Interview: Chinelo Okparanta

by: Whole Beast Rag


Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta studied at Pennsylvania State and Rutgers before receiving her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is currently the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Creative Writing at Colgate University, and will soon be taking a position at Purdue. Her debut collection of stories, Happiness, Like Water, will be published this August. ​

Recently WHOLE BEAST RAG spoke with Okparanta about the state of American workshop culture, the “point” of a novel, and perceptions abroad of the USA, which to many of her characters exists as a wintry abstraction across a great ocean.

WHOLE BEAST RAG: The new posthumous David Foster Wallace collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, contains a 1988 essay titled “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” which addresses the (at the time) fad-like obsession with and critical rejection of “Conspicuously Young” authors like Bret Easton Ellis. Most of the authors Wallace writes about are, besides Ellis, names I’ve heard only in passing, if at all. The essay remains relevant because of what Wallace has to say about Postmodern fiction and about Creative Writing Workshops.

Wallace suggests that the problem with “conspicuously young” authors is that while their craft skill is undeniable, the actual content of their writing is bland, vacant, shallow, and all too safe to say anything truly worthwhile. Wallace’s argument is that Writing Programs are partially to blame for this dynamic. He suggests that a workshop dynamic stifles the outgoing, the out-there, the radical students with bold ideas “since it’s usually the very-low-profile, docile, undemanding student who is favored, recruited, supported, and advanced by a faculty for whom demand equals distraction.”

On the difficulty of teaching creative writing, Wallace writes “The conscientious teacher must not only be highly critical and emotionally sensitive, acute in his reading and articulate about his acuity: he must be all these things with regard to precisely those issues that can be communicated to and discussed in a workshop group.

And that inevitably yields a distorted emphasis on the sorts of simple, surface concerns that a dozen or so people can talk about coherently… Too, in order to remain both helpful and sane, the professional writer/teacher has got to develop, consciously or not, an aesthetic doctrine, a static set of principles about how a ‘good’ story works… But consider what this means: the Program staffer must teach the practice of art, which by its nature always exists in at least some state of tension with the rules of its practice, as essentially an applied system of rules.”

He suggests, ultimately, that the American workshop culture risks creating “a careful, accomplished national literature, mistake-free, seamless as fine linoleum; fiction preoccupied with norm as value instead of value’s servant…”

Granted, this was written over 20 years ago, and as far as I can tell the “conspicuously young” trend has ended. I don’t read enough contemporary fiction, but I do read enough to know that I feel satisfied with the sort of writing that’s being published. I think we still have things to say. So my question is this : you have been through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest, most well-known, perhaps most prestigious, and one of the largest workshops around. And you subsequently taught at the university for a short while after receiving the MFA. So I’m wondering: have you encountered these claims before? Do you suppose there is any truth or credence to them? Are workshops truly creating a nation of skillful yet timid and uninspired writers? Is this country’s literature and whole culture of letters really jeopardized by the persistent, if growing presence of Creative Writing programs? And what effect do you suppose an MFA had on your own writing?

CHINELO OKPARANTA: Wallace and Hemon certainly have some interesting things to say about MFA culture in America. Yes, I’ve encountered the claim that we have more to say with age, that the writing of young people is “bland, vacant, shallow, and all too safe to say anything truly worthwhile.” But I would say that to say this is to oversimplify things, to generalize to a fault.

I would say that some of the boldest and most exciting writers I know are young people in their 20s and 30s. There are many of them (and they are also products of the workshop culture): NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Adichie, Emily Ruskovich, Benjamin Nugent, Justin Torres, Karen Russell, Claire Vaye Watkins. These are passionate people and write passionately, perhaps because in a sense, the world is novel to them, and they are fervently soaking it in, fervently reporting on their experiences of it. I would say that the content of these young people’s writing is anything but shallow, anything but vacant. Conversely, I know some older people—people in their 40s and 50s— who have quieted down, who have become more careful about what they say, afraid to stir the dust, acutely aware of the power of their words to negatively affect their livelihoods.

