There is a room that most writers have inside of them that they will deny having in the first place. It’s a room that we, as children, built out of necessity. The how is never as interesting as the where and who. Where is this room? Why is it so difficult for those close to us to access it? And most importantly; why is it that other writers always seem to have the spare key to this room?

Chinelo Okparanta is somewhat of an enigma. She is one of those writers who seem to be comfortable with creating worlds for people to consume as opposed to being a writer who is consumed by readers. During our virtual conversation, she was patient, kind and thoughtful. 2013 was when the world was first introduced to Okparanta when she released her debut short story collection Happiness, Like Water. In the same year she was a finalist for the 2013 Caine Prize.

Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel Under the Udala Trees was published in 2015, and it is this book about love, identity and family that made her a known writer in the African (most importantly) and worldwide literary spaces.  Known means you could be anywhere in the world and somebody will bring up the names like Adichie, Selasie, Wanner and Okparanta’s in the same breathe.

My own copy, of Under the Udala Trees, is dog-eared and has a fading cover from being handled and from jostling around in a handbag. It is the story of Ijeoma and her becoming; becoming more of herself in a world that simply does not see the need for a young girl to learn herself. Ijeoma’s story was one I never wanted to be too far away from – if I was waiting in line, I would check up on her. Waiting in the car, I would see if she was still okay. It’s one of those stories that lived with me for a long time after I had to accept that our journey together was over.

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When I was presented with the opportunity to interview Chinelo, I jumped at the opportunity even before I knew what Brittle wanted us to talk about. The world seems to be falling apart, becoming and unbecoming around us, so of course I wanted to talk to a writer whose work I admire and just get lost in all things writer-ly. Very often African writers are asked to talk about identity issues, politics and subjects that sometimes take up the time we would like to spend talking about how the stories we write are born, our craft and a million other things that interest us. This is a conversation between two writers and lovers of stories.

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Mohale Mashigo

Do you remember when Ijeoma’s story first came to you?

Chinelo Okparanta

Ijeoma’s story came to me in bits from the time I was at Iowa until my graduation, and even after. I didn’t complete the final draft of the novel until late 2013 while I was a visiting professor at Purdue University.

In the first draft of the novel, Ijeoma was part of a larger family. Several siblings, a mother, uncles, and aunties were involved. The family was reconvening after the death of the father. But I slowly realized that, of all the siblings, Ijeoma’s story was the most prominent and the most dynamic. I decided to follow her.

Mohale Mashigo

Did you always know that it would be a story that included same sex/queer love?

Chinelo Okparanta

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Ijeoma’s story from the first draft included same sex love, yes.

Mohale Mashigo

It’s been five years since the novel was published. What are the differences in reactions you have received from people who have read the book?

Chinelo Okparanta

Many Americans and Europeans at first liked to say really condescending things—things like, “What a shame that Nigeria should still be so behind on these human rights issues.” (This was the time when the same-sex marriage bill was approved in the US. These Americans might have been glossy-eyed from happiness and suffering from a false sense of confidence about the state of their own progress.)

Many Nigerians were scandalized and would say things like, “So, are you …?” Or, “So, what did your parents say about your sexual preference?” Or, “So, what did your parents say when you wrote this book?” (As if the author is synonymous with the protagonist of her novel). Of course, there were many Nigerians who confided in me about their own personal journeys. Both I and they were very happy to learn that we were not alone.

Time is the great equalizer. Now, many Americans and Europeans see just how slow their own progress has been. Now, many Nigerians are coming to terms with the fact that “homosexuality” is indeed part of their culture.

Mohale Mashigo

I remember a woman asking me very seriously if I had somehow stolen her life story (after she had read The Yearning). There are a few of those unforgettable reactions from readers. Do you have any stories/reactions to the book that really stood out for you? Reactions that you will simply never forget…

Chinelo Okparanta

I had a Nigerian-American student (based in the US) who wrote me a letter literally from her closet. She was both physically and figuratively in the closet. She’d read my book in her closet because she was afraid of getting caught by homophobic family members reading such a book, and when she was done reading the novel, she also wrote me the letter from her closet.

Many people have told me that the novel pretty much sums up their lives. So, it seems quite a universal story. Unfortunately, not many Africans have seen themselves represented this way in literature, so they are very glad to come across my novel. I believe this is one strength of Under The Udala Trees—it widens the umbrella of African representation in literature.

Mohale Mashigo

Do you think the reactions to the book would be different had it been published in 2020? I’m speaking specifically of it’s reception in Nigeria where same sex marriage is banned?

