Book Review: A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

I read about this book in a Newspaper and the way in which it was described drew me in. I recall, it was said to be a book about exploring the differences in culture between the Nigerian protagonist and those she comes into contact with within her Western environment. I bought the book with an expectation of something Americanah-ish. I think part of my problem is that I have been spoilt by Chimananda, and now expect all African writers to sound like her.

Well, Atta does not sound anything like Adichie, and that in and of itself is not a criticism of Atta. I’ll start with some positives.  I like that the main character’s name is not introduced until she is addressed by another character and we learn her name is Deola. Up until that point she is only referred to as “she”.

Deola is in her late 30s, single. This information is provided to the reader, but other aspects of her character, who she really is, remained somewhat of a mystery. She works for an international charity in London, but visits “home” which is Lagos for her late father’s memorial. Some of her thoughts and dilemmas seem more typically associated with an adolescent. I can understand this is some way, because in some West African cultures, a woman has not truly become a woman until she is married with children. Yet I found it hard to connect her thoughts and feelings to that of a woman of her age and stage in life. Deola clearly has dissatisfaction with her life in London, but the reason for this is not made entirely clear.

What is clear is Deola’s love hate relationship with religion, and Christianity in particular. Now this touched a nerve with me because of the sweeping generalisations made about the Faith. Again though, I have understanding as to why “African Christianity” is criticised because I know from experience how distorted it is from the Christianity of the bible. Religion is certainly a theme in this novel, but I was not expecting it to be tackled in a way that could be seen scornful and disrespectful.

In terms of some of the other themes explored, I found myself asking at one point, is this a book about HIV and Aids? A bit like the MTV series “Shuga” based in Nigeria, (where almost every character either had HIV, or was about to catch it), was the thinking that, seeing as this is going to have a mostly African audience, I’d better do my best to educate them about the importance of being tested for HIV, seeing as most Africans are dying of Aids?

Perhaps, and this is not the biggest let down, another thing I found disappointing was that I could in no way relate to Deola and her privileged background. I had waited to find a novel that was based between Nigeria and London, and having finally found it, I couldn’t connect with Deola as I shared very few of her experiences. I did not go to an expensive fee paying boarding school and I do not have any friends who were educated at Harrow, for a start.

Fatally, the book included too many scenes that did not move the story forward, and an ending that leaves the reader hanging. Not hanging from a cliff as such, as that would suggest an exciting ending. More like hanging from a set of monkey bars.  I kept returning to the blurb to remind myself of what the story was supposed to be about. A love story? Deola’s love interest, hotel owner Wale, does not feature enough for it to be described as a love story.

With no lucid understanding of where the story is going, what is driving the main character, and what message the writer is trying to give, a Bit of Difference, was a bit of a flop for me.

Black Hair (Part 2): It’s None of Your Business!

I do not mean to cause offence by the title of this post; it is aimed at narrow minded people who judge black women not on the content of their character, but on something as superficial as how they choose to style their hair.

 

With this post I fall in danger of contradicting part 1, in which I sought to argue that it does matter how black women style their hair, in the sense that those who choose to wear it naturally, (knowingly or unknowingly) send a message to the world that there is nothing wrong the kinky textured hair of people of African descent. However I do think that it is also true that how a woman chooses to style her hair is her own personal choice, and as such should not be open for criticism and debate by others.

 

Let me explain what I mean. One day I was sitting on a train when I observed a very disturbing and bizarre scene. A black male starting speaking loudly to a young black female sitting across the aisle.

 

“Excuse me, is that your real hair?”

“No” she replied quietly, head down.

“I didn’t think so. You shouldn’t be wearing weave. It looks fake”.

 

I felt embarrassed for the young woman. Her hair was obviously a weave, and by the looks of it not “human hair”. Maybe she was not in a position to afford a better quality weave. Maybe she just wanted to cover her natural/relaxed hair with a weave as a protective style. Whatever her reasons for having a, not so great, weave, what right did that man have to question her? Whatever the state of her hair, in what way did it affect him?

 

Sadly he’s not alone in his condemnation of black women who do not wear their hair natural. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to stumble across certain Youtube channels of (black) men, dedicated to spewing venom at black women, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. In fairness, it’s not just black men, and it’s not just men. Women too can be very judgmental about what they perceive to be a bad weave or bad hair day. Remember how much stick Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglass during the

How could simple tied back hair cause such a fuss?

How could simple tied back hair cause such a fuss?

2012 Olympics? She was not criticised for her performance – and rightly so as she won two gold medals – but what was her crime? Not having freshly relaxed hair!