It makes sense: With age we accrue worries, preoccupations, more bills, more responsibilities. We become more aware of the possibility of failure, and so we become more careful. Sometimes this cautiousness translates to more silence. But again, all this is generalization. And as for the category of young versus old, when do we stop being one and become the other? How does Wallace define “conspicuously young?” All this is extremely subjective.

On a related note, I have also encountered the claim that MFA programs are essentially breeding grounds for clones. I might as well address this. I would say that such a statement is a bit hyperbolic. It makes perfect sense that in a workshop setting there would be every once in a while a natural convergence of styles, and perhaps even of themes, just by virtue of students spending so much time immersed in one another’s work. But the claim that this results in “clones” is a bit dramatic, in my opinion.

I should also say that there is the issue of causality to consider. If the nation is indeed filled with bland and uninspired writing, how can one rightly trace the cause to workshops? It seems to me that there are just too many variables to be able to honestly determine the cause. And so, this seems to me an empty claim, essentially meaningless. Taste is anyway a very subjective thing. What is bland and uninspired to one person might very well be the opposite to another person. Isn’t it more than slightly presumptuous then to speak so categorically on the issue, to make what is essentially a very personal call on behalf of an entire population?

As for the comment that, “American workshop culture risks creating ‘a careful, accomplished national literature, mistake-free, seamless as fine linoleum; fiction preoccupied with norm as value instead of value’s servant…,’”: my response is that nothing is mistake-free, certainly not what comes out of workshop. Moreover, speaking for myself—which is perhaps all that I have the authority to speak about—I can say that, upon attending the workshop, my fiction did not suddenly become preoccupied with the norm. Yes, my craft/style is more polished than before I enrolled in the Workshop, and yes, it is possible that my work shares some vague, thematic similarities with the works of some members of my cohort, but still, I am my own writer. I write what I will.

Before I enrolled, I had my own mind, and afterward, I still have my own mind, my own concerns, my own motives, my own stories to tell. I was the only Nigerian while I was enrolled at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I wrote Nigerian-themed stories. I did not feel any pressure to begin writing American-themed stories; and certainly, no one demanded that of me. If anything, perhaps I was recruited into the program for being exactly what I was—different. Perhaps I was recruited for being anything but the norm.

In the best case scenario, I see workshops as a gateway to having open cultural discussions on important contemporary and/or historical topics, which is also the gift of literature. In the worst case scenario (that is, in cases where workshops become an ego fest, a sort of popularity contest), they become just as ineffective as any other capitalist enterprise, of which there are many.

WBR: My attentions were recently brought to an article written by Teju Cole last March for the Atlantic, in which he spoke out against “Invisible Children” and other such movements belonging to what he termed the “White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The general argument of the article is that while American mass sympathies for problems overseas may have good intentions, they are also often shallow, misinformed, do more harm than good, and ultimately exist so that egos may be stroked and people may have the feeling of “doing the right thing” without having to actually put in the effort.

There is a particular element of his essay that I’d like to ask you about.

Cole started writing on this subject after viewing the “Kony 2012″ video and posting a series of messages on Twitter. Of those initial 7 messages, Cole writes:

Those tweets, though unpremeditated, were intentional in their irony and seriousness. I did not write them to score cheap points, much less to hurt anyone’s feelings. I believed that a certain kind of language is too infrequently seen in our public discourse. I am a novelist. I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point. But there’s a place in the political sphere for direct speech and, in the past few years in the U.S., there has been a chilling effect on a certain kind of direct speech pertaining to rights. I’m most interested by those emphasized sentences above. “A good novel shouldn’t have a point.”

What I’d like to ask is, do you agree that a good piece of fiction should be devoid of “a point?” Must we always be so subtle when writing fiction? Why is it, exactly, that directness is so distasteful in a work of fiction, and yet so welcome in nonfiction?

CO: I am a novelist, and I sometimes traffic in subtleties, too. But I believe that good novels have points. What’s more, I believe that the best novels that exist today exist as such because they have not-so-subtle points. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has a major political point, and then it has many sub-points, all of them also political in nature. And most people will agree that it is a phenomenal piece of fiction.

