In conversation with author Sefi Atta and illustrator, Fauzi Fahm, we talk about her latest novels and her relationships with Nigeria's history.
Sefi Atta and Fauzi Fahm talk to Pulse about recent publications, power politics, the ethos of writing and Fela.
"Don't ask me too many serious questions," she said, chuckling as the microphone was being fixed on her.
Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964. She is a playwright and award winning author of popular titles, Everything Good Will Come, A Bit of Difference, News From Home and a collection of short stories, Swallow. Her works have received several literary awards, including the 2006 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. She currently divides her time between the United States, England and Nigeria.
In light of the recent release of two new books, The Bead Collector and Drama Queen, she and her brilliant illustrator, Fauzi Fahm, who also happens to be her cousin, visit Pulse HQ to talk about the new titles.
You now have 4 novels, a collection of stories, a collection of plays and a children's book. How does that feel?
Sefi: Not any different, I have to say. It's all writing, you know, there are different forms, and I'm used to writing prose because of the novels. What might [have been] different is I had to consider that my audience is a lot younger than I am and it means getting into their heads and understanding how they see life, which was very difficult for me, getting back into the head of a 12 year old girl. I did that for about 6 months and [I feel] it was almost like — I have never been an actor — method acting and it took me to places that, after a while, i wanted to get out of. That's another thing, you don't really want to be in a child's head for that long.
Tell us a little bit about Drama queen.
Sefi: It's about a 12 year old girl turning 13 and all the changes they go through at that age. It's loosely based on my experience as a boarder at Queen's college in mid 1970's, in the year 1976 to be precise. In that year, we had a military coup in which Gen. Mohammed was assassinated, and for me it was like a political awakening and I set the story around that time. But it's more about young girls living in an environment, young girls from different backgrounds — ethnic, religious and socio-economic — and having to get along. So, Drama Queen, Timi, gets into conflicts and she has to resolve them. She has an episode in which she loses power and she has to gain it again. And finally, it's also about being an individual and being a member of a community and how you balance both.
You just released another book — The Bead Collector. Can you also tell us a little bit about that?
Sefi: Believe it or not, I'm always two books ahead of the one that has just come out. That was also set in 1976, which was, to me, a significant year. That was the first bloody coup that I was aware of — the one that happened in 1966, I was only two years old. The story of The Bead Collector was basically about an American who comes to town. I've read somewhere that there are two stories — and I'm not sure who said this because every time I Google it, it depends on who quotes this — a stranger comes to town and you leave home. So, it's about an American stranger in Lagos and she meets up with a Nigerian woman who owns a gift card shop. They befriend each other and share, you know, their opinions and views about womanhood and motherhood, and marriage, but they also talk about politics. This American woman is suspected of being a CIA agent, it's not a spy novel — it's a literary novel — but it's an entry into Lagos society of the day. So, a profile on Lagos society of the day.
You're releasing two books a month apart, how long on average does it take you to write a book?
Sefi: I work on different projects for a long time. The Bead Collector took me 10 years and the fact that they all seem to be arriving at the same time — it's like London buses really — you're waiting for one and then, all of them appear at the same time. I'm not as prolific as people think I am, I take my time with my books.
Drama Queen was a shorter project because it is a smaller book. I wrote it very intensely, which is unusual for me. But people think that you start writing a story when you start typing it — that story had been on my mind for good 20 years before i started writing it.
Your previous novels — Everything Good Will Come, A bit of Difference, News From Home — have all been highly-acclaimed books tendering mostly to adult readers and you have said severally that you write for people born in 60s, the oil boom generation. What inspired the change to write a children’s book?
Sefi: It's set in 1976 so it's still about children of my generation. My generation is the only one I know, and we happen to have graduated into a recession so, most people did sensible things — they became Accountants as I did, they became Doctors, Lawyers, and all that. There was none of this creativity going on in my time. We had creative people, but most people had to do something professional and sensible and as a result, we never really produced any writers to tell our story. Even though I'm lumped with the new generation of Nigerian writers, I'm actually a good 15-20 years older than they are. I've always felt responsible with regard to telling the story of my generation, for getting it right. There's a gap between the older generation, which is venerated and deserves to be — the generation of Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Chinua Achebe — and the younger generation. Ben Okri and Karen King Aribisala, the only two people I can think of, represent a generation just a little ahead of me and then there's just me for the fifty-somethings. And then everybody else comes afterwards.
