WA: There is so much reality in your fiction. All that happened under Buhari/Idiagbon, June 12, 1993 presidential election, Decree2, Abacha regime, NADECO, Constitutional Conference, even Kudirat Abiola. Why did you turn facts into fiction, or decided to put facts in the service of fiction? Is it a realization of the fuzzy grounds for division between fiction and fact, particularly in the Nigerian case? Or is it that you think the reality is far more interesting than fiction?
SA: Actually, I didn’t want to turn facts into fiction. Nigeria is real. If I use her name then I should at least try not to make libelous statements about her.
WA: I like the passage where one of your characters say that, “‘Maybe it is sport”- the military boys deliberately trying to ruin the country. I find that a powerful insight. Maybe the country is like polo, which only people in their class play? Maybe Nigeria is sport, after all, if you really stop to consider how they play in and play with Nigeria, these guys on the horse? Maybe Nigeria is even a game, in two senses, a game like polo, or a game as in one they can hunt and shoot? They kill Nigeria for sport?
SA: Yes, we’ve had more than a few nefarious political players in Nigeria, people who seem to despise Nigeria and Nigerians. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to destroy the country in which they live, in which they have to live and want to live. It makes no sense.
WA: You address religion and religiosity in different ways. I think it was Enitan who says, “God was the light towards which my tree grew… Those who challenged Him were free to. I’d been burned before, on one finger, or the other, and I did not want to feel that all over my body for eternity.” Is it the fear of Hell – wherever it is – as the representation of the Ultimate Consequence that should drive religion or just love, which has been succinctly described as the Ur Miracle?
SA: I believe in God and must admit that I don’t have a clear understanding of God. I would like to think that love should drive religion but who knows for sure? Love is too amorphous a word, I think, and hard to grasp. Hell is a firmer concept to hold on to because everyone understands fear. I’m not scared of going to Hell, but I thought that Enitan, with her particular family history, would be.
WA: You address in the book the issue of how children are disciplined in Africa. Parents beat their children out of love, elders beat, teachers beat, neighbours beat, sometimes mercilessly, all in the name of discipline. It was tough for a child to retain his or her individuality and originality under these circumstances. “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, they say. As a ‘postmodern’ mother – if I can be elastic with the term – do you think this wisdom should be read too literally?
SA: I don’t hit my daughter, is all I will say, and she’s wonderful, brilliant, intelligent, caring and she reads like no man’s business and she also writes. She’ll probably resent me anyway for the time I spent writing when I should have been paying her attention. It was difficult for me to write about a woman who desperately wanted a child and suffered complications like miscarriages because I never went through any of that, and there I was, with a child of my own, and I was writing when I could have been playing with her. I felt guilty. I was guilty.
WA: The way you handle the issue of sex and sexuality is a bit explicit. To take one example, you write that, “For all I cared, he could take my hymen, stretch it out, and hang it on the wall next to Mike’s…” Chimamanda is less explicit because she speaks through a 15 year-old – although I would hazard a guess that the average 15 year old today in Nigeria is unlikely to be as innocent as Chimamanda’s Kambili. What are you saying with the manner in which you treat sex and female sexuality?
SA: I’m writing what Nigerian men have been writing about for years and they never have to define male sexuality or explain the manner in which they treat sex and sexuality. Enitan herself is reacting to this type of double standard in that passage. She has just discovered her father has a son who is almost her age. She is about to walk out on her father and he forbids her to go to her boyfriend’s house. Her anger is justified and the metaphor is appropriate.
WA: Domestic violence is another issue you address that interests me; that is the tyranny in the home as opposed to the tyranny on the streets. You seem to suggest that the former is often overlooked by those who canvass or organize against the latter. Can we deal legally and in an organic manner with the tyranny of the home, if we don’t stop the tyranny on the streets? Is the former not in a sense encouraged by the latter, in terms of the absence of legal protection against domestic violence – particularly violence against women?
SA: The point I was making is that violence is violence, wherever it occurs. I know women who have been victims of violence and it makes me sad, especially as I still hear about mothers who advise their daughters to stay with their abusive husbands. The example that parents set, how mothers especially, raise their daughters and support their daughters is the key. The best legal system cannot offer women full protection, because women may be too scared of their husbands or they feel responsible for betraying their husbands and for breaking up their families.
WA: Your critique of Enitan’s father’s generation is challenging. They had so many opportunities. Yet, they didn’t stop the soldiers in the early years when they started leading us to a black hole. By the time we woke up to it in the late 1980s and 1990s,the soldiers had entrenched themselves everywhere to the eternal damnation of the country. I can see this reality in your novel, which is why I don’t see where the salvation lurks in all these. The hyenas have captured most of the space, and we are more or less like sheep to them. Where and when will everything good come?
SA: I don’t agree with Enitan’s indictment of her father’s generation. I know it’s a common view that people of my generation hold but I’m more forgiving, perhaps because I haven’t lived in Nigeria long enough to be resentful. In twenty years, that entire generation of post-colonial pioneers will have passed away. I think that every generation needs to take responsibility for what they have done, better still, for what they are doing in Nigeria, then good things should follow.
WA: The very name of your protagonist, Enitan, literally, ‘one of history’, or ‘an object of history’. That is narrative itself; your principal character already carries the baggage of untold, or silent history. Do you agree?
SA: Yes. Enitan answers the question, “What was it like?” for a woman of her generation, a Nigerian woman like herself. I don’t think her story has been told before. I read somewhere that writers write the same story over and over in different ways. Well, I write stories about ordinary Nigerian women living in extraordinary times. This is my first.
WA: Following on a question Ike Anya asked you, you guys in our generation, I mean, published writers like you, Chimamanda, Helon Habila, Akin Adesokan, Chris Abani, and so on, are picking it up in a way, where the generation of Achebe and Soyinka and then the generation of the Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa left the story. Do you think we are done with the story of those periods? Can we close the narratives of the periods that the Achebes and the Soyinkas, on one hand, and the Buchi Emechetas and Flora Nwapas, on another, chronicled?
SA: Literature can turn history into news. Ake, Things for Apart, The Joys of Motherhood, Efuru, they are all definitive novels of their generation. Many more stories can come from those periods and regardless of the period in which it is set, a story has to be fresh in some way: its language, characters or ideas.
WA: I am aware that there is considerable power in telling. I remember asking Chimaman
da if the telling of her story healed her too, as one who had to live through the reign of those terror-mongers and vampires in power. Does the telling also constitute some therapy for you as a ‘child of the system’?
SA: I’m a child of a system that stifled individuality. For years, I used to rant about this. Writing has made me less inclined to rant, and I’m sure the people closest to me, my husband in particular, appreciate that.