I believe that most people will also agree that it is a simple but well-constructed novel that has had as much of an effect (or perhaps even more of an effect) in molding minds as any argumentative essay dealing with similar topics. The idea that fiction is ruined when the author writes it with a particular political message in mind is, in my opinion, a flawed idea.

But to say that such is the case for all works of fiction would also be a mistake, I think. Surely Chinua Achebe was not unwittingly writing a novel that just happened to deal with the clash between traditional Nigerian culture and Western colonialism. And yet that novel went on to be highly acclaimed. Surely it was not simply serendipitous on Kazuo Ishiguro’s part to write Never Let Me Go, a novel which is a commentary on the potentially devastating effects of scientific advances on humanity—genetic cloning, to be specific. And, are we to believe that Toni Morrison went about writing Beloved with no sociopolitical agenda in mind? In fact, Morrison tells us herself in the foreword to Beloved that she set out to tell a story that dealt with the history of black women in this country, a story, in essence, about the slave experience and of the limits of freedom where womanhood and parenthood were concerned. She wanted to render such a story “as a personal experience.” And render it as such she in fact did. What a wonderful work of fiction it turned out to be, political agenda and all.

Yes, it is true that sometimes fiction is not enough. But it is also true that sometimes fiction is just enough. And perhaps more true is the fact that sometimes, even where political agendas are concerned, fiction has a way of transcending all other forms of literature. Whether or not is succeeds in doing so is perhaps simply a matter of the author’s skill and approach.

WBR: I’d like to take a moment to launch a small defense of the “subtlety” viewpoint. I think the argument is that a novelist’s first priority, before beautiful prose or emotional resonance or clever satire or political argument, is to have real, complex, human characters interacting with other real, complex, human characters in nuanced, multifaceted ways. That these characters have to be flawed and troubled and conflicted, and not (as I suppose is the fear of those who avoid fiction with a “point”) straw-men representing some obvious caricature of a social/political ill for the protagonist to struggle against. That is, we want to read about human beings behaving as human beings truly behave (set against the backdrop of race and class and gender and political/economic systems and so on), instead of just some straightforward characters-as-symbols morality play.

But I’d like to talk about Happiness, Like Water. America appears or is mentioned in many of your stories, portrayed less as a country than as a source of material goods and cultural influence, as standard against which to compare one’s life, as a sort of dreamland. I was contemplating the appropriate term and almost laughed aloud when I found the perfect word in your story, “America:” an “abstraction.” I’ve spent my whole life in the US and this collection has been particularly provocative for me. An “abstraction,” is that really what it’s like?

There is something rather haunting about the quietly malignant way American influence appears throughout these stories: as a catalyst for materialism, as a source for unrealistic, unattainable standards of beauty, and in “America,” as a callous, unfeeling pillager of resources.

But rarely does anyone hold any resentment against America or its citizens. Even in “America,” when the crimes of foreign corporations are made perfectly clear, the characters still believe that “things were better in America,” as a “place where water formed a cold, feather-like substance called snow, which fell leisurely from the sky in winter.”

I guess what I’m getting at is this: how is it that many of the characters in these stories can still revere America as an ideal place, even when much of the influence is negative, even when American corporations have pillaged and profited and left behind a ruined ecosystem, a poisoned water supply? Perhaps this has to do with my own ignorance, but I couldn’t help wondering why there wasn’t more resentment. Even Nnenna’s mother, the most outspoken critic of the US, only speaks ill because America takes in so many Nigerians, because she’s afraid (understandably) of losing her daughter for good.

CO: I do agree with you on the idea of complexity of characters. I think most writers would agree that one major goal in writing is to create well-rounded, complex characters. My response was, clearly, on the subject of whether a successful story can have a point.

