.” Do you have guesses as to why that happens, especially considering a lot of your stories are rooted in the news?

I get writer’s block when I write non-fiction because I worry that I might offend people I care about. My brain actually shuts down. I am free when I write fiction. A lot of my stories come from news reports, but they also come from history, gossip and hearsay. I have a compulsion to pass on stories and imagination for me is about reshaping reality.

Would you say that the listing of facts isn't always the ideal way of capturing the essence the truth? And is capturing the essence of truth a byproduct of fiction rather than the goal?

I appreciate storytelling that connects facts in ways that make sense, in ways that capture the essence of truth. I would say that my fiction is a by-product of capturing that essence. My stories are very much rooted in reality, but that does not limit my imagination because incredible, amazing things happen in life. I have been misquoted as saying that stories should be rooted in reality, but I actually appreciate writers who go beyond the limits. One of my favorite memoirs is Ondaatje’s A Running in the Family. There is a fantastic tragic scene when Lalla drowns in a flood. It may not be faithful to fact, but it is deliberate storytelling. I am carried away by the flood and willing to suspend my disbelief. What I don’t appreciate are stories with factual inconsistencies that arise without thought or care. I can’t explain this better than to say it is the difference between abstract art and a child’s scribbles.

It's no surprise that you admire Grace Paley, who seems to have championed the use of voice. Tell us a little bit more about the English that is spoken by Nigerians. In your collection I found at least two fun examples: in one story the mother says, “She is looking too advanced.” In another the narrator says, “Sometimes they went ‘and co.’ like that...” — is there something about English that makes it very accessible to outsiders?

Grace Paley is brilliant. Reading her stories gave me permission to write in Nigerian voices. English is the only language I speak fluently and I speak it in a very Nigerian way at home. Debates about colonial cultures and languages in general feel past due to me. Outsiders have influence. We change the norm. As a Nigerian writer, I change how English is written.

When I was fourteen I was sent to a boarding school in England and I very quickly had my English friends speaking like me. I remember one of my friends laughing whenever she asked what time it was and I said, “Quarter to” or “Half past,” as Nigerians do. She ended up doing the same. I would also say things like, “Stop seeking for notice,” instead of “Stop looking for attention.” My friends found it hilarious at first, but they copied me. I suppose it was my way of being subversive. No one sends their kids to boarding schools to have their English bastardized by a Nigerian kid. So, of course being around my friends influenced me to speak like an English girl, but I influenced them, too.

Reading Grace Paley's stories gave me permission to write in Nigerian voices.

The risks people take to be allowed entry to another place, even if temporarily, is captured effectively in “The Twilight Trek.” I'm curious what you think of the state of borders as it stands. Should it be a much more basic right to travel or is it far too complicated than that?

It depends when you ask. If I’m sitting next to someone on a plane who is emitting unpleasant odors I might have a different answer, but if I’m standing before immigration officers I will be for the right to travel. I have a Nigerian passport, a US passport and a UK permanent residency card and I still get nervous standing before immigration officers. By the way, I faced the worst harassment in Nigeria during military regimes. Immigration officers would accuse arriving passengers of having problems with their passports just to scare them, waste their time and hopefully get a bribe.

It took me fifteen years to become American. I remember it well. I was reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American at the Department of Homeland Security in Metairie, Louisiana, and the man who interviewed me looked exactly like Mark Twain. He asked me to name two public holidays and I said, “President’s Day and Memorial Day.” He said another interviewee had answered, “Saturday and Sunday.” 

As an American, I see both sides of the border debates – the rights of immigrants to political and economic freedom and the safety and security of citizens. I am concerned about discrimination between immigrants of different nationalities. Immigration should certainly not be easy, but immigration rules could be applied more consistently.

Even when the situation is dire, such as in the stories “Hailstones on Zamfara,” “Last Trip,” and “News From Home,” there is plenty of humor in your writing. Are you a particularly funny person? Do you find it unpleasant when writing gets too serious?

