Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta earned her B.Sc. from the Pennsylvania State University, her M.A. from Rutgers University, and her M.F.A from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was featured as one of GRANTA magazine’s six new voices for 2012, and in May 2013 her collection of short stories entitled Happiness, Like Water was published in the UK. Happiness, Like Water is forthcoming in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in August 2013. Okparanta has been nominated for a United States Artists Fellowship in Literature and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She currently teaches at Colgate University in the US, where she is Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction.
Emmanuel Sigauke Interviews Chinelo Okparanta
Chinelo Okparanta (CO): Thank you, Emmanuel. When I heard the news I was happy and grateful. But nervous too. We write with the hope that our stories will be read, and prior to the Caine shortlist, my story “America” was certainly read. But the Caine Prize nomination has meant that the story has become accessible to a much wider audience than previously anticipated, which in turn means greater responsibility on my part. Also, a greater sense of vulnerability.
ES: Port Harcourt features prominently as setting in your collection Happiness, Like Water. How has this place shaped your writing? As a writer, where are you most at home, United States or Nigeria?
CO: Nigeria is my place of birth, the place in which I learned personal and cultural values such as respect, dignity, honesty, integrity, altruism, patriotism, etc. The United States nurtured these values, but without Nigeria I might not have learned them at all. And so, even though I am no longer based there, it is Nigeria that I will always consider home. As for my sense of belonging, there is a wonderful quote by Marilynne Robinson from her book Housekeeping: “To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it . . . and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole.” Which is all to say that it is those times when I am away that I feel I belong in Nigeria the most. It is those times that I feel my strongest connection to the place.
ES: In a recent interview, you revealed that you didn’t have a hard time finding publishers because they came to you (at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and they fell in love with your work immediately. Since for most writers, finding agents or publishers is the hardest aspect of their career, what do you think contributed to the ease with which publishers found you? What is it about your writing that won the hearts of these first readers of your work?
CO: I should clarify that these agents did not come just to me. They came to all the students at the Workshop. I should also clarify that I had had a few agent rejections before this agent came along and signed me. I point out the latter because, even in cases where the process is rather smooth, there are still rejections to be endured. As for the editor, he was indeed the first editor I met with, and I was very lucky that he liked the stories (I’m not sure I would say that he fell in love with my work. That’s a bit strong. I would say he liked my work fine enough to publish it). As for why he chose to publish these stories, he has said that he was looking for a new voice, a new story that had not already been told, or at least not in this specific way.
ES: What’s your process? Are you, for instance, a heavy reviser? At what stage do you consider your story done?
CO: I don’t generally have a process. I write when I can. Mornings generally work best for me. As far as revisions go, many of my short stories come out fluidly where the plotline is concerned. Often these stories require editing, but generally they require little or no revision. Of course, there are exceptions. I don’t ever consider a story done. I’d still like to go back and tinker with the stories in HLW.
ES: What are your thoughts on the teaching of creative writing? Should every writer nowadays go through formal writing training? What is the role of writers’ fellowships and residencies?
CO: don’t believe formal training in an MFA program is necessary to become a writer. It helps in the sense that it provides you with a concrete time and space during which you might immerse yourself in your writing. This is also true of fellowships and residencies. But if one is determined to write, one certainly does not need any program, fellowship or residency. I would say the best way to become a good writer is to read widely and with awareness, and then follow up with writing widely, also with awareness.
ES: What do you think of the current debate on Chinua Achebe labeled the father of African literature?
CO: Africa is a huge continent comprised of many countries. It is like a large estate inhabited by both the nuclear and extended family members. In Africa, just as with the estate, there is room for more than one father. I don’t see any sense in all the bickering. Credit being given to one person does not have to discredit all the rest.
ES: What do you think of the supposed centrality of Nigeria to African literature? As a Nigerian writer shortlisted on the Caine with three other writers, do you think this is an example of such centrality?
CO: I think any country can be central of anything until it no longer is. Just look at the ancient empires. These things are not set in stone. Life is mutable, as are notions of centrality and centrality itself. But we would do well to celebrate and enjoy our successes while they are ours to be celebrated and enjoyed.
ES: What are your guiding principles on writing (and reading)?
CO: Read as widely as you can. Write as often as you can.
ES: What are you working currently? What would you rather be working on?
CO: I’m working on interviews and some personal essays for the purposes of publicizing Happiness, Like Water. I’d much rather be working on my novel.
ES: In “America”, your Caine Shortlisted story, Nnenna seems to have divided feelings about going to America, after working so hard to get her visa. What is this feeling? Did you imagine the same ambivalence as present in her relationship with Gloria? Or does being an immigrant always come with this deep sense of doubt?
CO: I can’t speak for other immigrants, and anyway, I believe that in general—immigrant or nonimmigrant—life is filled with difficult decisions. Doubt is perhaps essential in that it encourages us to examine the pros and the cons.
ES: You and three other writers from the United States are on tour in Uzbekistan. Can you tell a bit about this literary trip?
CO: I’m in Uzbekistan for an International Writing Program event in which we promote collaboration between US and Uzbekistan where translation of both literatures is concerned.
ES: That sounds like a great program. The world needs more like it.
CO: Yes, I agree.
ES: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do an interview, and good luck on the Caine front.
CO: Many thanks for the interview. I appreciate the support.