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News from Home: Short Stories (Interlink World Fiction)
Interlink Pub Group, 2010
294 pp., $15.00
Laura Bramon Good
Chaos and Tenderness
In the half-century since Flannery O'Connor described Southern writers' eye for the grotesque as the gift to glimpse both the freak and the whole man, storytellers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line have labored to install the freak as permanent prophet. It has been, at times, an awkward assumption to an awkward throne (consider the fate of "J. T. LeRoy," creature of a hoax that couldn't finally be sustained). These days, it seems rare to find an honest freak wandering freely, unleashed from diversity lineups or reality TV, a ward of wide, open spaces where the dramatic irony of his antics can cast an odd prophetic shadow.
All the more reason to welcome Sefi Atta's collection of stories, News From Home, and its array of honest freaks: a senior Muslim wife who trysts with an invisible man, a renegade theater troupe plotting dramas in the clam shell of a dried-up swimming pool. Their homeland is not O'Connor's Christ-haunted South but rather Nigeria's teeming kingdom of Pentecostal churches, sharia law, and regime change. It is a world of oil wealth and decay, chaos and strange tenderness, where drug mules take their idiot sons along for safekeeping.
Unlike fellow Nigerian authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Uwem Akpan, both of whom were both born and bred Catholic, Atta is the daughter of an Anglican mother and a Muslim father. Growing up in Nigeria at a time when the country was wracked with poverty and war, she seems to have been primed from the first to re-imagine the world as either a battleground or a lively marriage of odd and turbulent opposites. Atta chose the latter. When she considers some of West Africa's stock dramas—the trafficker swallowing her balloons of heroin, the Nigerian girl exiled as a New Jersey domestic—there are echoes of Adichie and Akpan's more sober prose. But Atta's Nigeria is a land in which a knife's edge separates the "butter eaters" from the underclass; her stories rush to life when she allows the posh and the poor to collide ...