Winner of the 2011 Costa First Novel Award
When their mother catches their father with another woman, twelve year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother, Ezikiel, are forced to leave their comfortable home in Lagos for a village in the Niger Delta, to live with their mother’s family. Without running water or electricity, Warri is at first a nightmare for Blessing. Her mother is gone all day and works suspiciously late into the night to pay the children’s school fees. Her brother, once a promising student, seems to be falling increasingly under the influence of the local group of violent teenage boys calling themselves Freedom Fighters. Her grandfather, a kind if misguided man, is trying on Islam as his new religion of choice, and is even considering the possibility of bringing in a second wife.
But Blessing’s grandmother, wise and practical, soon becomes a beloved mentor, teaching Blessing the ways of the midwife in rural Nigeria. Blessing is exposed to the horrors of genital mutilation and the devastation wrought on the environment by British and American oil companies. As Warri comes to feel like home, Blessing becomes increasingly aware of the threats to its safety, both from its unshakable but dangerous traditions and the relentless carelessness of the modern world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the witty and beautifully written story of one family’s attempt to survive a new life they could never have imagined, struggling to find a deeper sense of identity along the way.
Father was a loud man. I could hear him shouting from the neighbors’ apartment, where he argued about football with Dr. Adeshina and drank so much Remy Martin that he could not stand up properly. I could hear him singing when he returned from the Everlasting Open Arms House of Salvation Church, on a bus that had the words UP JESUS DOWN SATAN written on the side. The singing would reach my ears right up on the fourth floor. From my window I watched the
bus driver and Pastor King Junior carry Father towards the apartment because he could not stand up at all.
If Father did stand up, it was worse. He seemed to have no idea how to move around quietly, and when he did try, after Mama said her head was splitting in two, the crashing became louder.
We were so used to Father’s loud voice that it became quieter. Our ears changed and put on a barrier like sunglasses whenever he was at home. So when we left for market early on Saturday morning and knew Father was out working all day on some important account at the office, our ears did not need their sunglasses on. And when Mama realized she had forgotten her purse, and we had to turn back, our ears were working fine. I heard the chatter of the women at market, the traffic and street traders along Allen Avenue, and the humming of the electric gate to let us back into the apartment building. I heard our footsteps on the hallway carpets, and Mama’s key in the front lock. I heard the cupboard door open when Ezikiel and I went straight for the biscuits.
And then I heard the most terrible, loudest noise I had ever heard in my life.
My switched-on ears hurt. I tried to put the glasses on them, to switch them down, to turn them off. Father must have been home; I could hear him shouting.
Father was a loud man.
But it was Mama who was screaming.
Excerpted from Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. Copyright © 2011 by Christie Watson. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Selected as one of CNN.com’s 12 Good Summer Reads
“A sure-footed debut narrated by 12-year-old Blessing, a girl growing up too fast in the troubled Niger Delta.” —People Magazine
“[An] assured, absorbing first novel…Watson’s cleanly told coming-of-age story generates real narrative momentum.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Watson is generous in her assessment of human nature, and her novel surprises even as its sense of danger is never truly at bay…[An] ultimately triumphant book.”—Miami Herald
“[An] impressive debut…Watson’s nuanced portrayal of daily life in Nigeria is peopled with flawed but tenacious characters who fight not only for survival but for dignity. Blessing is a wonderful narrator whose vivid impressions enliven Watson’s sensual prose.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[An] absorbing first novel, told through the eyes of the bright and observant Blessing…a memorable debut novel about a Nigerian girl’s coming of age.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Confronting issues of race, class, and religion, this work ponders idealistic ignorance in a way that is reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease. Watson’s story will appeal to readers of African and literary fiction.” — Library Journal
“Through the lens of young girl’s coming-of-age, this breakthrough novel views the politics of contemporary Nigeria, portraying the clash between traditional and modern as it affects one extended family.” —Booklist
“A first novel that knows how to tell a story, concocting a voice that lures us. Perfect pitch is not reserved for musicians; some novelists have it, too. From the very first page of her very first book, Christie Watson proves she possesses it, creating a voice that tells a tale we can’t put down.” —Barnes and Noble Review
“An excellent novel. It takes the reader deep into the reality of ordinary life in Nigeria and is also funny, moving and politically alert.” —Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland
“Christie Watson’s debut novel, set in the troubled Niger Delta, does what fiction does best, it captures place and characters so well that you feel you are also there. It is sincere, it is powerfully written, and it deserves to be read.” —Helon Habila, author of Oil on Water, winner of the Commonwealth Prize
“Watson has written an immensely absorbing novel. It is both heart wrenching and consoling.” —Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters’ Street
“A fascinating, poignant story that had me laughing in places and deeply moved in others.” —Ike Anya
“Lyrical and beautifully drawn, a poignant coming-of-age tale, set in an Africa few readers will have experienced. A must-read.” —Lesley Lokko, author of Sundowners, Saffron Skies, and Bitter Chocolate
“The gripping, triumphant tale of a girl who chooses life over loss, in a sweet but savage world where oil is bled from the earth.” —Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
About the Author
A Conversation with Christie Watson...