I am not funny in person. I can be very silly in private. I would never find humor in a dire situation. I would cry and whine. I was miserable while I was writing News from Home and I did use humor to get me through the book. I enjoy funny books and people. My mother is funny when she imitates people. My daughter can be funny when she is being ironic. My husband is funny without intending to be. I have never met anyone who mispronounces names as much as he does and he doesn’t care, no matter how many times you correct him. I laugh out of frustration.

One of the stories you recommend is Andy Plattner's “Hip Aunt Jane”. Tell us a bit more about your selection.

Andy Plattner and I were visiting writers at University of Southern Mississippi in 2006. Rick Barthelme hired us to teach creative writing. Andy has published two collections, Winter Money and A Marriage of Convenience. He won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction in 1997 for Winter Money and recently the 2011 Dzanc Books Mid-Career Novel Award for his forthcoming novel Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey. He usually writes about the world of horse racing and, coming from Nigeria, I find his stories exotic.

Recommended by Sefi Atta

Goodbye and Good Luck
Excerpt

“You! You, a nothing, a rotten hole in a piece of cheese, are you telling me what is life?” she screamed.

Very insulted, I went away from her. But I am good-natured—you know fat people are like that—kind, and I thought to myself, poor Mama... it is true she got more of an idea of life than me. She married who she didn't like, a sick man, his spirit already swallowed up by God. He never washed. He had an unhappy smell. His teeth fell out, his hair disappeared, he got smaller, shriveled up little by little, till goodbye and good luck he was gone and only came to Mama's mind when she went to the mailbox under the stairs to get the electric bill. In memory of him and out of respect for mankind, I decided to live for love. 

We read it in The Collected Stories.

A Worn Path
Excerpt

Then there was something tall, black, and skinny there, moving before her.

At first she took it for a man. It could have been a man dancing in the field. But she stood still and listened, and it did not make a sound. It was as silent as a ghost.

‘Ghost,' she said sharply, ‘who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by.'

But there was no answer, only the ragged dancing in the wind.

She shut her eyes, reached out her hand, and touched a sleeve. She found a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice.

‘You scarecrow,' she said. Her face lighted. ‘I ought to be shut up for good,' she said with laughter. ‘My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know. Dance, old scarecrow,' she said, ‘while I dancing with you.'

We read it in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.

Originally published in The Atlantic.

Full story at Atlantic

Hip Aunt Jane
Excerpt

My grandmother went to her beauty parlor every Friday. Eventually, she contracted osteoporosis and was hunched over like a question mark. She would go to the beauty parlor with an oxygen tank rolling at her side. She liked to keep her hair the color of a red velvet cake. After I got my driver’s license, she called me once and asked me to drive her there. I sat in a chair and watched them work on her. My grandmother, she was a smart cookie, though. Right at the end of her treatment, the beautician pointed at me with a comb and said to my grandmother, We gonna do her today?

I was 16 years old with straight brown hair. I never wore make-up and I had big tits that embarrassed me.

My grandmother said, Leave her alone.

Full story at New World Writing

Drown
Excerpt

We live alone. My mother has enough for the rent and groceries and I cover the phone bill, sometimes the cable. She's so quiet that most of the time I'm startled to find her in the apartment. I'll enter a room and she'll stir, detaching herself from the cracking plaster walls, from the stained cabinets, and fright will pass through me like a wire. She has discovered the secret to silence: pouring café without a splash, walking between rooms as if gliding on a cushion of felt, crying without a sound. You have traveled to the East and learned many secret things, I've told her. You're like a shadow warrior.

We read it in Drown.

Originally published in The New Yorker:Jan 29, 1996.

In the City of Red Dust
Excerpt

Emokhai was sitting on the wall in front of the house when the aerial manoeuvres started. He was very broke and had made plans with his friend to go to the hospital and earn some money. He had gone to sleep on an empty stomach and he hadn't eaten that morning. His friend was late.

With his eyes dry, so that he had to keep blinking, Emokhai watched the military planes flying overhead. They made practice dives for the afternoon's parade. The planes cross one another's paths and circled into formation. They stalled in the air, tumbled down as if they might crash into the teeming shacks below, then swooped back up into the sky with perfect rhythmic control. The inhabitants of the city marvelled at the displays. The children screamed excitedly.

We read it in Stars of the New Curfew.