Saturday 20 October 2012

"Swallow" by Sefi Atta

  • CLR features Oyebanji Ayodele again as he brings interesting discourse on Sefi Atta’s Swallow. CLR is glad to have his book review this month. Read and we hope you do Swallow.

Swallow sews Nigeria's culture and geography attractively. This it achieves by siting its proscenium in the Nigerian mega city of Lagos. Each character’s sentiments are expounded through the anal view of the narrator. Did I say sentiments? Yes! Swallow is a story neglected to the caprices of its own sentimental squall. It swings back and forth, touching existential subjects that may later inform one’s discriminatory stands.

This book is a reflection on the Lagos of the mid-1980s from the paradigm of Tolani, an immigrant from Makoku. The story presents, in a mesh of narrations and conversations, how Tolani darts in and out of Lagos in search of what convergences she shares with her mother; having lived a life filled with reminiscences of her mother’s tales, her encounter with Rose Adamson and their attempts to swallow condoms of drugs to breakthrough.


The novel dunks one in feministic surpluses. It bares the ass of a male-centred society, especially with the likes of Mr Salako (a bank official with a lot of clandestine issues to his credit), Alhaji Umar (Mr Salako’s boss and partner in crime) and OC (a drug runner and Rose’s boyfriend).

Aside Arike, whose scooter-riding feat almost reduces to a convention dissenter, Sefi preserves the names of her female characters in gold. Iya Alaro; Arike’s activist aunty; Sisi, Rose’s multi-engaged mother and Violet, Rose’s prostitute-turned-hair dresser sister all wrest to nought the customs in their domains. It is in Swallow that you see females who are no teetotallers. They drown their pain and pleasure alike, orgying on beer and men-discarding gambits. They know the way in and out of predicaments. Tolani’s way of escaping from Mr Salako’s web accentuates this.

“I carried a worn plastic bag that morning. It had taken me hours to decide on the contents. Inside the bag was half a calabash, limestone, and chicken feathers. They were especially for Mr Salako. He came earlier than most other people in the bank, so he could carry out his fraudulent activities. I hoped to catch him in his office before the others arrived. One knock was all I needed before I heard his voice, full of guilt…
My heart was beating fast. He did not look scared. I picked up the calabash as planned and blew the chicken feathers into his face. He stood up so quickly his chair fell backwards.
Ye! She’s trying to blind me! I can’t see! I can’t see again! Aje! Aje! …
He was waving the feathers away, cleaning them from his face and clothes. I’d found them in the rubbish dump outside the block of flats in which I lived. The limestones and calabash came from my kitchen…” (Page 152-153)

Wondering why Rose’s name is not on the golden list? She never passes her last test like Sisi who comes back to savour her conquest in Lagos. I wish she had made it. The likes of OC in Lagos would have lost their business to her ambitiousness. However, this shows Sefi’s consciousness of how females cannot win all battles. This, to me, doesn’t undermine her position as a feminist writer. It only injects some reality into it.

I would not blindly fault the feminine folk on account of this:

“Chief Odunsi was humble about his background and apparently grateful to have a wife who overdressed and bleached her skin…She slept with the high society men she encountered, behind her husband’s back, to get him government contracts and also for revenge, because their wives looked down on her.(pg. 68)

The above is no flaw! It is a sign of the power women possess as against the gullibility of their male counterparts who, ascribe the results of what their wives make titanic oblations for to providence.
However, the African society is questioned on why it resorts to trivial things to explain its stern hold on male chauvinism. Imagine ascribing infertility to a woman’s passion for a moped.

“You have no child,” he said “You are riding around town on a motorcycle. You are out of control…” (Page 98)
That sucks!


“Every morning at five thirty, when the air was cool, Rose and I caught a kabukabu from the end of our street to another district. There, we waited at a stop for our bus named “Who Knows Tomorrow? …” (Page 9)
This transcends a means of transportation. It is a very rich allegory which Atta herself may not have considered. Having conveyed Rose to her place of work till her sack, she fails to imbibe the most tiniest  doze of moral that permeates the moniker.

But that is the way in Lagos. Lagos, where WAI cannot peep into the obscured corners of dubious hearts; where the current trend of Pentecostalism can be lucrative with all its divine trappings:

“The pastor ordered the congregation to speak in tongues after a while. He stretched out his fingers: ‘I command you, in Jesus’ name! Bombala yatima shati wati’ ” (Page 147)

The future speaks a patois of mystery but Lagos and its ever-rushing denizens try to comprehend it. They end up not attaining their aim all the time though.


In an age where the Yoruba language is doomed to the willing tongues of market women and the oldies, Swallow kills the language more. Sefi Atta’s use of the Yoruba language is laborious and thus, kills the reader in me whenever they surface in the book. Letter ‘c’ for instance strolls with pride into Atta’s Yoruba alphabets. It makes me want to scream ‘Jesu Cristi’! This contrasts with my Achebe experience. It is in Swallow that Yoruba expressions have different outlook: some in italics and otherwise. That points to the author’s irresoluteness on everything that pertains to the language.

Her pidgin throws ferocious punches out of the pages of the book. They are also so sickening:

“…My sister, I done tire…”
As if that is not enough, she horsewhips the reader (especially the Yoruba’s) to feast on her soapy Yoruba-English interpretations. With all sternness, a good editor could have helped matters.
It strikes that the same author can easily pass for an imagist. She wields great imagery in this:

“I left the house before your father woke up that Sunday…I stopped walking as soon as the road levelled out, pushed my wrapper between my legs and got on the Vespa.
Vroom! You should have seen the old woman who was sitting on her chair with a chewing stick in her mouth. Vroom! Instead of spitting, she swallowed. Vroom! She slapped her chest. Vroom! She fell off her stool.” (Page 83)

Here is another I love:

“…My mouth tasted of palm oil. I couldn’t swallow my condom; it was the size of my thumb and as hard as a bone. What used to be my throat was now a pipe, my intestines were a drain and my stomach had become an empty portmanteau...” (Page 139)


This is just Literature. It is no spectacular breed. Literature shouldn’t just baptize you in ink and sweat. Dami Ajayi says this in Emmanuel Iduma’s Gambit Interview series:

‘…for one to gain a reader’s trust, one’s work must thrust at the reader…’

This is what I hold against Swallow: it in no way jarred the reader in me. Her flashbacks snail one’s read. Her inconsistent use of italics to present the flashbacks most times throws the reader in a labyrinth.  This is frustrating to the reader as he tries to figure out who’s speaking.

Moreover, I still find it very hard to believe that many of our writers don’t consider it a soil on their personalities to portray books the way they are not. I must confess that Swallow falls short of how it is presented in the blurbs. I have learnt from here to disregard blurbs. We should learn to give candid opinions about books.

“A better literary culture would be one that's not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn't want so badly to be liked above all. We'd tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions...”

I believe Atta still runs mileages from the full exploration of her craft. She can still hone it.

Oyebanji Ayodele could be reached via