I recently came along many interesting Nigerian writers (like Teju Cole, Ben Okri or Helon Habila), and Sefi Atta is my latest discovery. A happy discovery, I might say, as I enjoyed every bit of A Bit of Difference, a book about identity and London, through the eyes of the 39 years old single Deola Bell.
'She has never had any doubts about her identity, though other people have. She has yet to encounter an adequate description of her status overseas. Resident alien is the closest. She definitely does not see herself as British. Perhaps she is a Nigerian expatriate in London'. The London she was used to as a student in a boarding school is changing, and although she is ambivalent about it, she keeps observing it how neighbourhoods are becoming more diverse and the restaurants from all over the world can be found on one single side of the street.
Belonging to a middle-class family, with her father the founder of a bank in Nigeria, altghough from a modest background, she is rather relaxed about her professional career. In fact, her job is just a mean to keep herself busy. On a job assignment in Nigeria for the NGO she was working as an accountant, her lonely life is put on trial. 'But you can get together here. We hardly get together over there. I can go for days without seeing anyone in London'. On one hand, there is the safe life in London, on the other hand, there is the knitted community - sometimes suffocating and demanding - from Nigeria. Deola can be happy in both worlds or can rather live happily. She is not a straight forward professional and she doesn't need to be ambitious for earning a living. She travels, has money and a satisfactory present. Except she is without a mate and no family, but it's better this way sometimes. 'She, Deola, has been capricious in her relationships as well as in her career. The moment she is not happy, she leaves. For her, there are worse situations, but none more preventable than being stuck in a job or marriage'.
After a one night stand with a charming Nigerian she is pregnant by accident and decided to return home. But this is less relevant for the story. The casual tone of the discussions and the very smart and well crafted dialogues create a very familiar and friendly reading ambiance. She is talking about Nigerian life with humour and without pathetically taking sides, a world that Deola herself needs a break to better understand. 'She is never sure what takes precedence in the way Nigerians constantly rank each other according to wealth, education and Westernization, with ambigous results: this one is bush, that one is oyinbo. This one's local, that one is colonized'.
I particularly loved the way in which it approaches identity, not by putting it into question or depressively questioning its status in a 'foreign' land, but for the detached and reflective appropriation. Sometimes you may feel that the tone is too casual and the discussions are too focused and self-sufficient, but I loved the good vibes - there are also tons of musical references every couple of pages, from hip-hop to jazz. It is a new approach on identity that I would love to read more about and found more often in literary works.
Rating: 3.5 stars