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News from Home: Short Stories (Interlink World Fiction)
News from Home: Short Stories (Interlink World Fiction)
Sefi Atta
Interlink Books, 2012
320 pp., 15.00

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Laura Bramon Good

Chaos and Tenderness

Stories by the Nigerian-born writer Sefi Atta.

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 freely and, like O'Connor's righteous and depraved, meet a fate that neither could have imagined.

"Lawless," perhaps the most entertaining story in the collection, follows the fate of a gang of theater students after a kleptocratic regime stalls their graduation. The story's narrator is the son of a wealthy architect and the sole survivor of looters who murdered his family as they dined in their posh Lagos compound.

"That happened one night while I was accepting my runner-up award for 'Mr. Caveman' at the university," the narrator recalls, with a deadpan wit that belies the grief that drove him to break "all the windows in the house so that the whole of Shapati Town could hear me crying for them to come back to life."

Now the proprietor of a middle-class mansion-turned-frat house, the narrator presides over Fineboy, Professor, Crazehead, and Shango, a thespian brotherhood of oil delta refugees and penniless sons whose fathers defected to France. Staging plays in the old backyard swimming pool, they create an alternate reality. But their fragile little society is threatened by the arrival of Toyosi, a beautiful, feisty young woman with a baby girl on her hip—"definitely an away Nigerian, a pepperless Nigerian, an assorted chick, an aje butter," the narrator muses, with the disdain of the recently displaced.

The story turns on Toyosi's refusal to reconcile with her incestuous family; instead, she entices the narrator to become a robber himself, to mount a slapstick burglary of her sister's flat and steal money to buy the baby's medicine. Returning to the frat house with a wad of cash, ashamed in his triumph, the narrator refuses to tell Toyosi about the details of the burglary and the thespians' degrading antics. When she presses him, her eyes watering—"Did you hurt my sister?"—the narrator mistakes her question for an invitation to confess how his grief for his family has gotten tied up in this and every other escapade since they were murdered.

As the bridge to an epilogue that hints at a classic romantic resolution—love, health, new life—it's an amusing and touching riff, hinting at Atta's comedic philosophy. To get her jokes, readers must have eyes to see and ears to hear all sides of her freaks' upside-down Nigeria, and they must trust her when she intimates that humor is most satisfying when capped, not with an ironic punch line, but with tender human meaning.

Laura Bramon Good is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C., where she works on human trafficking issues for international relief and development organizations.

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