Nigerian writer Sefi Atta receives Noma Award

Nigerian writer Sefi AttaThis year’s prestigious Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was presented to the Nigerian writer Sefi Atta at the opening ceremony of the Göteborg Book Fair on 23 September 2010 for her collection of short stories entitled News from Home. The Noma Award was set up in 1979 by Shoichi Noma, the former head of the Japanese publishing house Kodansha Ltd, to make books more readily available in developing countries, to promote readership in these countries and to encourage the publication of works by African writers. The award has been made annually to an African writer for 30 years but sadly this year’s award is to be the last.

The stories in News from Home (2009), which was first published in Lagos as Lawless & Other Stories (2008), are inspired by newspaper headlines and narrated by a range of Nigerian voices. The collection touches on the lives of a wide variety of people ranging from privileged Nigerians in London to a villager facing a possible death sentence. The Noma Award’s jury said:

"This collection of short stories and a novella represent the work of a first class writer. The gripping stories of the Nigerian quotidian are of consistently high quality and uniformly outstanding. The writer has an immense gift of language and mastery of narrative in which she redefines the Nigerian social imaginary. She tells her stories in different voices and from the perspective of a whole range of memorable characters, balancing content and form. One of the most original, imaginative and gifted fiction writers in Africa, and arguably the best of her generation."

Born in Lagos in 1964, Sefi Atta was educated in Nigeria, the UK and the US, where she graduated from the creative writing programme at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She started writing in 1994 while working as a chartered accountant in New York. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as the Los Angeles Review and Mississipi Review and her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC. Her first novel Everything Good Will Come (2005) was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Set in Nigeria in 1971, it charts the fate of two African girls, one born into privilege and the other, a lower class half-caste; one of whom is prepared to manipulate the traditional system while the other attempts to defy it. The novel has been translated into Dutch: De tuin van gebroken geluk: een jeugd in Lagos (2009).

Sefi Atta’s most recent work, Swallow (2010), is set in Lagos in the mid-1980s and is about Tolani Ajao, a secretary working at the Federal Community Bank. A succession of unfortunate events leads Tolani's friend Rose to persuade her to consider drug trafficking as an alternative means of making a living and Tolani's struggle with temptation forces her to reconsider her own morality, and that of her mother. The book intricately weaves together the women’s stories.
Sefi Atta lives in Meridian, Mississippi and teaches at Mississippi State University.

Sefi Atta’s website

Africa in Focus at the Göteborg Book Fair 2010

Katrien Polman (November 2010)