For me, the “point” issue is not in conflict with the “character” issue. For me, complex characters can exist—should exist—in a novel that has a point. Again, take into consideration the characters in any of the novels I mentioned earlier—in Chinua Achebe’s, for example, Okonkwo is a very complex character in a novel with a point. So, I guess what I’m saying is, no defense necessary. I think we are both in agreement on the issue of complexity of characters.

Perhaps the answer to your question regarding “America” will illustrate the above idea. “America” is a story with a point, but the characters are complex individuals. They have weighty decisions to make. It’s not as clear-cut for them as deciding that America is good or that America is bad, or whether to be resentful about either circumstance. Yes, they see how Western corporations have pillaged and destroyed their ecosystem, and yes, they decry this destruction, rail against it. In a sense, they are indeed resentful, and this resentment rears its head at certain points throughout the narrative.

But I think that the important thing to keep in mind is that the circumstance in which these characters find themselves is one that calls for something more than resentment, and these characters are aware of this. They are aware that resentment is a static emotion. If left on its own, it leads nowhere. These characters are seeking change. They want to “go somewhere,” literally and/or metaphorically speaking. That is, they want, in their own unique ways, to live better.

So, in a sense, I don’t think the issue can ever be reduced to a matter of resentment or lack of resentment for them. Take Nnenna Etoniru, for example. It’s not so much that she doesn’t see the negative influence of the West on her homeland. It is not so much that she is not resentful. This resentment even comes out during her visa interview, the way she scrutinizes the embassy official. But it is more than a matter of resentment for her. It is more that she is spurred on by the desire to improve the quality of her life. She is seeking a certain type of life opportunity.

And though, realistically, she knows that America is not necessarily as perfect as one might think—she, after all, refers to the American gulf spill, and there is a fear in her, as she says, that she might get to America only to meet with a country that is well on its way to undergoing the same type of destruction that Nigeria has undergone—, she is hopeful. Her idealization of American is more a reflection of this hope than it is a reflection of naiveté or ignorance.

This hope, in turn, allows her to manifest emotions that transcend resentment, and justifiably so: It is my belief that hope has a way of trumping resentment. In any case, Nnenna gives the embassy official the answers that she knows he wants, and who can blame her?

WBR: I’m really interested in what you say about your characters wanting to build a better life, to “go somewhere.” Because one of the recurring themes I noted in your stories is the presence of parental figures whose expectations for their adult children (the protagonists) often are imposed upon or set against the lives the protagonists want to live. Parents in Happiness, Like Water, exist not as memories or as symbolic abstractions for the protagonists to ruminate on, but as actual physical beings who lecture, who visit, who influence, who are not shy about expressing their will. Your story “Runs Girl” is perhaps the epitome of this scenario, in which protagonist Ada’s attempt to earn enough money to save her mother’s life ends tragically in silence and shame.

So at risk of asking an uncomfortable question: was this a conscious consideration on your part? Is parental interaction something that fascinates you, be it as a personal or intellectual preoccupation?

CO: I think that these stories are influenced by my upbringing. I don’t think there was a moment in my childhood or young adulthood that I was not aware of my parents’ presence—painfully aware at times.

WBR: You mentioned that you never felt pressured to write an “American” story, which I was very happy to hear.

I was reminded, however, of Nam Le’s story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” in which the protagonist (also named Nam Le) is working for his MFA at the Writers’ Workshop, and is struggling with writing the “Vietnam story” that seems to be expected of him.

I’m wondering if, even if you’ve never felt pressured to write a particular story, have there been any you’ve had to truly struggle with? Something that you knew had to be written but was, for any combination of reasons, difficult or painful or frustrating to write?

And finally, to what extent do you consider the thoughts of a potential reading audience when writing? Do you think this desire is contradictory? And if so, how does the conflict play out for you?

CO: Actually, I should clarify that though I’ve never felt pressured to write an American story, occasionally people do ask me if I won’t try to write the next great African novel. The mere question is its own sort of pressure.

As far as struggles go, yes, I’ve had one particular struggle where my writing is concerned. I don’t often write autobiographical stories, but I did find myself writing autobiographically where one particular issue was concerned—that is, the issue of parental abuse.

