“Lawless & Other Stories; Sefi Atta; 325 Pages, Farafina Publisher 2008.

  Reviewed By Ademola Bello


            Sefi Atta’s “Lawless & Other Stories” may sound like an homage to Edwidge Danticat’s novel “Breath, Eyes, Memory” or her short story collection “Krik? Krak!, but there is no doubt it was a radical departure from anything anyone had ever previously attempted in Nigerian fiction writing.

            Ms. Atta who is the Fall Quarter 2008 Visiting Writer in Residence for the Center for the Writing Arts at the prestigious Northwestern University in Evanston , Illinois won the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for her novel “Everything Good Will Come”

            The protagonist of the first chapter titled “Hailstones on Zamfara” is a thirty-three year old melancholy housewife who became pregnant by sleeping with “a man who doesn’t exist.” Her husband dragged her to the Sharia court where it was expected she would be pronounced guilty and sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery.

            The woman gave us insight into her fractured early life: like how she was married to her husband at fourteen and suffered left ear damage as a result of excessive beating by an abusive drunkard husband. She also shares the stories of her husband’s new bride with us; a girl that was of the same age as her daughter Fatima and who once told her “At least you are old. You should be like a mother to me.”

            The second story “The Miracle Worker” was about a Lagos panel beater called Makinde and his fanatical born-again Christian wife known as Bisi who at certain points stopped speaking to her non-Christian friends because they were sinners in her judgment. Makinde, who didn’t attend church services, charged one naira to congregants of his wife’s church who held revivals on the property he inherited from his father, despite his wife opposition. However, he found himself in big trouble with tax officials regarding the property’s ownership.  He contacted a friend known as Rasaki for help; the friend made empty promises and disappeared with Makinde’s money.

Makinde was in ruins, and he had only one solution to his problem: joining his wife’s congregation “Abundant Life Tabernacle” because that is the only way the couple can benefit from the “Married Women’s Crisis Fund”.

            The book collection derives it’s title from the short story titled “Lawless” set in the turmoil of Abacha’s brutal regime of the 1990s. It follows the journey of a young woman called Toyosi and a group of aloof young men who go by such aliases as Crazehead, Professor, Fineboy, Shango, and Ogun.  They believed there were so many obstacles in their lives that the only path to success and survival for them was to become supernatural. Toyosi conspires with the men to rob her sister, a banker, but not to hurt her. They don’t cause her physical harm, though they do put her through emotional distress.

            The fourth story, titled “Spoils” is about the sexual identity crisis of a fascinating cross-dresser called Farouk; a street hawker whose mother raised him as a “yan dauda”. We are told he speaks in a high voice like a woman, wears headscarves, paints henna on his hands, and pencils his eyes with kohl. It is a beautifully layered story of a closet gay man in conservative Northern Nigeria .

            In the rest of the stories, Sefi  Atta explores many themes describing the modern African experience. They elaborate the desperation of traveling abroad illegally by crossing the Sahara desert, Mediterranean , and into Spain . The immigrant experience in London and the uncertainty of losing one’s job. A drug-smuggling Nigerian woman who uses her disabled son as a diversion to avoid being caught at Britain ’s Gatwick Airport . The serendipitous story of one Mrs. Darego and her housemaid Eve, who find empowerment, friendship, and loyalty through the courage of some Niger Delta women who bring oil-producer Summit Oil’s operation to a standstill. The immigrant experience coping with the hazards of tornados in Mississippi and New Orleans . And how the Internet has allowed some Africans to reverse the roles and prey upon the foolishness of the developed world.through Nigerian email scams.

            In this collection Sefi Atta briefly explores the aftermath of the September 11 attack on the United States , the war in Iraq and the military who are serving there. She has woven together stories that challenge us as we unravel the truth through a process of dialectical conflicts that occur in our thoughts as we observe the world around us.

            As a Nigerian, I found all the stories re-assuring because they didn’t dehumanize Africans, but instead highlight the problems and the challenges that confront our continent. The last story is the novella “Yahoo Yahoo” .I found it the least engaging and interesting and feel it would work better as a short story for clarity.

            Finally, a good writer is the one who doesn’t force us to accept her point of view, but is the one who speaks to us through her writing. Sefi Atta is an ingenious writer of ideas and attention must be paid to her work.  The issues she tackled in “Lawless & Other Stories” are large, substantial issues. Readers won’t be disappointed with the book.

-------Ademola Bello will begin teaching in the English Department at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in the spring semester 2009.

You may also like

Read Next