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An Interview with Chinelo Okparanta

17 Mar
Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water.

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, among others, and she was short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize in African Writing. She won the 2014 O. Henry Award and the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies by Bread Loaf, the Jentel Foundation, the Hermitage Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and Hedgebrook. She was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

To read an exercise on manipulating chronology in order to create character, click here.

In this interview, Okparanta discusses finding the emotional heart of a story, writing within an omnipresent past, and whether a writer’s present location affects her writing.

Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting sentence in its first chapter: “So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968.” It comes after a quick overview of the war and is accompanied by this sentence: “There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off.” And this: “If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.”

It seems that you’re directly addressing a problem that a lot of writers have with novel drafts: where to begin the story? Were these sentences the result of your own process of finding the story, or were they designed for readers, to help guide them from war in general to a particular story about particular individuals?

Chinelo Okparanta

I already knew where the story would begin, and those sentences were simply a natural aspect of the storytelling. Back in the day when my mother used to tell us folktales, sometimes she grounded the folktales in this sort of language, just a natural set up to the story, and perhaps also a signal for us children to know what we should be listening for (i.e. the emotional heart of the story). In the case of Under the Udala Trees, these sentences do signal to the readers where the emotional heart of the story lies.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about your sense of the novel’s audience and how it affects the story you tell. Obviously, the book was published in the United States, where you live, and in English. Some Igbo words and phrases appear, but they’re often translated, either directly, like this (Chineke bi n’eli! God in Heaven! How can this be?) or through context. How aware are you of audience, that it’s primarily American/Western? Can the novel be separated from this audience? In other words, how different would it be if you were writing for a Nigerian or Igbo audience?

Chinelo Okparanta

While writing the novel, I kept in mind various possible audiences, but my main audience was not American/Western. My main audience was my fellow Nigerians. In some ways it was just incidental that it got published in the West first. The truth is that current physical location is oftentimes irrelevant to the story that a writer tells. I have written about Nigeria from Nigeria. But I have also written about Nigeria from Greece, the Philippines, the USA, France, Italy, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. When I write many of my stories, regardless of where I am, my mind very often is back home in Nigeria.

Chinelo Okparanta's novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Which is all just to say that the book is exactly what it is—and exactly what it should be—for having been written primarily for a Nigerian audience. We Nigerians speak in a natural mélange/interspersing of our traditional languages and English. This is exactly what the book does. It’s important to keep in mind that Nigeria is a country in which hundreds of languages are spoken. The purpose of the book is to open conversation amongst all ethnic groups within the country, so it would have made no sense for me to write the entire thing in Igbo, with no context clues at all, thereby alienating quite a large segment of the nation’s population. There are also Hausa words in the book, and of course, there is Pidgin. But English is Nigeria’s lingua Franca. As such, it also the novel’s lingua Franca, and the language that best serves the purpose of the book: unity, rather than division.

By extension, because the purpose of the book is to be accessible to all of Nigeria, it also winds up being accessible to Western audiences, and hopefully to audiences all over the world. Sure, I wanted to write a book that invited Nigerians to have this LGBTQ conversation amongst themselves. But of course, it’s a good thing that the book is accessible to non-Nigerians. It’s always a good thing when literature speaks to universal human experiences, but it is an even better thing when the language of the literature facilitates a reader’s engagement with those human experiences.

Michael Noll

The chapters in the novel are fairly short, often a few pages long. It seems that some revolve around particular scenes, but there are many that move through time or move beyond scenes in various ways. What was your approach to chapter structure?

Chinelo Okparanta

I was going through a phase where I enjoyed reading books with shorter and more straightforward chapters. I decided to write the kind of book I enjoyed reading. Maybe for my next project I’ll be enjoying a different kind of book–the kinds with long, sprawling chapters, or those with no chapters at all. If that winds up being the case, I might also write that sort of book.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with the Biafran War, which ended 45 years ago, but now there are new protests in the region, to the point that, at least in the news outlets that I read and listen to, there’s some concern that they might lead to another civil war. Is this something that you thought about as you wrote the novel? Does the past of the novel seem truly past to you? Or were you trying to capture tensions that remain?

