Tuesday, January 29, 2019 5:22 pm
Friends, family, colleagues and well-wishers gathered recently to celebrate Sefi Atta’s 55th birthday at the Quintessence Gallery in Ikoyi. At the event, Atta, shared an anecdote that revealed she was not exempted from the standard love-hate relationship many Nigerians have with artistes – in spite of her status as an award-winning author and playwright. But, unlike many, Atta’s unpleasant experience would serve as an inspiration for Renovation, her play which was performed at the 2018 Jos Theatre Festival.
The ceremony began with readings from a selection of the writer’s works such as A Bit of Difference, Renovation and Drama Queen. Readings by actresses Bikiya Graham-Douglas and Omoye Uzamere brought otherwise fictional characters and their existential struggles to life, while emphasising the author’s weariness with the tyranny of uniformity that many women have to endure just to fit into society. Directed by Toju Ejoh, the performances highlighted the unrealistic expectations and class consciousness that permeate society, as well as the excessive scrutiny that society subjects women to.
Shortly after the performances, Sefi Atta who also authored critically-acclaimed novels including Swallow and Everything Good Will Come gave a short speech in which she proudly identified as a feminist with a tilt towards womanism, a form of feminism favoured by black women. Atta’s fondness for womanism, she revealed, is due to its concerns about social justice and women’s contributions to society, unlike Western feminism which she says is more concerned about a woman’s right to control her body.
Poised and free-spirited, she has learnt to separate herself from others while writing because, as she puts it, “writing is hard work”. This dedication to her craft has led to estrangement from some of her companions. “Writing does something to your brain; it makes you have to retrain yourself to interact with people,” she said. “There are people I haven’t spoken to in a long time because I am a writer”.
Although Atta acknowledges that she “doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” and expresses guilt at the state of some of her relationships, separation seems to be to her advantage since it means that she pays no attention to social expectations while writing and she can understand and challenge society’s failings without restrictions.
It is therefore no surprise that she also does not read reviews of her books. “I stopped at Everything Good Will Come. It’s the mark of an amateur writer to care too much about praise. Reviews are marketing tools, so I don’t always take them to heart.”
Reacting to a perceived disparity between locally-educated authors and their foreign-educated counterparts, the celebrant blamed it on the country’s failure to provide basic amenities that would give everyone equal footing. She said, “If you are overseas, access to publicity is much better. It depends on how you define success though; there are successful writers in Nigeria who write away from the Western gaze. Writers in Nigeria enjoy certain freedoms that those abroad don’t have.”
Hate her, or love her, Sefi Atta has established herself as one of Nigeria’s most prominent authors. She is one whose assertiveness extends to the characters in her works, even when they feature in allegories about dysfunctional societies.