The Nigerian-American Writer Who Takes on Taboos
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Chinelo Okparanta is as interesting as the novels she writes.
When Chinelo Okparanta speaks, she looks straight at you and fixes you with big, mesmerizing brown eyes. The Nigerian-American is soft-spoken and measured until you get to something that excites her, such as the news of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize win, and then her words fly and her hands begin to dance. “Okparanta has a very soft voice,” says MacArthur Fellow and writer Edwidge Danticat, “but on the page her voice feels really urgent, pressing and layered, and loud when it needs to be.”
This year, the 36-year-old Okparanta was named one of Granta’s “best of young American novelists.” Her debut short-story collection, Happiness, Like Water, featuring Nigerians at home and abroad, was selected as an editors’ choice by The New York Times Book Review, long-listed for the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and named a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award and the Etisalat Prize for Literature.
Her art is always what art should be, which is truth and beauty rather than propaganda or rhetoric.
Paul Harding, novelist
Okparanta’s second book, Under the Udala Trees, also received numerous accolades and awards, including being short-listed for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award. Described as “an African bildungsroman” by award-winning novelist Helon Habila, this coming-of-age story set during the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70) is a girl-meets-girl love story that leads to all wahala (trouble) breaking loose in the community. At the time, same-sex love was viewed as a moral abomination; in 2014, same-sex relations in Nigeria were made illegal.
When asked about the reception of her novel in Nigeria, Okparanta says it’s been mixed. At the 2016 Ake Arts and Book Festival, boos as well as cheers greeted one audience member who told Okparanta that “the natural order of life is against LGBT because the Bible said he [God] made male and female.” Okparanta, a self-identified Christian and a student of the Bible, not only questions some of the literal interpretations of the Bible but also refutes those who accuse her of being “brainwashed by the West.”
“Before the West decided that homosexuality was a sin,” says Okparanta, “I don’t think anyone in Africa, based on my research, thought it was a sin. Our own cultures were not against women-to-women marriages. My own grandmother was married to another woman.” Okparanta sees her writing as a way of “opening up conversations,” which is not to deny that just having those conversations can be difficult. She describes a 2016 radio interview in Lagos, where, “at the last minute, the radio host said, ‘Sorry, we can’t talk about your book because if we talk about it, we’ll be fined.’”
At the age of 10, Okparanta left Nigeria with her family and moved to America, where she recalls library visits for books as varied as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the Sweet Valley High series. It was in America, at age 11, that she won her first writing prize for an essay on domestic violence. “I grew up in a house where there was domestic violence,” she says. “And my research was interesting, now that I think about it. We had encyclopedias and such, but I also read Jehovah’s Witness publications.… As a child, when there’s a situation of violence, you don’t always understand it or have the vocabulary to name what’s going on, but by finding literature pertaining to that subject that matters to you, [you] might be able to find the correct term to name what’s going on.”
The vividness with which Okparanta evokes her childhood and domestic settings is a hallmark of her fiction. “She has a gift to evoke backdrop,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Peter Balakian. “She’s able to infuse a setting and scene and dialogue with more than what appears.” And like the work of Okparanta’s former teacher, Marilynne Robinson, it is women and children that stand at the center of her writing.
Back at the 2016 Ake Arts and Book Festival, another audience member noted that Okparanta’s readers had a tendency to “dwell more on thematics than the writing itself.” For some writers, the thematics, or politics, of their work trumps craft, but not so for Okparanta. “Her art is always what art should be, which is truth and beauty rather than propaganda or rhetoric,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Paul Harding. “There’s a lucidity to it, an aesthetic truth to it that’s just astonishing.”
Okparanta is one of several Nigerian writers being hailed as “a new wave” — a label that does not come without its complications. Okparanta cites the example of an agent who, upon hearing that Under the Udala Trees takes place during Nigeria’s civil war, also known as the Biafran War, suggested: “Why don’t you write something else? Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie] has already done it.” “I thought to myself,” says Okparanta, “‘So there’s a quota on how many people can write about Biafra? That doesn’t make any sense.’” Indeed, especially when fellow Nigerian writer Adichie has spoken passionately about “the danger of a single story.”
So what’s next for Okparanta? She’s working on two books but is reticent to divulge details. When I press, she concedes, “OK, I’ll say that in general when I write, I write because I have concerns, and I’m writing somehow to sort of process the concerns or find a solution.”
“And your current concerns?” I ask, still trying.
Her reply: “The world is my concern.”