A Bit Of Difference by Sefi Atta – Review
“A bit of difference” is available from Spinifex Press Australia
In her third novel, Sefi Atta invites us into the modern day life of a particular kind of African, where everyday interactions bring thought-provoking outcomes, and not just because of our shared histories. If anything it reminds us of the issue of identity. Wherever you’re from, what informs your choices as you determine who you are? And more importantly who is telling (and has been telling) your stories?
Many times throughout this novel, I was reminded of the experiences (and the commensurate internal dialogue) that come with voluntary emigration. This time we are in the world of 39 year old Deola Bello, the Nigerian female protagonist. She has studied in boarding school in Somerset and now works in London for an international charity foundation called LINK. The members of her birth family – her mother, sister and brother – all live in Lagos.
Deola’s day to day interactions with a diverse range of people, each with their unique personal histories, opinions and ways of being makes for a funny and thought-provoking read. Take for example her writer friend Bandele. He is born of Nigerian parents and was sent to school at Harrow in England. His parents at one stage lived in the highly affluent district of Belgravia but Bandele is now on government support. He does not consider Nigeria home. He animatedly complains about how tedious literary events can be and has had enough of African authors writing about “the same postcolonial crap”. Deola attributes his attitudes to a “self loathing that only an English public school can impart on [an]…impressionable foreign mind”.
During a work trip in Atlanta Deola encounters her American colleague Anne. Anne is questioning what she perceives to be a misguided and arrogant American mindset, but for Deola it is not difficult to demonstrate that other nations have plenty of skeletons in their own closets. Anne asks Deola whether she considers herself Nigerian. Deola certainly doesn’t consider herself British but she is acutely aware that she “has…been to more corners of London than …of Lagos”.
The nature of work at LINK also provides food for thought. The spokesperson for their Africa Beat campaign is a Nigerian hip-hop sensation called Dára. Dára has managed to ‘cross over’ as they say. He has made England home. He is a college dropout but, as Deola notices, people overseas ask him his opinion on Africa. In Nigeria, he would not have this much attention. In the US, the rocker Stewart “Stone” Riley is the Africa Beat representative. For Deola photo ops of celebrities in African villages are amusing. She doesn’t doubt that the recipients are grateful for the help, but she wonders whether as they receive the “important visitor from overseas” they are also thinking “Who the heck is this?”.
The bustling nature of life in Lagos is a marked contrast to her quieter life in London. In Lagos we are introduced to lively multi-dimensional characters – Deola’s animated sister Jaiye is a hip-hop-loving doctor and mother of two, doing her best to deal with the challenges that any marriage can bring. Her brother Lanre has taken over the bank their father founded. He is content with his decision to return back to Nigeria after studying in England. There may be frustrations in Lagos but at least he does not have to deal with the experiences like racism. In one sitting we meet numerous Aunts, some wearing huge Chanel sunglasses and others with nicknames like “Mappin and Webb” after the retail jeweller. Not all of these women are related to Deola by blood – it is enough that they are close friends of her mother Remi. More often than not they are trying to persuade Deola to return home.
Irrespective of what may be happening politically, life is still going on in Nigeria. Driving through once quiet, familiar streets Deola notices how commercial they have become. She bumps into old friends who are married with children, flying high in their full time jobs, but creating more opportunities for themselves by running businesses on the side. Some of her age mates are now earning higher salaries than she is in the UK. Newspapers in Lagos discuss matters like “trade and politics” and not the stock standard narratives about Nigeria you reads about elsewhere like “Internet fraud…[and] Islamic fundamentalism…” She notices that despite the frustrations of everyday life, Lagosians like Lanre and Jaiye refuse to be victims of the dominant narratives – they do not feel sorry for themselves.
I found myself pondering a number of pertinent subjects as I spent time in Deola’s world. Some of her young nieces and nephews do not speak Efike or Yoruba – only English. Lagosian DJs with American accents (“yo yo yo”). She watches a film about Africa with “the usual elements” including “Red-eyed military men…brandishing machine guns…[T]here is much drumming and singing and panoramic shots of green hills”.
Even as I write this review there is currently an advertisement on local TV for a program about Africa – and it does indeed have “the usual elements”. A sunset, music that evokes thoughts of mystery, the voice-over booms “AFRICA” – and an elephant charges at the camera. It is a documentary about wild animals. I recall an incident at a Melbourne train station some years ago. A station employee standing next to the turnstile had a card in his hand that he used to automatically open the turnstiles to let commuters through. When it was my turn to go past, he stopped. He didn’t use the card in his hand to open the door. I had to produce my train ticket, insert it into the machine for the doors to open and let me through. As I ascended the escalator, I turned around to look at him. Surprisingly enough he was looking back up at me. I smiled a knowing smile. When Deola experiences something of this nature at an airport she is “loathe to say an incident so trivial amounted to discrimination – it wasn’t that straightforward was it?”. But like Deola, I wondered about it anyway.