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‘I’m stubborn; I was destined to be a writer’ – award-winning Nigerian author Chinelo Okparanta chats about her writing

Chinelo OkparantaHappiness, Like WaterUnder the Udala TreesNigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta is currently in Cape Town for the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

Okparanta is the author of two books: a collection of short stories called Happiness, Like Water, and a novel, Under the Udala Trees, released this year.

Okparanta was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, and Happiness, Like Water was shortlisted for the the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award. She is the winner of an O Henry Prize, was one of Granta’s New Voices for 2012, and was featured on the Guardian’s list of the best African fiction of 2013.

None other than Zakes Mda says: “Under the Udala Trees bowled me over.

Okparanta was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and lives in New York. Books LIVE’s Jennifer Malec caught up with her recently ahead of her trip to South Africa.

You can read Malec’s review of the book in full here, and the complete interview in full here:

Books LIVE: First, thank you for an extremely complex novel. It seems to me that, considering the subject matter you deal with, it would have been easier to write black and white, morally unambiguous characters. But this is not the case, and even characters such as Chibundu and Ijeoma’s mother are not “bad” people; it could be argued they suffer as much from the disjunct between society’s expectations and their own actions as Ijeoma does. Did you actively work on creating sympathetic antagonists?

Chinelo Okparanta: First, thank you for reading and engaging so deeply with my work.

To answer your question, it seems to me that the best books are often those in which the dignity of the characters are upheld. Also, those in which the characters are nuanced. I tried to keep this in mind while writing Under the Udala Trees. Chibundu, as you mention, is as much to be pitied as he is to be rebuked. We would have a hard time completely condemning him. He is a hopeful man – simply wants what he wants. Unfortunately, that hopefulness is both his strength and his weakness. How does one balance out hope with unrequited love? Chibundu certainly tries.

I admire the way that the same-sex relationships in the novel are not foregrounded; they are part of a more complex matrix of stories. How far along the publication process were you when same-sex relationships were criminalised in Nigeria in January 2014? Did you alter the book in any way, plot-wise or writing-wise, after that development?

The novel is ultimately just a story about people struggling to live out their lives the best way possible, even in the face of societal pressures, discrimination and in some cases, outright abuse. I completed the novel a month or two before Goodluck Jonathan signed the bill criminalising same-sex relations. With or without the bill, Nigeria is a very homophobic country. With or without the bill, I would have (and had indeed) already written the novel. But I thought it was important to add the author’s note regarding the signing of the bill in order to help readers – especially those who are not familiar with Nigeria – to contextualise the story. Ultimately, though, the novel is a story of individuals living in Nigeria, under a particular system of things. It is only about the bill insofar as the bill affects the day-to-day lives of the nation’s citizens.

Storytelling plays an important role in the book. Did traditional Nigerian folktales and proverbs play an important role in your life growing up?

Yes, definitely. My mother gathered me and my siblings around her, in the evenings when NEPA (the National Electric and Power Authority) took light, and she told us folktales. Sometimes there was singing and clapping involved. Dinner first, then folktales, then off to bed. This was what we did in place of watching television. Her tales were always peppered with proverbs. Nigerians often speak in proverbs. Sometimes, she read to us from books instead.

You moved to the States as a child, but your writing doesn’t betray that distance. Did your family continue to surround you with Nigerian tradition and language after the move? Do you often spend time in Nigeria?

I moved to the US as a child, but I’m lucky to have a family that upholds traditions (but also one that allows room for change). Sometimes I don’t feel that I ever left Nigeria. And sometimes I do. After the move, we continued to speak Igbo at home, we continued to eat fufu and soup, beans and yam, etc. We continued to sing and dance to Nigerian music, etc. These days I go home as often as I can. In the past year or so, I’ve been back to Nigeria at least three times.

Do you think you would have written the same book if you had stayed in Nigeria? Or how do you think it may have differed?

Would I have written the same book? I don’t know. The “correct” response would be to say, “Probably not.” But who knows. My mother says I began reading and writing at age two. She also says I’m stubborn. Perhaps I began reading and writing so early because I was destined to be a writer, and perhaps given my stubbornness, it’s likely that I would have been stubborn in the issues I chose to write about, regardless of the sociocultural context. Or maybe I’d be married with five kids and no time to write, if I had stayed. It’s hard to know.

This is your first full-length novel. How long did you work on the manuscript for – is this specific book years in the making or are you working on a number of longer projects simultaneously? If the latter, why did you decide to complete this one first?

I began working on the novel at the same time that I was working on my collection of short stories, Happiness, Like Water. The collection was completed first, and during its pre-publication and post-publication period, I had to take time off from working on the novel to focus on the collection’s edits, and then later, on promoting the collection. I went back to the novel in mid 2013 and finished it very early in 2014, maybe a little earlier, I can’t quite remember now. Anyway, the point is that there’s no rationale behind what book came out first, just that it was ready when it was ready.

Was the Biafran War something your parents and grandparents spoke freely about? If not, was it difficult for you to broach the subject, or did you learn more about it from other resources?

My mother spoke freely of it. She lost her father in the war, so my siblings and I grew up always knowing that story. It was a devastating time for her family, and of course, there are always lingering effects to having lived out a war.

But I also had to do my research for the novel. I conducted some interviews, read old newspapers, watched the BBC documentaries on the war, studied old photographs, that sort of thing. One photo was of a man carrying a casket on the back of his bicycle. Only, the casket was too small and the feet of the deceased stuck out from the bottom of the wooden box. When I did my research, there were so many photos of kwashiorkor children, distended bellies and all, photos of the dead and the decapitated, photos of soldiers who are now long gone. But for whatever reason it is the photo of the casket on the bicycle that particularly sticks to me.

Some descriptions in the book are quite poetic. Do these images come to you as you are writing, or do you carry a notebook around to jot down moments of inspiration?

I don’t carry a notebook, but I do carry a smart phone with a “Notes” application. Images generally come to me as I’m writing, but if an idea comes to me when I am not writing, I try and make a mental note of it. If I don’t trust myself to remember, then I might jot myself a note on my phone.

A naming question, just out of interest: The names in the book are meaningful, and quite beautiful to my South African ears. I noticed that like your characters Chibundu and Chidinma, the names of you and your siblings – who you mention in the acknowledgements – also all start with “Chi”; what does that prefix mean?

The essential translation of “Chi” in English is “God.” But specifically it refers to the personal gods that we Igbos traditionally had. “Chukwu” was the supreme God, while each person had his/her own personal god(s). So, the name Chidinma means “God is good.” Chibundu means “God is life.”

It seems to me that Ijeoma does not reject tradition – both societal and biblical – rather she forges a path for herself and proves that you can discard some aspects of tradition without threatening the whole. Do you think such a stance could be a viable option for a Nigerian youth, today or in the future?

Yes, it’s definitely a viable stance. No doubt, tradition has its place. But it is also the nature of tradition to evolve.

Follow Jennifer Malec on Twitter @projectjennifer

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