Q: Where did your inspiration for the character of Blessing come from?
A: I began writing Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away from the point of view of Dan, the white oil worker, but something wasn't working properly. I had no idea how to get into his head and imagine his thoughts. After experimenting with a few different points of view I tried writing from a young girl's, and everything flowed. I thought of my own daughter, who uses language in a certain, and sometimes nonsensical, way and suddenly, Blessing was born. The inspiration for her voice came from my daughter, but really how she felt as a young girl trapped by circumstance and not really belonging, was based on my own experiences.
Q: Your upbringing was very different from Blessing's. Are parts of her character or her familial relationships based on your own experiences?
A: On the surface my upbringing was very different from Blessing's. But we share a lot of experiences in common. I grew up in a very working-class family, on a council estate surrounded by poverty and violence. When I met my partner and his family in Nigeria, at first everything was strange and difficult to cope with, but as I became used to the differences between us, I fell in love with them and with Nigeria, and found a sense of belonging that I'd never experienced before. I draw on all my experiences to inform my fiction, and luckily, with my interesting families, and colorful characters within, I don't have to look far to find inspiration. My father-in-law, for example, has a mosque in his garden and has talked for years of starting a snail farm. From a character point of view, Blessing is very much like my Nigerian stepdaughter, who is also wonderful, intuitive, intelligent.
Q: The perspective of Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away creates a great sense of intimacy between Blessing and the reader. When you finished writing the novel, did you miss her?
A: I originally wrote the entire novel in third person and got to the end and realized that the distance between reader and writer was too great, because the distance between me and Blessing was too great. So I wrote the whole thing again in first-person point of view and everything changed. Suddenly I lived, breathed, and slept as Blessing. I imagined the characters all around me, and even dreamed in the fictional world I'd created, which was strange and wonderful at the same time. I called my daughter Blessing on more than one occasion. So when the writing came to an end, of course, I cried. The characters followed me around for a few weeks, as if they too didn't want to leave. I miss them even now.
Q: You tackle a variety of contemporary issues throughout the book including oil drilling, genital mutilation, and children as rebel soldiers. Do you think of your novel as having a social conscience?
A: My politics come first, writing second. I write (and read) in order to understand the world, and myself. I think of all my writing as having a social conscience. The idea for the novel came from extended family members describing their experiences to me of female circumcision (as they call female genital mutilation). But although my novel deals with some terrible realities, I hope that my writing reflects balance: there is beauty and horror, light and dark. I try to add humor in order to make the dark scenes easier to read. I wanted to write a novel about life and difficult issues in contemporary Nigeria, without resorting to negative stereotypes of a fictional Africa that is so often presented in the West.
I did worry about my "right to write" this novel. It was only after encouragement from my Nigerian family and friends that I found the courage. I was terrified of presenting a negative Western view of "Africa" as a place of nothing but famine, disease, and war. I really hope that by presenting the reality of the Nigeria I know--one of difficulties but also humor, culture, middle classes, parties, and incredible family units, as well as the differences between rich and poor, traditional and modern--that I've managed to avoid stereotype or prejudice. I wanted to show Western readers what family really means in Nigeria, in the face of the extreme injustice in the Niger Delta caused by the Western oil companies. Chimamanda Adichie recently gave a brilliant lecture about the dangers of reducing a people to a single story. I hope that my version of Nigeria is not one thing or another, but balanced, and I hope that my story of the Niger Delta becomes one of many.
1. Ezikiel and Blessing share a special sibling bond. How did it change when they moved from Lagos to Warri? Do you think there was anything that Blessing could have done to save Ezikiel?
2. Blessing tells her story in her own distinct voice. How would you characterize her style as a narrator? Discuss Blessing's development from an unsure, shy girl to a confident young woman. How does each character in the novel encourage--or stifle--Blessing's maturation?
3. Watson originally tried writing Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away from the perspective of Dan, the white oil worker. How would Dan's perspective have changed the book? What insights might his narration have brought to the novel? What limitations might Watson have faced?
4. From the very first line of the novel, "Father was a loud man," it's clear that her father is of crucial importance to Blessing. How does her opinion of him change throughout the story? How does her relationship with him affect her relationships with the other men in her life?
5. Discuss the power of the women in Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away (Grandma's rally) versus the power of men in the novel (Alhaji, the Sibeye Boys). How does the expression of power differ between the genders?
6. It's estimated that three million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation in Africa. Discuss Grandma's choice to perform the practice. How does it inform Blessing's own career as a midwife? How do Grandma and Blessing determine where to draw the line between ethical responsibility and cultural tradition?
7. Legend and tradition play significant roles in Blessing's family--from Grandma's stories to Alhaji's disbelief in Ezikiel's medical condition. How are religion, education, and tradition balanced in the novel? Do they coexist? When and why do they clash?
8. Though foreign companies and Nigeria's own government gain enormous wealth from the oil industry, the majority of people residing in the oil producing regions of the country continue to live in extreme poverty. How does the presence of the oil industry impact the lives of the characters in the novel? Does Watson offer any hints as to what could be done to better the situation?
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