Publisher: Interlink Books (Sept, 2010)
Pages: 296 pages
It is the mid-1980s in Lagos and the government’s War Against Indiscipline and austerity measures are fully in operation. Tolani Ajao is a secretary working at Federal Community Bank. A succession of unfortunate events leads Tolani’s roommate and colleague, Rose, to consider drug trafficking as an alternative means of making a living. Tolani’s subsequent struggle with temptation forces her to reconsider her morality and that of her mother Arike’s, as she embarks on a turbulent journey of self-discovery. Their story, narrated by mother and daughter, is a tribute to Nigerian oral history.
"Atta writes lyrically and eloquently about ordinary life." – Kirkus
"Tolani's tale encompasses towns and villages, corruption and superstition, deceit and loyalty, all beautifully layered and building toward a wallop you never see coming." – Publishers Weekly starred review
"Atta captures the sights, sounds, and smells of her native land in the 1980s, with its War against Indiscipline in effect, as it straddles Western ways and native customs. A meandering novel with a painful punch." – Booklist
“In this unique novel, outstanding new literary talent Sefi Atta takes great strides in style and form, to bring wit and passion to the heartbreaking story of Tolani and Rose, two young women struggling, not always successfully to make an honest living in contemporary Nigeria...Atta tells in an eminently readable voice the irreconcilable nature of the two friends’ fates.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga, author of Nervous Conditions
“Tender, fierce, vivid and memorable -- a bold, distinctive novel from a writer who doesn't compromise her integrity.” – Leila Aboulela, author of Minaret
“The bustle, chaos and fast rhythm of Lagos jump from the pages of Swallow, Sefi Atta’s new book. It is fiction steeped in life.” – Veronique Tadjo, author of As the Crow Flies
“Sefi Atta has woven a quietly intricate powerful tale that pulls from problems of gender, class, and Lagosian life. It’s a novel whose many colorful characters, compelling story, distinct place and turbulent time will stay with you long after you’ve read the last word.” – Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, author of Zahrah the Windseeker
“Sefi’s Swallow is a triumph of the terse. It throbs with laconic intelligence and the veritable Sefi Atta denouement.” – Tade Ipadeola, author of A Time of Signs
"Sefi Atta’s brilliantly controlled, assured and endearing narrative of the city is reminiscent of Ben Okri at the height of his powers in novels like Flowers and Shadows, The Landscapes Within and even The Famished Road—novels in which he is the most adept chronicler of the angst and anomie of city dwellers. No contemporary Nigerian writer is better than Sefi Atta at evoking the smells, sounds and the sheer madness of this sprawling cosmopolitan city of Lagos." – Toni Kan Onwordi, author of Nights of the Creaking Bed
I had to leave the flat to clear my head. 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. It was as though every possible emotion had charged at me and left me flattened. I didn’t have the will or the ability to care about myself anymore, even to feel sorry for myself, and it was just as well, because the physical challenges I had to face were all that mattered now.
Rose and I were to swallow condoms of cocaine. OC said pushing them up our vaginas or packing them in our luggage was out of the question; the risk was too high. He would give us further instructions when the time was right, take us to the airport, hand us tickets and spending money. Our passports and visas would be arranged meanwhile. We would assume new identities. We were both cashiers, working for a foreign trading company and going overseas for the first time. On vacation. We were to practice by swallowing condoms filled with garri. Margarine, groundnut oil or palm oil would help us get the condoms down. Tablets for constipation would also help. If we succeeded, OC would consider us for the journey. If we spoke a word about his plan, we would both disappear. We were tough enough to follow through; Lagos had made us that tough.
We had to watch what we ate, how often we moved our bowels, and avoid being constipated. For Rose, this was difficult. She did not eat regularly. Swallowing made her vomit, but she got her condom down slightly before it came up. Mine wouldn’t go past the back of my tongue, and still I vomited. I vomited when I tried to swallow, vomited after I’d spat up. I kept heaving. I finally lay on my mattress, exhausted and watched the water stains on the ceiling. My tears ran into my ears and blocked them. I sat up and went to the bathroom to wash my face with cold water. I tried again. First I rinsed the pellet, and then I oiled it with palm oil and slipped it into my mouth.