Cathartic Release, an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta

 

Chinelo Okparanta is a young, American-Nigerian writer whose brutally tender exploration of Nigerian life continues to thrill. This year, she is on the shortlist of the Caine Prize for African Writing, for her story “America.” Her work has been published in Granta, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Conjunctions, Subtropics, The Coffin Factory and other literary magazines and journals. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Okparanta also served as 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. Her first collection of short stories, Happiness, Like Water, is out now, published by Granta Books in the UK. Happiness, Like Water will be out in the US, in August, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The collection will be followed shortly by her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees.

Saraba: You write a lot about Nigeria. This is interesting, considering you left when you were 10 and your formative years were spent in the US. Can you talk a little about how Nigerian culture influences your writing?

Chinelo Okparanta: I grew up in Nigeria until the age of ten which, depending on the child, is old enough to have reasonable knowledge of the country’s culture, also old enough to have formed real memories of the place.

But of course, sometimes memory is not enough and so I should point out, too, that I go back home as often as possible. During these visits, I make it a point to stay for extended periods of time, traveling between relatives’ homes in Port Harcourt and Lagos. Two of my stories, “Runs Girl” and “America,” are very fictional but they are also loosely based on incidents that happened in my family while I was back in Port Harcourt. Those incidents were burdensome enough to me that I found myself writing about them. Writing is the way that I process issues, the way that I make sense of things that I feel powerless to change. There is something purgative about the act for me. There is also something hopeful about it. It is, after all, very empowering to be able to air one’s concerns. Mere vocalization is quite often the catalyst for change.

Inevitably, some people will ask, “Why air the unflattering aspects of your country to the world? Why not focus your stories on the positive aspects of the country?” My response will be that in some ways I write about what is positive. I write about brave and ambitious men and women. I write about intelligent people. I write about kindness, about love. I write about people who, like me, are trying their best to make sense of their lives within the societies in which they find themselves. I do not write with the intention of denigrating any particular place. My writing stems from a personal place—quite often a place of pain. And, just as I write about painful aspects of life in America, I also write about painful aspects of life in Nigeria. It is important to keep in mind that sometimes we write the most critically about those things that matter most to us.

Saraba: Have you always used writing as a way to process issues?

CO: Yes, I have. Writing is therapeutic for me, even when it does not lead to a clear answer. I think this is the case for many people and is perhaps the reason why people keep diaries (or these days, blogs). I grew up in a very volatile environment and as a small girl, writing was the safer, more secure way to express my thoughts and to examine the issues around me.

Saraba: Often in your stories, there is a theme of trying, failing to meet parental expectations e.g. Nnenna in “America.” Is this intentional?

CO: No, it is not intentional. “Runs Girl” is also another story where this theme comes up and in a more poignant way. And, it was not intentional there either.

I think many children are naturally preoccupied with trying, failing to meet the expectations of their parents. This preoccupation does not necessarily go away as one ages. Those of us who come from cultures where we are taught to value and respect the opinions of our elders are especially susceptible, and I am from such a culture.

Saraba: Would you say some of your work is autobiographical? Did you feel any trepidation about fictionalizing events that might have also happened in your own life?

CO: I have some stories that were inspired by true-to-life events. But of course, these stories grew to be something more than (and altogether different from) real life. In the end, there might be bits and pieces of reality in my stories, but never enough for the fictionality of any given story to be called into question. I will admit that my most autobiographical stories are those dealing with paternal abuse. I don’t feel any trepidation about fictionalizing events related to these paternal abuse stories, as I feel that victims of domestic violence deserve to have their voices heard. There is something salubrious for me in writing these stories, something empowering. It is like a purging—a deeply felt cathartic release.

Saraba: In “Fairness,” “Story, Story” and “Ohaeto Street” you explore the pressures on women in Nigerian society in terms of their being capable of bearing children as highly educated members of society while maintaining certain standards of beauty. Can you talk a little about your interest in this area?

CO: I’m a woman, and I come from a very traditional family where men and women are expected to fulfill certain roles. This is not unlike many other cultures out there. And, many stories have been written on the topic, but that’s what literature does. It tells us the stories of our times. So long as these things continue to happen, people will continue to write about them.

Saraba: Did you ever have any self doubt where your writing was concerned? Has the publishing process and becoming published helped to assuage any doubts you might have had?

CO: I have experienced self doubt, yes. I experienced it quite a bit when I was admitted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It seemed to me that everyone else knew what they were doing. If they didn’t, they certainly carried themselves and spoke as if they did. I remember thinking that it must have been an accident for me to be admitted into the program. But, I was bent on making the best of the accident. I read carefully those students’ works that I felt were the strongest. I did my best to analyze those stories, to explain to myself what it was that made them so strong. I read the works of published authors as well and analyzed them the same way. I still experience self doubt, to the extent that I’m very much afraid to read my stories after they have been published. When I do, I find myself cringing and wishing desperately that I had one more opportunity to fix the story.

Saraba: Any stories in particular you would like the opportunity to fix?

