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Sefi Atta’s lovely third novel, A Bit of Difference, is further proof (assuming it’s needed) that Nigerian writers are once again about to dominate the African literary map. This dominance was certainly true at the time of the country’s independence, in 1960, and well into the next couple of decades. The country’s dense population and its high literacy rates, but above all its rigorous economy, contributed to a healthy creative arts scene that lasted until Big Oil started to destroy everything. Then, inflation, growing inequity, tribalism, and the loss of the optimism gave way to rampant corruption and greed, eventually stifling the country’s dominant literary position on the continent. Readership declined so propitiously that the writers who managed to survive mostly fled into exile, seeking work and publishers elsewhere.
Deola Bello, the thirty-nine-year-old central character of Atta’s novel, is a product of all of these changes and currents in her country’s identity during its post-colonial years. She’s single, living in England, has a good education and job as an accountant, and she works for an international organization that takes her overseas frequently (including back to Nigeria). Yet, in spite of her success in her career, she’s restless and worried about her biological clock because her relationships with men have been unsatisfying. As she remarks about Nigerians overseas, “Every Nigerian she knows abroad is to some degree broken,” but she also ponders one of the contributing reasons: “Nigerians sometimes trust foreigners more than they trust each other.” This is certainly not a healthy situation for nation-building.
When Deola flies to Nigeria for a quick trip (both for work and to visit her family), she encounters the usual litany of questions from her family. Why isn’t she married? Why does she continue to live overseas and not in Nigeria? One of her friend’s remarks about the country provide an answer to at least one of these questions—perhaps both. “The whole banking sector is running on laundered money. The whole of Nigeria is.” As for Deola herself: “You cannot complain about corruption in Nigeria, she thinks. You dare not. Members of your own family are corrupt, some of your best friends are corrupt. The only people who claim they are not corrupt have not had an opportunity to be corrupt, which is why they complain. They feel cheated in the midst of all the corruption around them.”
I assure you, this is not the way Nigeria was at the time of its independence. Yes, it is similar to the way Deola feels every time she leaves Lagos, her “home,” in spite of her ambiguities about the city. “Whenever she is on her way out of Lagos, she gets the impression she is emerging from a thick fog she hasn’t been aware of.” While you’re there, you’re unaware of the fog—only when you leave. Yet the city has an incredible pull on its people, a vitality and an attraction difficult to deny.
Atta’s forte as a novelist is nuance. Not much happens externally, as a visible plot with conflict and resolution. But, like her compatriot Teju Cole in his recent novel Open City, much is going on inside the main character’s head. This shift from heavily plotted novels to internalized action pretty much typifies Nigerian fiction in general over the fifty years since its independence. Thus, Deola considers what it means to be an educated Nigeria in these days, living overseas and working for an organization that not only respects her but pays her well. Should she just throw in the towel on her country as so many Nigerians have and remain in exile for the rest of her life? Or should she quit her job and return home where the prospects for a job are not very likely to be satisfying?
One of her best friends warns her: “There is so much frustration here. Too much. People will harass you, insult you and waste your time. They can’t stand to see you happy or successful. They must bring you down somehow, and they’re not the ones who are trying to rob you of your money, or your life. Every day, you’re fighting to hold on to what you have and to stay alive. What you will go through here will make you want to run back to London. That is Lagos for you.”
Deola’s struggles to escape the miasma are moving and profound because Sefi Atta has the talents and determination to delve deeply into her character and Nigeria’s psyche.
The women in Marie Ndiaye’s Three Strong Women—in spite of the novel’s title—are not as fortunate. When it was originally published in France three years ago, the novel won the coveted Prix Goncourt, and Ndiaye (born in France but with a Senegalese father) has been praised for her earlier novel, Rosie Carpe, not translated into English. The issue for me with Three Strong Women is the novel’s segmentation into three virtually self-contained stories, that—although they reveal much about Senegalese women—veer off into the lives of the men who control them. This is especially true of the second story (the longest), which is an interminable whine by Rudy Descas, a Frenchman married to a Senegalese woman named Fanta. Rudy’s a forty-two-year-old self pitying failure, a total looser, still referring to his mother as “Mummy,” while working for a man who has had an affair with his wife. Why wouldn’t she? But Fanta is nearly invisible in Rudy’s tirade, so elusive to the narrative that it’s difficult to regard her as “strong” for putting up with her cuckolded husband for so many years.
The two shorter sections are much more successful in depicting the women of Ndiaye’s title. Norah, age thirty-eight and a trained lawyer, is more convincing as a character and, indeed, likely to acquire admiration for her strength. In her case, like the author, she’s half French and half African, born and largely raised in France and abandoned by the African father who left his wife presumably because she was only able to bear him daughters. So there’s plenty of anger on Norah’s part about her father, yet when he makes a plea for help after many years of little contact, Norah dutifully flies to Senegal with her own daughter and her current lover and his daughter in tow.
What Norah discovers is that her father (once a successful businessman but now old and broken after the collapse of his business) has called her because his son, Sony (Norah’s half-brother), is in prison and he wants Norah to help with the legal defense. Norah’s father is a particularly odious man, accustomed to dominate the women in his life, as he did Norah, her sister, and their mother. Moreover, he’s a serial philanderer, who has wrecked the lives of a number of women, with whom he has fathered children. Thus, he’s as unlikable as Rudy in the story that will follow, suggesting—in spite of Norah’s growing strength—that a more accurate title for the book might have been African Women and their Demeaning Men.
The only glue connecting the third narrative to the first two is that the main character, Khaday Demba, is also a Senegalese woman. Her husband, who is thoroughly decent, dies after their very brief marriage, leaving Khaday to fend for himself. Her left falls apart, largely—but not entirely—because of abusive men and equally unsupportive women. Khaday attempts to flee to France, where she believes her life will be better, but that flight is as troubled as the other events she encounters once she is windowed.
What Atta and Ndiaye’s novels show us is the difficult plight of African women today, with the obvious implication that if you are uneducated (like Fanta and Khaday) you have little control over your life and you will be happy only if you have the fortune of a good marriage to a husband who is not a chauvinist. Atta’s Deola and Ndiaye’s Norah fare much better because of their educations, though these women, too, feel enormous pressure from their own families and the men they encounter to enter into marriages where there may be little equality between spouses. Deola makes something of her life in the face of these enormous pressures; hopefully, Norah is on the verge of doing the same. But, oh, those overwhelming societal pressures. When will African women achieve parity with the men in their lives?
Sefi Atta: A Bit of Difference
Interlink, 228 pp., $25
Marie Ndiaye: Three Strong Women
Knopf, 293 pp., $25.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.