 

I accept that criticism of women’s looks is not limited to one race. The picking apart of women’s bodies in national magazines is indiscriminate. But when it comes to hair, there does not seem to be such a fierce debate around what it means if Caucasian hair is straightened or left curly, or if extensions are added in. If you listen to those venomous self-hating Youtube cowards (cowards because it’s easy to be foul mouthed and derogatory behind your computer screen), then a black women who straightens her hair, or gets a weave, does so because she wishes she were white. Of course it can’t be because she feels like a change, or likes the way it looks, or wants a protective style. Even if she does wish to be white, surely it’s only a small minority of people who would actually conclude that a woman wishes she were a different race because of her hairstyle? Or should I suppose that when Cheryl Cole wears cornrows she is expressing her inner desire to be black?

Not sure if this was before or after her alleged racial assault on a toilet attendant

Not sure if this was before or after her alleged racial assault on a toilet attendant

For the record, black hair is versatile. It’s probably the most versatile hair type that exists. Many different styles can be achieved with it. So when black women choose to explore the different styles, why not just leave them be? It’s not hurting you. And in my experience, most people of other races do not quite understand black hair, and so do not even realise that. For example, box braids involve fake hair! How many times have I taken out braids and then been asked by classmates/colleagues “have you cut your hair?” Before I would roll my eyes, and think “how ignorant”, but now I find it liberating. Knowing that my colleagues are not scrutinizing my latest hairstyle and scanning the back of my head for visible tracks, puts me at ease. If only all black women could feel that way all of the time.

Where Are The Black Owned Businesses?

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“I remember when there used to be two black owned shops here next door to each other” my mother said from the passenger seat as we were driving through Deptford High Street one afternoon. This sentence preceded a very strange sounding tale of rivalry and revenge. It was prompted by our passing a row of shops, all of which were now owned by Asians.

The tale went something like this: Once upon a time there were two shops selling African groceries, sat side by side on Deptford High Street. One was owned by Mrs A, the other was owned by Mr B. Mrs A’s shop started to do very well. Soon it became obvious that Mrs A’s shop was far more popular than Mr B’s. Then one day Mrs A became very ill. Within a few days she died in hospital. Mr B had been jealous that her shop was doing much better than his and so he had poisoned her! Mrs A’s children were left devastated at their loss, and soon the shop closed. In the meantime, word began to spread that Mr B was responsible for Mrs A’s death. People began to boycott his shop, resulting in its steady decline. Then Mrs A’s son seeking revenge, one day went and dowsed Mr B’s shop with petrol and set it alight. He succeeded in burning to a cinder Mr B’s shop, but he also got badly burned in the process, and scarred for life. Both shops were never to see black owners again. The end.

I had some questions about this story. How did people know Mrs A had been poisoned, and that Mr B was responsible? According to my mother, there was no confirmation, but people “just knew”. After all, these things happened in Nigeria, and so it followed that these things could happen in Britain amongst Nigerians. But whether or not the details of the story are true or not, it is a story that perhaps identifies some of the key reasons why we do not see more black owned businesses. Maybe if black people worked together more, instead of against each other, like the Jews do for example, then the tide would start to turn.

I am always puzzled by the fact that shops selling African and Caribbean food, and African and Caribbean hair and beauty products seem to all be owned by Asians. These shops stock products that African and Caribbean people will always flock to buy. They are cash cows. Has no black person cottoned on to this fact? I doubt that is the case. One theory is that Asians have ring fenced the hair and beauty industry, and force out black owners, either by their economic position of power, or by other means. For example I think of another tale that I have been told, this time about a black hair and beauty store in Peckham, owned by a Nigerian woman. Allegedly, Asian shop owners of the neighbouring shops had their eye on hers. They were constantly in touch with the Local Authority to find ways to have her shop shut down. Eventually they succeeded, and swiftly took over the shop.

With the knowledge that black people are to a large degree frozen out of the market dealing with products specifically tailored to many cultures found within the black race, I can’t put the blame entirely on black people for not owning more businesses. There are probably other factors to take into account as well, such as legacies, and connections that immigrants, or children of immigrants may not have to the same degree as those who come from a long line of descendants settled in the UK. However, I would like to see more black people in enterprise, because I often meet black people with ideas that could work. Those of us who are of the second generation, let’s leave behind the tendency of our parents to distrust one’s neighbour, or for one-upmanship for the purposes of showing off to others within our community. I feel other racial groups are respected more, because of their power, which is fed by their wealth. I believe those of African descent need to undo the damage caused by the “divide and rule” tactics of colonialism, and rise to their full potential of generating wealth and pioneering new ideas.