Chinelo Okparanta: Interview

by Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn

“Some of my strongest memories of place today are still my memories of Nigeria. In my mind I can still see the road to my primary school,

and I can tell you the placement of the headmistress’s office, and the patch of dusty earth where we stood for morning assemblies, or the lush green field on which we tumbled during breaks. I can tell you where the tamarind and ice cream vendors used to stand. I know that the bathrooms were at the ends of the classroom buildings, and I know that the louver windows were opaque and their glass panes, a light shade of green. I stopped by my primary school during my last visit to Nigeria, in 2010, and it’s a little startling how accurate my memory of the place. The only difference between reality and my memory of it was that everything appeared much smaller. In my memory everything was so big. But I have grown; this, I think, is what has made the difference. I only know that Nigeria made such an impact on me as a child that I carried it with me.”

Chinelo Okparanta continues to prove her worthiness as a gifted storyteller whose work depicts pain, heartbreak, the social implications of poverty, post-colonial scars, and tradition juxtapose to the immigrant experience. The stories are deeply compassionate, unsentimental, and boldly intertwined to deliver the complexity in each tale. The Nigerian-born writer has mesmerized readers with her stark yet lyrical prose in numerous literary journals including GRANTA, The Kenyon Review, Tin House, and The New Yorker among others. In Happiness Like Water (2013), Okparanta pulls us into the worlds of her characters—from Port Harcourt to Massachusetts—each one memorable with deeply moving and brutally honest stories that the reader cannot help but identify with. New York Times columnist, Ligaya Mishan, describes Chinelo’s writing as “delivered blandly, matter-of-factly, as if resisting the urge to dramatize were a kind of survival mechanism.”

The Penn State grad received an MA from Rutgers University, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she served as a Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer. Chinelo was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing and nominated for a United States Artists Fellowship in Literature as well as long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was also a 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction at Colgate University, and is currently Visiting Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Purdue University.

I was curious about Chinelo’s process of writing about home. Many of her stories are set in Nigeria where she left when she was 10 years old. We began the conversation in the Municipal Building in downtown Brooklyn amidst the buzz of Brooklyn Book Festival activities on a warm autumn Sunday, followed by email exchanges that lasted for six months.

Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn: While reading your book I felt I was given a personal tour into the people, places, culture and food. It was definitely a love affair—an equal serving of the beauty, juxtaposed with the ugliness of the subject matter—that inner turmoil that we as immigrant writers share. You touched on some very deep issues close to my heart, ranging from the protagonists’ struggles to find identity in a post-colonial Nigeria to what it’s like being an immigrant in the United States. You write with such unflinching honesty and care that it is hard not to identify with each and every one of your characters. How had it been for you writing these stories? When did these stories and the characters first manifest?
Chinelo Okparanta: Every single one of those stories came from a personal space. Some of them I wrote in an attempt to understand a certain troublesome situation. I strove to create alternate realities in order to better visualize potential methods in which a problem could play itself out. Other stories I wrote to purge myself of some aspects of my past. These stories were not so much hard to write from a craft perspective as they were painful to write on a personal level. Which is to say that, while they are not all autobiographical, they all consist of thematic “truths,” so that it’s even a little bit of an understatement to say that each story contains a piece of my heart. I don’t think I have a favorite. “Runs Girl” is a touching story. “Grace” is a love story, written from a place of love. At the moment those are the two that stick out in my mind.

NYDB: I love the way your stories shed light on certain issues that are hardly spoken about, and if so, are often on a perfunctory level. In “Fairness,” you wrote about this concept of bleaching, though popular in Africa and the Caribbean, was masterfully explored in the story that highlighted the post-colonial scar both figuratively and literally. In “Runs Girl” you tackled the implications of poverty that forced one woman to compromise herself. In “Story Story!” you gave us a deeply tormented protagonist driven to kill for her opportunity to be a mother. And of course, in “Shelter” and “Tumours and Butterflies,” you gave us heart-wrenching stories of domestic violence. Were there any that were closest to your truth?
CO: “Tumours and Butterflies” and “Shelter” are the most autobiographical stories in the collection. I grew up in a very turbulent, physical and verbal abuse-ridden home. But these stories are still fictional: it’s hard to paint the complete reality of any abusive situation within the parameters of a short story. Even if I tried, I’m sure readers would find the stories too sensationalistic or haunting or something to that effect.

“Story, Story!” is one of the very fictional stories. I know people who’ve gone to dibias for various reasons, but if I’ve ever met anyone who’s done what this character does, he or she has not yet confessed it to me. I think the truth of that story lies in the thematic elements more so than in the specific actions of the protagonist in the story.

NYDB: Has your parents or any family members read your stories? What did they say?
CO: My mother and siblings have read my stories. They liked them and understood them perhaps more profoundly than any other audience has.

NYDB: There are times when your narrators have no gender or even race.
CO: I think there are clues in each story to tell you of the gender and of the race. For example, the narrator in “On Ohaeto Street” mentions, at the end of the story, that Chinwe becomes his wife. The story is set in Nigeria, where the only form of marriage allowed is a heterosexual marriage. As for “Grace” there is a mention of eye color in the story, as well as other small hints that do give some clue into the general race of the narrator. But I do think that, in general, categories like gender and race are relied on for meaning far more heavily than they should be.

