Female, Nigerian and haunted by Biafra – Is this seat taken?

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I consider telling Chinelo Okparanta that she writes like Chimamanda Adichie, but I refrain, a sixth sense perhaps warning me that this is sensitive territory. I compromise by asking if critics have compared her to any other writer. And it is this question, the last of the interview, that seems to wake her up (our Skype interview is taking place at 6am her time) and reveals the assertiveness that I’ve sensed lurking beneath her calm, soft-spoken persona. “I have been compared to Chimamanda,” she begins; “she’s female, she’s Igbo, she writes important topics. It has been flattering to be compared to her.”

But this association has borne mixed blessings for Chinelo who, like Chimamanda, has found the political history of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War to be the inspiration for a novel she is working on. In a refreshing burst of outrage – one gets the sense that Chinelo doesn’t often let emotions loose  – she explains why this similarity can also be frustrating. “People read your story and say Chimamanda has already written about it. Like when I did the theme of homosexuality in “America” (her story published in Granta Magazine in February 2012) someone pointed out that Chimamanda has done it.”

It is this determination to avoid a copycat label, she says, that has kept her from reading Half of a Yellow Sun, arguably one of the most important pieces of contemporary literature to have emerged from Nigeria. “The way I see it,” Chinelo concludes, “there can be more than one great Nigerian writer. It’s unfair that when you’re African and female they tend to lump you together. Why box us up? American authors can have multiples of themselves, and no one would say someone’s already done that. It’s not a good thing to be limited because there’s only room for one of your type.”

But the similarity with Adichie goes beyond style, or themes, or merely penning recollections of a stillborn nation. It is most apparent in their preoccupation with ‘home’. Like the exiled Okonkwo hankering after Umofia in Things Fall Apart – the one book that most inspired Chinelo as a child –  the national character and problems of Nigeria are never very far from the tips of these authors’ pens despite the fact that both have spent a significant portion of their lives beyond its shores.

Chinelo, who was born in Port Harcourt, admits to never feeling a sense of belonging in America, the country to which her family moved when she was aged ten, despite having lived there for the last two decades. This yearning for home is evident in her writing: “In my stories you’ll always be led back to Nigeria”. Particularly Port Harcourt, the city of her, perhaps romanticised, childhood memories.

Her first return, in her twenties, was the fulfillment of the wistful longing she had borne since she was a ten-year old skeptically beholding the new order of Boston. That excitement that would be expected of any other child had eluded her then, and has failed to materialise in the ensuing years. “I can vividly remember wanting so much to go back and wondering how far away from home we were, and that if I had to walk back, how long it would take me.”

But her eventual return was not devoid of a particular poignancy; with her American accent and her winter-tempered complexion, she stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. She explains this as the dilemma of the diasporan: “In a sense, it was exactly like I had expected, being in a place where you feel you belong. But of course I didn’t, because people immediately look at you and know that you’re not local; it’s sad to know that even where I should fit in, I don’t. Some of us walk around just never knowing where to belong.”

Again like Okonkwo’s Umuofia, overtaken by the albino men and their iron horses, Port Harcourt had transformed in Chinelo’s eyes, it’s population seeming to have increased exponentially. “The place I remember isn’t what’s there now. Memory has a way of idealising things.” And although she maintains a stoic upbeatness – “It is beautiful in a different way.” – her writing belies the claim that this long awaited homecoming was one of fulfilled expectations.

The frequent power cuts, the oil pollution, the public officials needing to be bribed, and the chaos and poverty of Nigeria bleed onto the pages of her stories, and have indeed provided for her their own unique inspirations. She has been particularly devoted to pointing out the subject of “NEPA taking the light away,” sinceaccompanyinga sick aunt to a hospital only for the facility to be plunged into darkness. “It’s not good that people can potentially die in hospitals where suddenly the equipment stop working. I am not interested in politics but I am political in the sense that I will always write about issues that concern me as my way of demonstrating my concerns.”

But it isn’t only the dysfunction that Chinelo manages to chronicle, the identity and values of Nigeria reflect widely. Copiusly employing unexpounded-on Nigerian terms, with some stories like “Runs Girl” and “Story Story” entitled in Pidgin English, Chinelo doesnt worry that this might throw of foreign readers unfamiliar with the local patois,  “Those who will get it will get it, those who want to get it will too. The world is a global village; there are opportunities  to  find things out.”

Some of Chinelo’s characters appear to mirror her personality – a hybrid of ingenious and ingenuous: In “Runs Girl”, a story that juxtaposes oil wealth with national poverty, and religious piety with the inbred superstition of Nigerians, Ada decides to try going out with a “mugu” when burdened with responsibility for a sick mother and dwindling resources. When her debut experience gets out of control, she returns home to her bedridden mother with a tear-streaked but heavily made up face, and with a purse bulging with petro-dollars – payment for the liaison with her client. When I point out that perhaps not many people would go home to their sick mothers in this manner, Chinelo says “She isn’t someone that is worldly wise; and if I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t have the clarity of mind not to do the same.” While Nnenna of “America”, Chinelo says, “knows, like I do, what it is to live with a sort of love that is forbidden, condemned.”

For this school teacher and writer with an MFA in Fiction, examining emotional truth – “not how we’ve been sabotaged, but how we sabotage ourselves” – is the most important consideration in writing. During our interview, she tells truths of her own: being a mother is her greatest ambition;  despite being a writer, she isn’t herself an avid reader; she has a lot of anxiety where public life and public speaking are concerned, and this is the worst thing about being a writer for her; she will always pursue writing in conjunction with teaching because she fears the stereotype of the “starving artist”; she struggles to dredge up a single happy memory of her childhood. And she goes on to describe herself as a solitary homebody whose only extravagance is a daily ice cream treat, and a Macbook that reads back her work in its “little robotic voice”.

Chinelo attributes her start in writing to growing up in Boston as an introverted child: “I was always shy growing up; I had difficulty expressing myself, it might have come naturally that I could express things in writing.” Her future in writing was effectively charted when, as a child, she won a prize for  an essay on abuse. “It seemed I could write so i continued that way,” she says. She, however, moved on to write fiction because it afforded her the opportunity to shrug off her own somewhat shuttered background and acquire other adventures.

Responding to the charge by some critics that modern African writers do not do justice to the continent by portraying Africa as being decades behind what it really is, Chinelo asserts that “Writing will do what writing will. The portrayal of Africa is not something I think authors need to be preoccupied with. It doesn’t mean that just because it doesn’t appear in writing, Africa is not modern.” To Chinelo, the greater crimes that authors commit are a lack of emotional truth and overly-decorative language.

With a short story collection and a novel set to be released soon, Chinelo’s greatest anxiety is the kind of reception she will receive from Nigeria when her books hit the shelves. “I keep being scared that my Nigerian readers won’t receive me well.”

I doubt that she need fear as since first getting published, a critic has praised her thus: “a perfect crafter of sentences. I could read her grocery list and still be satisfied”.In addition, Chinelo is mentored by none other than the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marilynne Robinson, though she still manages to exhibit the humility of an ingenue who has somehow crashed a writers’ membership club. With a two-book deal made with none other than international publisher, Granta Books, I have the feeling that Chinelo Okparanta is poised to take her place in the pantheon of Nigerian writers who’ve made their mark abroad – as well as at home.

First published in The Sun Nigeria, 9 June, 2012

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2 responses »

  1. So interesting! follow @africanstages on twitter — we are interested in what you are doing.

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