“The Title Of My Book Is The Opposite Of Things Fall Apart – Sefi Atta, author of EVERYTHING GOOD WILL COME“
WA: Let me confess straight away that I was drawn to reading your book by listening to Odia Ofeimun’s incessant and sensational verbal reviews on a recent journey to Nigeria. I had to ask him to let me have a go at his advance copy. I found that no serious person would have only a go at such beautiful prose that captures the contemporary, complex social experience in Nigeria. How much of these complexities did you experience yourself before you translated them into fiction?
SA: Thanks. It’s great to have support from a writer like Odia Ofeimun. While I was writing the story, I was informed by what I call generic experiences. For instance, everyone knows what it is like to have a childhood best friend and everyone knows what it is like to disobey their parents and get caught. Nothing in the story happened to me. I was not interested in using my own specific experiences and doing that would definitely have pulled me out of the imaginary world I created.
WA: I was thinking of Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of the “paradox of the triple present”, as I read your narrative. What he calls the present of the past, the present of the future and the present of the present. You seem to counter and perhaps, negate, our regrettable and dastardly national past and present with a ‘present future’ – one in which everything good will come. How can the future add up for good with such past and present history of infamy? Is the future not now? Is a gloomy future not already present given the realities that surround us?
SA: The title comes from a declaration that my narrator, Enitan, makes at the end of the story. It is a triumphant moment for her, a personal moment, and has nothing to do with the situation in Nigeria. It is true that the political climate in Nigeria deteriorates one (military) dictatorship after the other, but Enitan is celebrating her father’s release from detention and her own freedom from her domestic prison.
WA: Let me return to Ricoeur who argues that we apprehend the ‘pastness’ of the past in two ways, as something that no longer exists and as something that still exists, as an encore. If we locate your voice within the spectrum of earlier narratives of the Nigerian condition, does Nigeria’s history not begin to read like an encore of sorts? Just take the encore of the individuals that have shamed our political history, the one that has already returned and the ones that are threatening to return, and the circulation of the ruling and ruining elite, the exhuming of foul-smelling relics from our political history. How will everything good come? Where is the basis for your optimism? Given the title of your work, aren’t you joining those incurable optimists, the perpetual Pentecostal ‘hope-sellers’ and the “e go better” lot, endlessly waiting for Godot?
SA: People choose to be optimistic whether or not there is a basis for it, soldiers at war, patients in hospitals, lottery ticket holders. Stock markets are driven up by positive expectations for the future after a depression. Heaven is a highly optimistic notion. I agree with you, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the optimism that abounds. Nigeria is running on the fuel of optimism, no matter how much we complain about our country. We complain because there is still a chance to redeem Nigeria. But Enitan’s journey is the story here, not Nigeria’s past, present or future. Her independence is the basis for her optimism.
WA: I like the subtle manner in which you represented and refigured the condensed evil that has triumphed in the corridors of power in Nigeria. But it strikes me that in spite of the wonderful attempts from different literary genres, Nigeria remains largely unexplained as a social totality. Do you think literature can help solve the Nigerian riddle, given that the country itself often comes across as a great fiction, even if a violent one?
SA: Our country, like many others, has a long history of emotional violence and literature exposes this, because unlike the history books and the journals, literature chronicles emotions. You read a story like Everything Good Will Come and you feel what it is like to be a Nigerian woman like Enitan. Every work of literature is part of the puzzle and the more published works we have, the more robust the representation of Nigeria is.
WA: Fiction mediates our understanding, appreciation and even evaluation of social reality. How do you think this work will help in understanding, appreciating and evaluating the postcolonial condition?
SA: The understanding, appreciating and evaluating always has to begin with the writer. For me, the challenge was to have enough distance from Nigeria, enough to observe it as an outsider, and then come close enough to portray it as an insider. Readers will have to decide if my novel helped in any way. The great novels get it just right and you read them and you are overwhelmed by their honesty. They affirm what you already know.
WA: One thing that comes out in your novel is that, in terms of how they work through the great odds of life and survive everyday, the ordinary people, for me, seem like the real heroes of society. Can you transcend fiction and suggest why they never get the national awards? Or have the fictive heroes taken them all?
SA: Yes, isn’t it unfair that the Okonkwos of this world are more famous than real heroes? Perhaps because fictive heroes are im
mortal and capable of reincarnation. Okonkwo commits suicide at the end of Things Fall Apart but every time a reader picks up the novel, Okonkwo is reborn. You know, it’s just occurred to me that the title Everything Good Will Come is the opposite of the title Things Fall Apart. I’m not sure what to make of that.
WA: You write that Yinka was born in a motherland that treated her children like bastards. Could this be because the motherland herself was conceived in some form of bastardy or vagabondage, if you will? How else could the Lugardian project have turned out?
SA: It’s necessary to look back, study and acknowledge the trauma of colonization and to remember it, but I don’t see how blaming Lord Lugard for our problems helps our progress. Plus, we’ll never know what would have happened to Nigeria had we not been carved into a country by the Brits.
WA: You address the question of alienation in different forms in your narrative. But, you stopped short of considering the ‘exile’ form. Yet, you, like many others in our generation, are in some form of painful exile, because Nigeria, like many African states, is no longer able to provide what we need to live decently and approach our manifest destinies as individuals. It is indeed worse than that. As Ato Quayson argues in Calibrations, the postcolony is a space of violence and death. Was it a conscious thing for you to avoid explicit confrontation with this dimension of violence and death that predisposes the best and brightest of the younger generation to run to Europe and America?
SA: What I avoided was the story of alienation and exile overseas. It doesn’t belong in Everything Good Will Come, and I deliberately left it out because it would have been a huge distraction. I’ve lived overseas most of my life though, and plan to write a novel that’s based in Europe or America. There’s so much to tell.
WA: I imagine many Africans who read your book will know many people in real life sharing coherence with your fictional characters. Who are these people in your own life?
SA: I’m not telling!