Chinelo Okparanta

I think Nigerians have made great strides in opening up their minds since 2015 when the novel first came out. The anti-same-sex law still exists, but we all know that the signing of that bill into law was nothing short of a dimwitted and inhumane political move. We hope for a president who is able to see more clearly the full picture. But at this rate, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Mohale Mashigo

A lot of African countries have either legally banned homosexuality or have taken a religious stand against it, do you think this has gotten in the way of writers exploring queer love and humanizing queer people (in their fiction/literary expressions)

Chinelo Okparanta

Fear is real. Even when art calls, fear can keep you from answering the call. Why? Because threats are also real. Persecution is real. No one, under normal circumstances, chases their own death.

Mohale Mashigo

Do you think you would have written the same book had you been living in Nigeria?

Chinelo Okparanta

I might have written the same book, I don’t know. No way to know.

Mohale Mashigo

Back to Under the Udala Trees – what did you enjoy most about writing the book?

Chinelo Okparanta

I enjoyed fleshing out the relationship between Ijeoma and her mother. Mother-daughter relationships were very much on my mind in those days. I found Ijeoma’s mother to be very sympathetic and sometimes even funny. She seems to be the very embodiment of the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Luckily for Ijeoma (and for us?), by the end of the book, we see that the road does not in fact lead to hell.

Mohale Mashigo

What was the most difficult part of writing or having published the book?

Chinelo Okparanta

So many things are difficult if you are new to the book/publishing world. For one thing, writing a novel itself takes lots of dedication and perseverance. For another, finding a good agent who will look out for your best interests and keep you from getting into accidental mishaps is difficult. And afterwards, finding a good editor who truly understands what your intentions are for the work is also difficult.

I was incredibly shy before becoming published, and I didn’t have any sort of formal public speaking training. Hearing that I would have to be on the road for book promotion, beginning with Happiness, Like Water, was very intimidating to me. I had to learn fast. I second-guessed myself a lot, wondering things like whether I had somehow alienated the audience by giving my honest answers. Wondering if I should have been more political about my answers, less forthright, or less forthright and more political, or more this, or more that….. I also had to find the grace to deal with audience members who dared to ask me inappropriate questions.

Mohale Mashigo

You mention questioning whether you should have been more political in some of your answers. Do you find it burdensome when political and identity questions are reserved for African writers?

Chinelo Okparanta

Yes, it’s always problematic when certain writers are pigeon-holed— there’s something tiring and devaluing about being asked only questions pertaining to being female, or being African, or being a part of the LGBTQ community. I am proud to speak about my experiences, sure. That’s not the issue. The issue is the myopic gaze of certain readers. But I’m learning now, as I gain more experience, that other people’s pigeonholing of me is not my burden to bear. Your lack of thoughtfulness is honestly not my problem. That your ability to reflect only runs as deep as what meets the eye is not my problem. These days, I have learned to choose what I want to engage with. You can drain yourself to death if you engage with every affront.

Mohale Mashigo

What kinds of questions do you sometimes wish people would ask you in literary conversations?

Chinelo Okparanta

I love questions about craft and creativity. Like, “How did you come up with that?” (This is an important question that does not underestimate my ability to create—does not assume that everything I write is from personal life experience. I am, after all, a creative). What about you? What questions do you wish for?

Mohale Mashigo

Oh I wish people would ask me about form and craft and why I made specific choices in my writing. Also… I wish we could talk more about the “other” characters and not just the main character. I realize I have only asked you about Ijeoma, so I am guilty of it too ha ha. That is why I love talking to writers as a writer. Talking about the technical things and the lessons we learn about ourselves and the craft. How do you think you’ve changed as a writer? As in the way you write now as opposed to the first time you dared to work on a complete novel…

Chinelo Okparanta

What a lovely question. It’s good to think about this. I would have to say that the biggest difference between myself as a younger writer and myself now is that I used to have a map of how each story would play out before I started. Now, I just go with the flow—figure it out as I go. It’s a bit messier this way, but it’s also more surprising this way.

Mohale Mashigo

Has writing Under the Udala Trees taught you something about yourself? Something that came as a surprise to you?

Chinelo Okparanta

Under the Udala Trees taught me about the power of books to connect us to one another. In the borrowed words of James Baldwin: “It was [Under the Udala Trees] that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

Mohale Mashigo

If you could change one thing about the book or the journey what would it be?

