Interview With Nigerian Author and Playwright Sefi Atta

By Amanda Hawker

Sefi Atta is often described as one of the leading writers of her generation. Born in Lagos and educated in Nigeria, England and the United States, she is a graduate of the creative writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She has won a number of awards for her writing; her debut novel, Everything Good Will Come, was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.

I had the opportunity to meet and interview Sefi at a media junket being held in support of this year’s Open Book Festival, which is being held in Cape Town from 17 to 21 September.

You’ve done almost everything, short stories, plays, novels…
Well, I haven’t written poetry, so not quite everything.

What is your writing process? Do you just start writing and see where it takes you, or do you create an outline and follow it rigidly?
Well, I usually start with a general idea, an outline of what I want to write about, where I want the story to go. But as a writer, you cannot stick too rigidly to this, you need to also allow the story to develop organically, to take a life of its own and that often happens.

I often find it quite difficult to find books by African authors, there are very few South African bookstores that stock a wide range of African literature.
Really? That’s surprising and a little sad. But then again, commerce is all about what sells. Bookstores cannot sell books that will not be read.

When I lived in Johannesburg, there was (and still is) one African bookstore there, it was called Xarra books.
Well, just the fact that we call it an African bookstore strikes me as a problem. We need to have more bookstores offering literature by our own people. I think this is something that is improving though, but it starts with us being able to appreciate our authors.

Very true, it seems to me that every country, every culture has its own literary identity – they have authors that are famous in their own country without the rest of the western world really knowing about it. Yet it seems our continent is different?
It comes once again to appreciating ourselves and loving ourselves, having confidence in our abilities. I am perhaps lucky because I’ve always been a confident person, but for example, many literary festivals and tours in Africa only laud the authors who have been celebrated by the western world, rather than searching for those amazing hidden talents that are out there. It can be quite frustrating.

I often find that the world’s impression or portrayal of Africa is constantly negative. Do you find that this is still the case?
Yes and no. Yes, there are many negative impressions of Africa in the world, but we as Africans should not take that to heart, because there are bad thing happening all over the world. Living in America and having traveled quite a bit, it seems that all people are, at one point or another dissatisfied with the state of their government or their country. Africa is no exception and we need to stop seeing it as such. Only once we do that can we make the world stop seeing it as such.

I often think it has to do with the will to be informed. Do you find that many people in the world are not informed about Africa?
Nowadays, people are lucky because the internet has opened up the world so it’s not as easy to be misinformed. The resources are there to find the truth of any matter. Which is why novels and literature and art are so important, because these media give people a voice and allow others to understand their perspectives; perspective is an important part of understanding.

Do you think we are on the right path in terms of supporting the growth of literature and the arts?
We need to focus more on finding people with the know-how to make such projects a success. We should not just throw a lot of money at a project and hope that it will succeed, but should rather have set ideas on what we want achieve and how to go about achieving it. This also comes into the realm of writing competitions. While I feel that nobody should right only for validation from others, we do need prized and mentors that are relevant to what we are trying to achieve.
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