A quote from your interview with The Short Form, when speaking about Politics in Nigeria, you said: “I am preoccupied with power rather than politics. Power within the family, mostly — who has it, who doesn’t, and how it is gained and lost.” So, how do we see that come to play in Drama Queen?
Sefi: Well, the story that happens which i didn't want to reveal (SPOILER ALERT!!) is that she sort of keeps a diary, not very well, and whatever little things she jotted down in her diary, her friends or rather, her enemies, read them. She gets bullied based on that… I suppose I've just given up the entire story!
But that is how she loses power and gains it.
In The Bead Collector, you're wittily taking on politics of the mid-70s. What do you consider are the ethics of writing about historical figures, especially in a country that has little regard for history?
Sefi: It's difficult. You know, you do your research and you rely on memory of what it was like. I suppose, General Mohammed would have been the main historical figure. I didn't delve too much into what people said about him but I said enough to give a balanced view of what people thought of him in the time. It's very difficult, I have to say, writing about anybody who's alive or dead, because they're real. You have to be respectful, not necessarily to them, but to their story. I had to strike the balance just right.
It's something I'm actually quite reluctant to talk about, because at the same time you have to be loyal to the story and it's difficult, for reasons… Well, I suppose I could explain it.
General Mohammed's daughter was my classmate and she's someone I still keep in touch with today. We're not buddy-friends that we call each other every day but we know each other well enough to be happy when we see each other. Writing about her father felt almost as if I was interfering in a space where I shouldn't have been in. But I'm also a writer, and I have certain duties to my story. Yes, it was difficult.
Fauzi, tell us a bit about your journey as an artist.
Fauzi: I come from a family [where] my mother is a renowned celebrated fashion designer, but she kind of felt that she was an industrialist more than a designer. She wanted to give people work, so for many years in my household, creativity wasn't really celebrated. She has this son who was drawing on the sly and doing all these things, but she was more like most Nigerian parents, "get your degree, study law and stuff like that — [which] I did, I studied Business Management in Kings College London. I remember I got this really high-powered, high-flying job straight out of college, they bought me a car, whisked me away to special offices and I remember buying suits and all. I did it for about a couple of years, then I woke up one day and I was like, "If I continue to do this I'm going to be really unhappy". So, I went back to Art School and ended up at Central Saint Martins where my mother had gone — she was one of the first Nigerians and, actually, black students to attend Central Saint Martins back then, in the 50s — and I ended up there where I studied Product Design. Again, I was lucky, people saw my work early and I got a job straight out of there and that was it. Then, I got the call to come back to Nigeria. [Sefi: Back home.]
Can you talk about how you arrived at your style of art, in relation to Drama Queen.
Fauzi: I think people like me kind of go with the ethos [or the style] of whatever it is you're trying to represent. Speaking with Sefi and knowing the subject matter, it just brought out that kind of drawing style. So, if I was doing something for a Japanese audience it would probably be entirely different and very, sort of, manic but when I was drawing some of the characters, I was very conscious in making them quite demonstrative in the way they moved. There's even a picture where she's having a bit of a battle in class with one of her friends and so with the children, their motion is there. [For me], style really depends on what you're trying to achieve, what your audience is. I know for some artists, they're committed to a certain style and then the arc of their work doesn't move much from that style and people celebrate them for that. I'm more of a designer, and as a designer, you're thinking of your audience and you sort of change to suit.
Was there any part of illustrating Drama Queen that was particularly challenging?
Fauzi: This book was special for me, in terms of the way it came about with Sefi. I'm glad with all the questions you've asked her [you can tell] she's a celebrated writer that happens to be family, but she's got a book and she says "Fauzi, can you do a book cover for it?" I would do some illustrations and send them to her and she has a lot of input into what she'd like to see and if she feels she wants to let me run with something, she lets me run with it but if she thinks that doesn't actually happen in the book or it's a bit of a detour… That's been the way we have worked in the past. With this book, because she spoke to me about it before she had actually started writing it, she was sort of sharing the process of becoming the writer, if you know what I mean. I know we're family, but I got an insight into her becoming the writer like, what's she concerned about? She might be concerned about explaining something about a character or a certain event. From the beginning, she was giving me ideas [on] who Timi was going to be, so that was possibly the difficult part at the beginning for me — just to absorb that and then think, who is this girl? The minute I knew who she was, it was quite easy to come up with her friends and quite easy to come up with the circumstances. Literally they're there, it was almost like each chapter was a brief so I just followed the brief of what the chapter said and I illustrated that.