NYDB: You delved deep into the taboo issue of same-sex relationships in your collection, something that I truly admire and commend you for doing. Did you ever wonder how those stories—”America” and “Grace”—would be received by the Nigerian audience? I know that like my country, Jamaica, depending on where you are, there is a stigma attached to homosexuality. In fact, the president of Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2013 into law. Any thoughts?
CO: Similar bills banning gay marriage and stipulating punishment of 14 years have actually been circulating in Nigeria for some time now. Goodluck Jonathan simply brought the issue to the forefront by following through with the signing of it. Yes, Nigerians are very homophobic, but I think many are so simply out of fear of the unfamiliar. In my stories I attempt to open the discussion on the topic, so as to give a voice to all the Nigerians out there who have been forced to live in hiding. I did worry, after I had written the stories, about how they would be received in Nigeria. I’m not by nature a scandalous person, but I do believe that certain stories need to be told. Now when I look back on it, I’m glad that I wrote those stories, and I’m glad that I sent them off into the world, because, beyond being beautiful love stories, I do believe that they are also necessary stories of love.

NYDB: Religion and food are interspersed throughout the collection; but so are the very detailed descriptions of ailments and medical treatment, for example, the mother’s shoulder in “Run’s Girl,” the father’s radiation treatment in “Tumours and Butterflies.” In fact in “Wahala” there was the allusion to vulvodynia—a very sensitive and personal issue for some women, which causes them to experience painful intercourse. That was what I thought Ezinne was experiencing during intercourse with her husband, Chibuzo, who by the way was completely oblivious given his eagerness for her to conceive. (Am I correct?) How much of your work is research?
CO: I did have to research certain aspects of these ailments, but I also had access to people who had suffered some of the ailments. The story that took the most research for me was the story America. The oil wars in Nigeria are a very complex issue, and I felt I had to understand the issue relatively well in order to be able to write that story.

NYDB: I was first introduced to your writing through the story, “America.” I believe it was in Granta. It’s a story that really resonated with me not only because it dealt with immigration and a love relationship between two women, but because of that familiar uncertainty we face of whether to leave or stay in the country that nurtured us. Surely it is hard for every immigrant to leave, and for the narrator it seemed to make perfect sense given her sexual orientation and the dangers of being found out. However, I found myself just as hesitant as your character. Being here in America and knowing what the narrator would later find out reminds me of something my wife often says when deciding between two things—“The Devil you know versus the Devil you don’t.” Would you consider this story as a form of activism for countries like ours to do more for the retention of their talented—perhaps first letting go of those antiquated structures that cripple growth and even ostracize us?
CO: Exactly that. I think our priorities as a nation are very misplaced. Passing an anti-gay bill seems to me very irrelevant where matters of national development are concerned. Of all the problems Nigeria has, Goodluck Jonathan, interestingly, picked a non-problem to focus on.

NYDB: On the other hand, there’s the story, “Designs,” which captivated me too. A story that made me think of allegiance—and to whom or what it is given. Again, that emotional tug of war between here and there. In the narrator’s case, the choice between two women, one representing Nigeria and the other representing America. To me, it’s a story of seduction. The inevitability of becoming attached to a new way of life in a new place while “home” becomes somewhat foreign though it holds a special place in our hearts. Do you really think we can’t have our cake and eat it too?
CO: I think it’s rare that we have our cake and eat it too. I imagine it could happen, and that it does, but more than anything it seems to me that maybe what we wind up with is the illusion of having our cake and eating it too.

NYDB: I fell in love with your work the way I fell in love with Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and Junot Diaz’s Drown—all of which depicted the immigrant experience with brutal honesty and the depth of longing for a place. Also, just the grace and compassion in which you write each character is reminiscent of those great writers. Who are the authors that you’re most inspired by?
CO: Actually, I’m inspired by all the authors you mention. I am also very much inspired by Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Kate O’Brien, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colm Toibin, Ha Jin, among many others.

NYDB: What is your writing process like? You mentioned that you’re working on a second book. How do you balance teaching with writing?
CO: My writing process has changed tremendously. I used to have a sort of process. Now I simply write whenever I can. Gone are the days of schedules. Teaching comes with many responsibilities. It’s tough to balance the two, but somehow it all works out.

NYDB: Do other art forms inspire you as a writer?
CO: Music fuels my nostalgia for Nigeria, and for the continent as a whole. The music I love includes “Asa Mpete Special” by the Nkengas, “Vulindlela” by Brenda Fassi, “Ekwe” by Onyeka Onwenu, “Mma Anyi Egbuna Anyi” by Celestine Ukwu, and of course, everything Miriam Makeba.

I was recently introduced to the television show Jacob’s Cross. I think it’s a really great show. As far as the visual arts are concerned, I was also recently introduced to the works of Njideka Akunyili. I think she’s a wonderful artist.

NYDB: I’m a fan of Njideka’s work too. She went to school with my wife.
CO: Really? Small world!

NYDB: I know that you’re working on a novel, which do you find to be the most challenging, a short story collection or novel?
CO: The short stories came easily to me. There was an urgency to them, as if I needed to get them out in order to breathe. The novel has been much more challenging. There’s an urgency to it too, but it’s a longer piece of work. I used to be a sprinter, not a long-distance runner. Maybe that has something to do with it.

NYDB: With all the accolades you’ve received, do you feel any pressure with the second book?
CO: I don’t really feel outside pressure with the second book. I will write the best book I can. If it turns out to be just an average book, at least I will know I tried my best. If it fails in the eyes of the world, it will still be special to me.

NYDB: One last thing about Happiness…my favorite line in the book is “Happiness is like water…we’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.” A powerful statement in what happens to be my favorite story, “Grace.” I found this true for all your characters—that quest for happiness either by fulfilling dreams of upholding tradition, migrating for a better life, seeking love, or finding it within themselves. You held nothing back. And you promised no mercy or happy endings. I’m curious to know if there would be any sequels to any of them.
CO: First of all, many thanks for taking the time to interview me. You asked some really great questions. I don’t think I’ll be writing sequels to any of the stories, but I do think I’ll be addressing some familiar themes in my novel.

NYDB: Is your second book based in Nigeria?
CO: Yes. Very much so!

NYDB: Alright, I’ll surely look forward!