Reproduced for archival purposes. First published in 2008
So she called me the other day, fruit of the loins of the son of my grandpa’s brother. And she said, you must come visit us, you must bring your family to Chicago to come see us. We are family, she said, it is good to do these things, she said, peering past the tattered curtains of our fraying relationships. And my heart said, go to Chicago and rest a bit. What kind of life is this that you are living? Every day you go to the same place and you talk to the same people who have the same ideas and the same opinions on the same things. And every day you go home exhausted from this madness. And my heart said; go to Chicago with your family and rest. The salt mines will be waiting for you.
And so, we went all of us, to Chicago, armed with the hope of rest and communion with our blood. And I went to Chicago with Sefi Atta’s book, Everything Good Will Come. One week is a long time to be away from the salt mines of my daily existence. What would I do with myself for a week; I am not used to the pleasures of doing nothing. And so I thought, the book would keep me company as I await the return to the salt mines of my condition.
Everything Good Will Come was a delicious choice. Atta’s book is about relationships. We follow Enitan, the main character as she celebrates the passages of life with a delightful cast of relationships, a colorful spectrum that includes her constantly feuding parents, her friend Sheri, and her boyfriends. The issues that the book addresses are refreshingly universal and Western readers who have overdosed on horrific stories about Africa may cure their hangover with this book. The book throbs with lyrical prose:
“Hot were the days as I remember them, with runny-egg sunshine and brief breezes. The early afternoons were for eat and sleep breaks: eat a heavy lunch, sleep like a drunk.” (p7).
It would be hard to imagine laconic words like these used to describe any part of Africa. Refreshing. Nice.
Inside the plane to Chicago, we passed the book around and read enchanting nuggets of prose that spoke to us. My daughters gleefully read the following passage to two white ladies seated by them:
“I smiled at my father. He was always miserable after work, especially when he returned from court. He was skinny with a voice that cracked and I pitied him whenever he complained: “I’m working all day, to put clothes on your back, food in your stomach, pay your school fees. All I ask is for peace when I get home. Instead, you give me wahala. Daddy can I buy ice cream. Daddy can I buy Enid Blyton. Daddy my jeans are torn. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. You want me dead?”” (p20).
The entire row of daughters and ladies rocked with laughter; and the universality of the passage made the meaning of wahala obvious. Now, that is good writing!
Sefi Atta’s book gently throws up a lot of troubling issues and one learns to admire the dark intelligence that plotted these chapters. And she can play with words in the manner of a sister flirting with her brother. The words pop up and hide again and reappear in delightfully strange places. Hear this:
“The wind popped my umbrella inside out, flipped my skirt almost to my waist. It ripped tears from my eyes and knocked my braids backward into my face.” (p78).
Sweet, like biting into a juicy, free-range, truly organic mango. Sweet.
In the beginning there were walls. Atta’s book reminds me of the beginning of the end, perhaps. Anyone nostalgic for the Lagos and Nigeria of the 70’s and 80’s should hurry and go get this book. The book says to me: There are walls but they are coming down, slowly on everything that we hold dear. Atta assures the reader gently, ever so gently, that we stand on the shoulders of giant nightmares. And our anxieties drink deep and long from the well of our fears. The book gently joins the debate on the impact of globalization on our communities. We see with startling clarity the impact of the new religion on Nigeria, the flight of deep introspection by the intellectual class and the slow birth of a society without soul, wrapped in the filthy color of money – green. As we move from traditional notions of nation states to the individualism foisted on us by the scourge that is capitalism, we can only hope that, just as the cell phone rescued us from the feckless tyranny of land based, state-owned telephone systems, the new dispensation will lift us from the debris of our current condition. But first you must go read Atta’s book. The sister can write.
Yes, the sister can write. She weaves a beautiful story of courage with unrelenting insistence. She says out loud to a jaded world: We come from a land of incredible beauty and unspeakable sadness. The reader never gets over the shock of witnessing enormous waste of potential and resources. And I am not talking about crude oil. Atta writes in the grand tradition of the writers before her. And she says to me that language is all in the mind. When t listen to the poets and writers of my childhood, they are speaking and writing in English but I smell the earth of my ancestors, I smell the musty sweat of my ancestors’ masquerades speaking to me from across the Atlantic, comforting me, soothing me. And in these books, they tell me that this earth also belongs to me. Atta has taken a rightful place in that pantheon of greats.
The book wears its frailties gently on its sleeve and we are drawn to the writer’s humanity. The book is not without its weaknesses; in its unnecessary explanation of Nigerian terms, one senses a yearning to reach out to a mass market. Why would anyone bother to explain that eba is “a meal made from ground cassava?” When next you read about pasta, remind the author to footnote its explanation.
Sister Atta, you speak to me in your book. You speak to me from deep in the bowels of my ancestors’ coven. You speak to me howling, bawling, and soaking me in the song of our mothers’ grief. In the feverish insistence of your voice, in the feverish insistence of your rhythm, in the pounding of your feet on the earth of our mothers, you speak to me. And joy rides our senses going places in the heart where fear still clings to life. Our sister, look at joy bounding up and down the streets of happy memories. Our sister, in your book, joy takes me by the hand and sets me free to dream of the way things used to be. I don’t remember much of Chicago. I will never forget Everything Good Will Come.