Are there hidden messages you hope the readers will get?
Sefi: Fauzi, are there any hidden messages in my book?
Fauzi: Not so much. There aren't any easter eggs or hidden messages per se, but something that I was very happy that Sefi picked up on was, in some of the illustrations, it's sort of a window into what was happening at a certain time and there's a particular illustration — that I'll leave up to the people who get the book to see if they can find it — where there's a particular thing I did, which I didn't expect her to catch on to. It's in one illustration and all I'm going to say as a clue is "As if we were looking through a window at these characters." So, if you can define a window and then look through it, and then see something… that's as far as I'll go and as cryptic as I [could] make it.
Sefi: Did this involve a tennis court or the classroom?
Sefi: Oh, okay.
So, Sefi, why Fauzi?
Sefi: Why not? I have so much respect for Fauzi and I consider him an artist but I don't know why he doesn't think he is. He's pointed out a lot of things I don't know about fine arts. He's versatile, extremely so. There isn't really anything to do with creativity that he's not able to do. And, if you have someone like that in your family, why go any further? Why look for someone else? I don't know, our timing is different. I'm very methodical, even in my ideas. I had the idea 20 years ago, i wrote it down and I filed it — that's the Accountant in me — never thinking I'd use it or that I had something to use. I work towards deadlines, if i can't meet them I will say I can't meet them.
Fauzi is the genius who, you're sitting there thinking, "our deadline is approaching has he done anything," no, and then bamn! Last day. I'm telling you, when I saw the cover of Drama Queen, I'm not lying, tears came to my eyes. Because each time, he nails it. So, I'm very glad that I have a cousin like this that I can work with. We have completely different ideas about timing, but it works each time.
You seem to love writing stage plays a lot and you've had quite a number of them produced. Should we be expecting any plays soon?
Sefi: New plays? You people want to kill me, I know.
It's very hard in Nigeria, especially Lagos, where most of my plays are staged and now, it's become a commercial adventure. It's harder still. When I started in 2011, nothing much was happening, I was at Terrakulture where I really developed as a playwright and now, things are different. It's so much more expensive, I've never been able to get funding. People don't just like to give me money and I don't know why. Maybe it's because I don't follow up and I don't beg and all the necessary things so I tend to do my own funding. Which means that my productions are very small-budget. I'm not cut out to be a producer but I do produce. Everything here is big! They have this big ensemble cast and stage, I can't do that. Everything I do is small. I think small, economically. People say that my plays are — there was a word that was used, wrongly, i think — minimalist. But I'm thinking about what I can produce and I very rarely do a big-cast play. So, I'm telling you about the difficulties, the business difficulties, of putting on a play. That won't stop me from writing them, but it will stop me from having productions in Lagos.
In the spirit of Felabration: Having married into the Kuti family, would you say Fela has had any influence on you or your work in any way?
Sefi: It's something i try not to talk about — Fela's influence on me as an artist — and I'll tell you why. I think as great as he is, so many people exploit Fela's legacy, writers especially. He's always being name-dropped. Fela [to me] is the greatest artist that Nigeria produced. He was pure artist, pure activist, pure everything, and never driven by money. He liked publicity, you could tell, but he wasn't driven by money. So, for me, I use him as an example of how to be an artist. He also teaches you the limits because I'm not trying to spend time in jail or marry fifty men, or whatever it is. He's just the greatest, he really is, and I have so much respect for him. I would name-drop him a lot more, but I don't want to be seen as someone who wants to exploit their family legacy. Because with the legacy came a lot of sacrifice and pain, and I've seen that as well. So, I know it's sacred, almost… it's not something you draw on. You've heard of the beat writers of America? I would consider myself an Afrobeat writer. I started writing in 1997 when Fela died, a month before Fela died. His music was more available after his death and I would listen to it while I was writing, so it influenced me a lot.
Sefi Atta's latest books, The Bead Collector and Drama Queen are now available at literary bookstores in Nigeria.