[28 January 2013]
A Bit of Difference is a slow burn of a book, one that eschews both flashy plot points and linguistic cleverness. It’s likely that this low-key approach will cost it some readers, and that’s too bad, because the story is a compelling one. Touching on themes of diaspora and colonialism, but rooted always in an individual’s story, A Bit of Difference has things to say, but it requires an attentive listener to notice them. The book refuses to raise its voice and shout.
Author Sefi Atta was already well established in her native Nigeria for her novel, Everything Good Will Come, which won the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature in 2006, and the prize-winning short story collection, News From Home. The new novel is her fourth book published by the small press Interlink Books, an outstanding publisher that specializes in international fiction—that is to say, fiction written by authors who are neither American nor British, Canadian nor Australian. Interlink boasts an impressive roster of talent including Palestine’s Adania Shibli, Greece’s Margarita Karapanou and Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan (whose novel Thinner Than Skin was longlisted for this year’s Man Asian Prize for Fiction).
Atta’s book focuses on Deola, a Nigerian expatriate living in London and working for an NGO that specializes in African projects. She is an auditor; it’s her job to visit various overseas projects and decide whether they should receive funds from her organization. As such, she lives a dual life: an African whose job it is to judge Africans for the sake of Europeans who are trying to decide who should beneft from western largesse.
Deola wears this role uneasily. Some of the best scenes here are those involving her interactions with her (sometimes) caring, (usually) well-meaning, (often) patronizing colleagues. In the course of the story, Deola revisits Nigerian for the first time in years; partly this is a business trip, and partly it’s to attend the ceremony commemorating her father’s five-year death anniversary. While there, Deola has an encounter that leads to unexpected, and possibly devastating, consequences.
This summary makes the book sound a lot more linear than it really is. As mentioned above, this is a slow burn: it takes 50 pages to place Deola in Nigeria, and much more than that before the plot, such as it is, swings into gear. There is a great deal of ancillary material here, much of it converning Deola’s extended family and a few friends, all of which rattles around inside Deola’s head as she walks the streets of Atlanta or London or Lagos. Some of this material is compelling; some of it, not so much. It’s easy to get lost in the side stories of this Aunty or that in-law, especially for westerners whose own extended families tend to be smaller—or at least, less intrusive.
What all this context does, though, is provide a rich backdrop for Deola’s musings to settle into, which is precisely what happens for the bulk of the book. This allows the author room to unleash plenty of barbed observations about what it means to be African (or by extension, any minority, particularly an immigrant minority) in the West. In conversation with a co-worker, Deola holds back an opinion, because “Anne might regard what she has to say with anthropological curiosity: the African woman’s perspective.” Elsewhere, the barbs are sharper. “Once in a while, [Africans] will be confronted with the notion that Africans are disposable and of as much consequence to humanity as waste material. This may not be personal … Their daily trauma is trying to survive systems that did not start off with their continuity in mind.”
Such pithy observations are not limited to sociological musings. As mentioned, Atta dispenses with linguistic pyrotechnics, but her blunt and straightforward style is well suited to the delivery of precise observations. One aunty is described thus: “A sherry—rather than champagne—socialist in those days, her enunciation is still so impressive that no one understands a word she is saying, which is why they talk over her.”
Ultimately, what becomes of Deola provides enough of a hook to keep the reader engaged, while the sharp observations add muscle to the bones of an otherwise pretty minimal story. Given the large number of immigrant stories in recent American and British fiction (Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, just about anything by Amy Tan), it’s refreshing to read about an immigrant who struggles with the feeling that her expatriate lifestyle might not be the best choice—who just might decide that, after all, the West isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This book is an example of the rewards of small moments and understated expression. Other African writers may get a wider readership—and there are a few choice comments about them in here, as well—but Sefi Atta deserves attention, both for what she says and for how she says it.