Interview: Chinelo Okparanta
Chinelo Okparanta was announced yesterday as the latest New Voice in our series, with her story ‘Runs Girl’. Granta's Yuka Igarashi asked her about the writers who have inspired her, the current crisis in Nigeria and what it means to be published in Granta 118: Exit Strategies. You can also hear Chinelo read and discuss her work this evening in Chicago.
YI: In ‘Runs Girl’, Ada has to make a terrible choice in order to help her ill mother. What led you to write this story?
CO: I had just returned from a visit to Nigeria, and my mother was suddenly suffering an illness similar to that of Ada’s mother. The doctors could not diagnose the illness. They brainstormed and conducted tests and stumbled over their hypotheses. I sat in the hospital room and found myself imagining what the situation would be like if it were all taking place in Port Harcourt, in the hospital there, with its unreliable electricity and hardly functioning machines. And what if my mother did not have the luxury of money? What if she did not have the luxury of better care? To what lengths would I go to help her? And so I wrote the story. It came out quickly once I sat down to write it.
The story ends with Ada hoping for forgiveness, but it seems to me that Ada is not to blame for what happens to her. Are the readers meant to differ from Ada’s opinion of herself at the end of the story?
I know people who will call Ada’s principles into question, who will exclaim, ‘She only had to put her faith in God!’ I know people who will view the situation exactly the way Ada’s mother viewed it, which is, ‘Why bring shame upon yourself? Why bring shame upon the family? Why bring shame upon me?’ I’m glad you see Ada as blameless. If she could only see it that way – if she could believe that of herself – she’d have a much easier life ahead of her.
‘Runs Girl’ sheds light on great disparities that exist in Port Harcourt – Ada’s family’s poverty is set against the wealth of oil men; her mother’s superstitions and religious piety contrast with the culture of ‘Yahoo boys’ and runs girls. Does this theme run through your writing?
Religion often makes its way into my writing. The oil men and Yahoo boys, not so much. Perhaps they are there more often than I think, but if so, they are certainly not as salient as in ‘America’ and ‘Runs Girl’.
Both ‘Runs Girl’ and ‘America’ – which appears in our Exit Strategies issue – touch on the country’s energy crises: the frequent oil spills that destroy the country’s ecosystem, the electricity outages. I wondered if you had any opinion about the recent protests over government fuel subsidies.
Well, I should first say that I was not there to see the protests for myself. I heard about them from cousins and aunts, and from my mother. This is the way I hear about most things in Nigeria these days – about the oil wars, the Boko Haram bombings and now the subsidy crisis.
As far as the subsidy goes, I’ve asked myself where exactly the money for it was coming from in the first place, and where exactly it was going. I’ve followed the event on the news with the intention of discovering these answers. But the answers – those given by Nigerian government officials – have been shady at best. Finance Minister These days, I’m more interested in the ways in which we sabotage ourselves. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala tells us that the subsidy money will be redirected to national programmes that will benefit the people. She mentions job creation, discusses the government’s intention to launch youth employment programs, their intention to put the youth to work. She lists services for maternal health, to combat child mortality, to combat women dying in childbirth. At first, it all sounds fine, but soon it begins to sound a little too theoretical, a little like a half-baked subsidy-removal defence. Essentially, what I worry is that if asked to produce the real details of the plan she will be unable. I suppose time will tell. I want to tell her that job creation programmes serve no purpose if the people cannot afford the transportation to get to the jobs. I also want to tell her that all the maternal health programmes in the world will be useless if the women cannot afford the transportation to get to them.
‘America’ is about a woman struggling with her decision to move from Nigeria to America. Her conflict is beautifully depicted: you see her caught between loyalty to her family and her own desires for the future. Was her story informed at all by your own move from Port Harcourt to the US?
I came when I was ten and a half years old. My father is an engineer. He came to pursue a graduate degree at Boston University and I came with him. So the story is purely fictional as far as the relocation goes, but it is true that Nnenna’s story was informed by other aspects of my life. Certainly this is true where family loyalty versus my own desires and hopes for the future are concerned.
Nnenna and Gloria’s relationship in ‘America’ is illegal and dangerous — same-sex couples are still outlawed in Nigeria — but I was really interested in Nnenna’s parents’ reaction to it. They’re not outraged or ashamed and they’re not in denial; instead they just seem disappointed about her not having children, sorry that she can’t be open about her love life. Were you conscious of writing a different kind of ‘coming out’ scene than is expected, at least in the West?
Back in 2007, there was a sort of poll taken to determine Nigerians’ attitudes towards homosexuality. I remember that the results showed that ninety-seven per cent of the population thought that homosexuality was wrong. Just last year, a law was passed making same-sex marriage a crime punishable by ten years in prison. The Muslims stone people caught in homosexual acts, at least that is their law. So, it seems that while Muslims and Christians in Nigeria are notorious for how well they fail to get along, this is one subject about which they appear to see eye-to-eye. I wanted to be sure to approach their resistance to Nnenna’s homosexuality from a practical perspective – one of fear, rather than one of hate. I think it’s unfortunate that both groups should agree where it concerns discriminating against and even punishing a certain faction of our society. It seems that sometimes we are far too willing to condemn, and then to make rules and regulations to enforce and reinforce our irrational condemnation. It truly is unfortunate.
In any case, in writing this story, I wanted to protect my characters a little from this mentality of condemnation. I wanted to make sure that none of them unwittingly reinforced an attitude of non-acceptance, or even hate. I wanted to be sure to approach their resistance to Nnenna’s homosexuality from a practical perspective – one of fear, rather than one of hate. And, I know that there is a small portion of the population that would see things the way her parents do, but they are perhaps trapped by fear, afraid to admit their acceptance in the polls. I wanted to show this fear in the story. Fear, rather than hate.
Can you say a little bit about how you came to write fiction? Is there a particular writer or book that has inspired you?
I took one or two writing classes as an undergraduate at Penn State, and I knew then that I enjoyed writing. But it wasn’t until graduate school at Rutgers that I gave myself permission to think seriously about writing fiction. And I began to, but always in conjunction with my career as a teacher: I knew what everyone said, you know, the whole idea of a starving artist. I didn’t want to starve.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was very inspirational to me as a child. In a scary way. Indeed things do fall apart, and I find that I continue to obsess over the different ways in which they do. These days I’m not so concerned with the ways in which we’ve been sabotaged. These days, I’m more interested in the ways in which we sabotage ourselves.
Are you working on anything now? What is your writing process like?
I am working on a novel. I’m not very good at writing novels yet, so I spend most of my time just thinking about this novel. I spend most of my time just thinking in general. Anyway, one day I will write down all my thoughts for this novel. Not all in a day, of course. And when I do, I hope it comes out well. ■
10 February, 7.30 p.m., Women & Children First, 5233 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640
Granta’s New Voice Chinelo Okparanta joins local Granta author Nami Mun for readings and discussion of their work.