About a decade ago, I read Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come for the first time. I was eighteen or nineteen, and this book taught me to be angry. But that’s not quite right. With every reread, I realize this book, more accurately, helped me articulate my anger – that festering inchoate thing that sometimes flared in my chest and left me sputtering when a situation was ‘just not fair’! Like when my university gave women a 10 p.m. curfew, instead of 11 p.m. like the men – allowing the male students of my department use the architecture studios for an extra hour; or when a relative shook her head at my lack of interest in cooking and asked, ‘what will your husband eat?’
Enitan, the narrator and protagonist, struggles with this same food question (which has caused many wars on Nigerian Twitter). But this is a book that goes beyond anger – it resists any simplification. Everything Good Will Come is split into four years: 1971, 1975, 1985 and 1995. We meet Enitan at 11-years-old, when she meets an unruly girl, a neighbour her parents don’t deem fit for their ‘decent’ child. This friendship – sometimes reminiscent of the one between Elena Ferrante’s characters in the Neapolitan Novels – is one of Enitan’s first encounters with a rebel. As the years go by, Enitan has an awakening; Enitan has many awakenings. She leaves Nigeria, she returns. She has boyfriends. She fights with her mother who says about Enitan’s father: ‘If he’s no good to me, he’s no good to you.’ She fights with her father, a fellow lawyer who thinks she’s too aggressive. She marries a man who holds her hand in sleep but won’t enter the kitchen. She considers women’s rights. She considers human rights. She explores the overlap: ‘Human rights were never an issue until the rights of men were threatened. There’s nothing in our constitution for kindness at home.’ Early on, a classmate prophesies, ‘You have a bad mouth, Enitan Taiwo. Just wait and see. It will catch up to you.’ And it does. As post-independence Nigeria dances in and out of military rule, politics shift from periphery to the center of Enitan’s mind. Can she be comfortable in her middle-class life, unlooking, as we Nigerians say?
I love how very Lagos this book is; it sees the nuances of my city clearly. It covers the sprawl – from boarding school to Eko Market to the banking industry and jail. It is a book steeped in the details of the daily, in real life, in the range of our experiences. This means it can be very difficult to read as a Nigerian, because we’re presented with an exasperating sameness. Nothing has changed. From journalists being arrested by the government to a lack of electricity to women being cussed out on the streets for . . . existing. But in this lies its importance. The diagnosis of the Nigerian condition has never been the problem, the paralysis is in the ‘what next’? Sefi Atta pokes at our complacency and silence, especially that of the middle class, who believes they’re inured from the dangers of a crumbling country. Yes, there is laughter in this book, there is delight; but I found the frustration most informing, most galvanizing, most true. After destroying an ex-boyfriend’s property, Enitan muses: ‘Good women didn’t shout in somebody’s house. Good women didn’t fight on the streets. Good women didn’t come looking for men. Good women were at home.’ I love this book because it sees me: as a Nigerian, as a Lagosian, as a not-good-woman.
Image © Bea Mahan