Chinelo Okparanta

Look at the United States and its history of slavery. That history haunts all Americans even today–at least, it haunts any socially aware American with an active conscience. Recently in the US, racial tensions have triggered worries of civil unrest. The past always leaves its stamp and oftentimes the stamp is waterproof. Maybe it fades a bit, but it is still there. So, yes, our past is the past, but it is also the present, and it will likely affect the decisions we make for the future. Which is why I’m always thinking about the nation and ways in which to flip our history of colonialism, and ways in which to better deal with the division caused by the British geo-political division of the country. We don’t have to be beholden to the past. We don’t forget—and perhaps we should not forget—but we certainly owe it to ourselves to rise above it. It seems to me that all of us have the power to flip unfortunate aspects of our pasts and use them positively, constructively, to make ourselves stronger. It’s just a matter of how. A united body people who are sincerely in it for the common good. Good leadership. A well thought out and thoroughly outlined plan. Expert organizational skills. These are some of what all healthy nations need.

March 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

15 Mar
Chinelo Okparanta's novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

Then novel is set in Nigeria during its civil war in the late 1960s. It begins with a Star Wars-like summary:

But in 1967, the war barged in and installed itself all over the place. By 1968, the whole of Ojoto had begun pulsing with the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.

By 1968, our men had begun slinging guns across their shoulders and carrying axes and machetes, blades glistening in the sun; and out on the streets, every hour or two in the afternoons and evenings, their chanting could be heard, loud voices pouring out like libations from their mouths: “Biafra, win the war!”

It was that same year, 1968 — the second year of the war — that Mama sent me off.

If this was Star Wars, the story would proceed from that moment—the narrator’s mother sending her away. The novel would zoom in on the narrator leaving her home, and a scene would begin. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the novel reverses its chronology:

There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker.

Then, the passage reverses what it’s just done:

Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.

Finally, we learn why this zig-zag in chronology matters:

If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.

At this point, the novel really begins—but it does so before the mother sends the narrator away:

So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968. Ubosi chi ji ehihe jie: the day night fell in the afternoon, as the saying goes. Or as Mama sometimes puts it, the day that night overtook day: the day that Papa took his leave from us.

The novel eventually returns to the moment when the narrator’s mother sends her away, but it takes about 40 pages. So what does this brief reversal of chronology achieve?

There are probably two answers. First, it lets the novel convey some essential information (when, where, what). That information is interesting (war stories have and always will hold our attention), but it’s also general, and as a result it could be a difficult place to begin building an idiosyncratic character. Writing about wars and other societal conflicts can be a bit like wheeling a sofa sleeper down a set of stairs with a hand truck—there’s considerable risk of getting rolled over and flattened. So, rather than beginning the novel with a character who is a kind of refugee (a status that can have a flattening effect), the novel goes back in time to a point when she was simply a character, creating space to give her and the rest of her family a set of developed, complex personalities.

The war is coming, of course, and the narrator will be sent away, but when she is, we’ll have a better appreciation for what it means.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s jump back in time, using Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta as a model:

  1. Decide what information a reader requires to begin the story. This is usually some version of Who, When, Where, and What: the basic elements of setting and situation. Star Wars famously summed up this information at the beginning of each film in the series. Most novels do something similar: showing the place in general (country, state, city, geography) and in particular (this street, house, room). It’s a bit like the wide-panning shots at the start of many films. Write a simple passage that conveys this information, especially the big What. For Okparanta, it’s the war. What is the big conflict (divorce, death, moving) at the heart of your story?
  2. Step the reader back in time. Okparanta does this methodically: “There is no way to tell the story of what happened with ____(1) without first telling the story of _____(2)” and “Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of ____(2) without also telling of ____(3).” The first blank is something that will happen eventually in the story. The next blanks are all points that lead up to that first one. Try using these phrases to step your story back in time from its eventual end point.
  3. Explain why these points matter. Okparanta’s narrator says a version of this: “If ___ hadn’t happened, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.” You can use this construction to start with. Make it clear that the story hinges upon a particular moment.
  4. Start the story. Again, here’s Okparanta’s narrator: “So, the story begins even before the story, on ____.” She zooms in on a particular moment, a good moment to begin showing and developing the characters. We know where everything is headed, and so the story can take its time (to some extent) in making us care about the people involved. Find a moment for your story to do this, a moment with the big conflict in the background but without the extreme urgency of points further into the story, a moment when the characters can be themselves and not pawns in a conflict.

The goal is to present essential information about setting and situation and also carve out space to create and develop character.

Good luck.

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