Chinelo Okparanta

I’d relax a little more into it. Don’t worry so much about every little snag. It’s true what they say: if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger.

Mohale Mashigo

The dreaded question… Are you working on something right now?

Chinelo Okparanta

Yes

Mohale Mashigo

I’ve been struggling to read as much as I did before COVID-19 changed everything. I am re-reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz instead as some form of self soothing. What books or works have you been consuming that excite you?

Chinelo Okparanta

There are many amazing books out right now. I’ve just finished reading The Vanishing Half, a brilliantly imagined and executed novel. Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is an equally wonderful read. I re-read Severance by Ling Ma, and it was an interesting re-read particularly in these COVID times. Such A Fun Age is a nice light read that deals with very real issues. Little Gods by Meng Jin is a beautiful, intelligent read. I also enjoyed Atwood’s The Testaments—I was super engaged the whole way through. Akwaeke Emezi, Imbolo Mbue and Yaa Gyasi have some lovely books coming out soon. Romeo Oriogun had a beautiful book of poetry that just came out. Ogadimma by Ukamaka Olisakwe was an equally poignant read. So many good books and not enough time! Even as I am mostly confined to home, it’s a struggle to keep up!  What about you? What books have you enjoyed? Any recommendations?

Mohale Mashigo

I have been finding solace in comics, documentaries and cooking. I’m usually a person who reads more than twenty books a year, but it has been impossible to finish a book lately. I keep going back to The Haunting of Hill House (the series) and Mucho Much Amor was such a gorgeous documentary on Walter Mercardo. Cooking has been really cathartic for me. I enjoy the prep, experimenting with herbs and spices and just getting lost in creating something delicious. It’s made me brave enough to try my hand at baking. I tried my hand at brownies and they turned out great! Lemon cake is next on the list! In this time of uncertainty, what (if anything) is bringing you joy?

Chinelo Okparanta

Audiobooks. Baking. Progressive Muscle Relaxation. And great family and friends. I am the luckiest person on earth. I have the most amazing family and friends.

Mohale Mashigo

This time of isolation and lockdown has made me think about legacy or at least what my writing means to me and the world it exists in. What would you like your literary legacy to be?

Chinelo Okparanta

I don’t think much in terms of legacies. Right now, life feels like the kind of journey that you’d do best to take one day at a time. Sometimes I feel like the world is altogether falling apart, and I can’t see a way out of it. I have become more preoccupied with sustaining myself and loved ones in the here and now, so that the question of legacies feels too distant of a dream. A lot of my despondency has to do with the pandemic. People all around me are losing loved ones—mothers, fathers, friends, and others—and coming to terms with their own mortality. I lost someone close to me early in the pandemic, and it hasn’t been easy dealing with that loss. We have all lost our old ways of life, which was quite a bit simpler and more palatable than the one we now have—among other things, there used to be no need for masks or goggles or scrubbing our bodies upon returning from a simple outdoor task. This loss of our old lifestyle is a remarkable loss. Family planning is at a stand still for many. I have female friends who thought they had a bit of time at the start of the year, but now find themselves pleading with the universe for the miracle of husbands and partners and donors so that they will still be able to start their families, babies and all, despite the COVID situation. They have lost valuable time toward attaining their goals in the lockdown period, and as many of these women are in their late 30s, they have a strong sense of their loss of reproductive time. I have friends whose careers are at a standstill, or who have lost their jobs, and who worry about how to care for themselves and loved ones. Some of us feel like we have lost our health, and in these particular times, the quest for medical care comes with added anxiety. Going to the clinic is a daunting adventure—filled with equal parts fear and desperation. Another loss. Perfectly good brain cells are reduced to questions of self-protection—wondering about what is real and what is not– Is it true that the virus is an aerosol? Or is it still a droplet? Does it transfer from surfaces or not? Is there a treatment or is there not? What kinds of masks work, and which ones don’t? To use goggles or not? All of this is a profound tragedy. So many losses and so many worries.

But wallowing in all of life’s worries does not serve anyone in the long run, so it’s super important to be optimistic too, and I try. My mother, especially, finds small things to laugh with me about. Our little stories, our little jokes. That tiny bit of a lift, even if it’s coming from just one person, really makes a world of a difference to me. Sometimes I’m amazed by how talking intimately and meaningfully to just one person can change the whole mood of the day. So, in terms of my literary legacy, if I write anything that speaks intimately to one person anywhere in the world, at any point in time, and if my writing helps the person to feel less downhearted and less alone—ultimately, less disenfranchised and more empowered—I am happy.