CO: At this particular moment, it seems to me that I could have stood to make “America” a bit sharper, on the sentence level at least. As far as the general plot line goes, I’m satisfied.

Saraba: You studied at the University of Pennsylvania before going on to do an MA and an MFA. When did you begin to identify as a writer?

CO: I studied Secondary Education in English/Communication and French at Penn State University. I took some undergraduate creative writing courses as part of the English curriculum there, but I did not seriously pursue writing at that time. When I graduated, I worked as a secondary school English teacher and later as a French teacher. During my MA at Rutgers, I took some more creative writing courses, and I think it was then that I realized that writing was a thing I’d like to seriously pursue.

Saraba: African writers who have lived abroad or studied abroad often have work that deals, consciously or unconsciously, with the subject of race. Was adjusting to life in the USA quite straightforward for you? Do you think you will write a story with race as a central theme?

CO: Adjusting to life in the United States was difficult as far as race goes. We were beaten on the school bus, by white and black American children alike, called names like “African Monkey,” asked questions like, “Did you live on a tree?” But life at home was difficult too. My father was very volatile—physically and emotionally abusive—and so the lives of my mother and siblings became centered on being as inconspicuous as possible, so as not to attract unwanted attention. We were always afraid. We spoke in hushed tones. We learned to take things one day at a time.

A long time ago—a few years ago now—I did write a short story with race as its central theme. It turned out to be not a very good story. I’m not sure what I ended up doing with it. I’m not sure if I will write another story with race as its central theme. It depends on where my mind takes me.

Saraba: What books did you read when you were a child? Were there any authors in particular that helped you through the more difficult times?

CO: Back in Nigeria, my mother mostly told us traditional, oral folktales, but every once in a while she also read to us from books like Tales By Moonlight (West African Folktales). There was also Cyprian Ekwensi’s Drummer Boy and Arabic children’s stories in translation, like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” Other books included The Velveteen Rabbit, The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk and, of course, typical fairy tales like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel.

In the United States, I remember a book called Bread and Butter Journey from when we lived in Boston, Massachusetts, which was our first stop in the United States. I also read school books such as Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Outsiders, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Bridge to Terabithia, The Little Prince, etc. And of course, for fun we read Babysitter’s Club books, Nancy Drew books, as well as Sweet Valley High books. All of these were during our elementary and middle school school days.

The traditional folktales helped me to develop the most, as far as values and morals were concerned. They always came with lessons. Many of them came with songs too, and in times of hardship, I would sometimes find myself humming the tune of some of the songs, as my mother also did. Books like The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Prince also played important roles in my life.

Saraba: You have a knack for setting up your stories in a particular way so that the reader expects a certain conclusion. However, the end turns out to be shocking and in some cases quite disturbing, like in “Fairness.” Is there a process to how you construct your stories?

CO: I don’t have a process. A story comes to me and I do my best to get it down in writing the way it appears in my head. To me, the endings come rather naturally to the story.

Saraba: Writing is often said to be a lonely process. Do you experience isolation while writing? Is this a positive or negative experience for you?

CO: I have grown very much accustomed to solitude. I even find that I prefer it. Social situations tend to cause me a great deal of anxiety. When I write, I don’t feel lonely at all.

Saraba: Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison have talked about writing characters so that readers are “not assuming from the outset that, unless they’re told otherwise, everyone’s white.”It seems you employ a similar device with the stories in Happiness, Like Water. Was it your intention to challenge the reader in this way?

CO: No, I did not intentionally set out to challenge readers in that way. But, it is true that my characters are written in such a way that it would be injudicious of readers to assume that they are white. Just as Toni Morrison wrote for black readers, I write with Nigerian readers in mind. In fact, most of my characters are Nigerian, but of course I do not go about harping on their “Nigerian-ness” unless it specifically ties into the plot-line and intrigue of the story. It does not seem to me that white writers ever feel an obligation to assert the whiteness of their characters. Likewise, I don’t feel that black writers (or writers of any other color) should be obligated to assert the color of their characters. Which is all to say that what ultimately holds my interest in storytelling is the story itself and not necessarily the color of the characters.

Saraba: How did you feel when you heard “America” had been nominated for the Caine Prize?

CO: I was happy and grateful, but there was a sense of vulnerability too.

Saraba: In what way did you feel vulnerable?

CO: Writing, for me, is primarily a private act, the way one keeps a diary or a journal, that sort of thing. There is an element of distress in the realization that something so private has become a feast for public eyes.

Saraba: Would you be able to tell us a little about your upcoming novel, Under the Udala Trees?

CO: Many things might change by the time it’s finally published, so I should probably wait to respond. But, what I will say is that there are certain topics—certain injustices—which, so long as they continue to exist, will continue to be written about. In my opinion, there is generally no malice intended by writers. But storytellers are, in a broad sense, the recorders of our histories. It is their job to write about both the flattering and unflattering aspects of our lives. They are like our mirrors. They provide us with the opportunity to “see” ourselves and to reflect on who we are.

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