Speaking of parent-child interactions, which you bring up above, I grew up with a very abusive father. He flogged us until we bled. He gave us black eyes, bloody lips. He shattered glass out of anger. He screamed. He yelled. We were all afraid of him. Even my mother was afraid of him. He called it discipline.

When I first began writing, I suppose I was preoccupied with this aspect of my life. My writing in a sense became therapeutic. I wrote stories like “Tumors and Butterflies” and “Shelter”—fictionalized of course, but based on aspects of my real life experiences with my father. I wrote these stories in attempt to come to terms with who he was to me. Sometimes, I made up narratives to explain his actions, other times to excuse them, and still other times to justify them. I made up narratives of reconciliation, of acceptance, of resignation, of escape. These also served as a sort of purging for me. A part of me believed that the more I wrote about it, the more I’d be able to understand my father. And so, I continued to write these abusive father narratives, and all of them were in the form of short stories.

Then one day I took it upon myself to embark on a novel-length manuscript. I set off, began fervently writing. There was so much to write about. Of course an abusive father novel would have to do more than merely depict fatherly abuse. I knew this and took it into account. I continued to write.

Sometime during the third week of my embarkment on this project, I began to have chest pains. These were dull, persistent aches right in the middle of my chest. They grew progressively worse. Not ever having experienced anything like it before, I went to the ER, explained my symptoms. The doctor examined me, prescribed an EKG. I was given a heart monitor, instructed to wear it for 24 hours. Ironically, during the periods that I was at the hospital, and for all the 24 hours that I wore the heart monitor, I felt fine. Only after all the testing was done, and when I returned home to my manuscript did the pain return. Eventually I realized what was going on. The project was responsible for my anxiety. It hit too close to home. I should have abandoned it, but instead I hurried up and finished it. It turned out to be a pretty poorly written novella. Nothing ever became of it. And so, this is perhaps the biggest struggle I’ve had as far as my writing is concerned. I do think that one day I will try again, just for the sake of getting it down to my satisfaction. And perhaps also for the sake of carrying out one final, decisive, self-liberating purge.

As for your last question, I don’t think the two are contradictory at all. I think that, as human beings, but perhaps more so as artists, we have a responsibility to be true to our individual selves. Of course, there is also that other side of the coin, that is, the aspect of accountability. Inevitably, we will be held accountable for what we put out there, and so perhaps it would be befitting of us to take a moment to consider what potential audience reactions will be, if for no other reason, then simply not to be caught unaware.

WBR: You’ve truly been asked if you would write the great African novel? And they worded it so bluntly? What, to you, would the next great African novel consist of? Is it possible to speak for an entire continent?

CO: I suppose anything is possible, especially if one sets his/her mind to it. That is, I suppose it is possible to write what one might consider a “great” something. (Certainly, its creation can be asked of any artist, as it was in my case—but whether or not the artist delivers is a different matter altogether). But, going back to the artist’s perspective, one can certainly set out to produce a “great” work of art. And, one can be convinced that what one has created is indeed “great.” But there are other opinions always to consider outside of the artist’s. If the public, for example, does not consider it a great piece of art, then who is right?

For me, I would never set out to write the “great” anything. I don’t consciously have such lofty goals in mind when I write. I simply write because I have a story to tell, not with the goal of achieving any kind of renown. I don’t know what the great African novel would consist of. What is “great” is subjective, and oftentimes these days, is determined based on some crude capitalist agenda. As such, I think it would be silly of me to approach my fiction that way.

WBR: There is a particularly tragic moment in “Shelter,” in which, just as the protagonist and her mother believe they will finally have safety and comfort away from papa’s abuse, the opportunity to escape melts away because of a small technicality stemming from their residency status. It’s like a dream being ripped away from their hands, and it’s painful to read. But I also expected something was going to go wrong. I expected the worst because of this paragraph:

‘Who would have known that there were places where people could go to have these types of problems solved?’ [Mama] asked. Places that were not churches, not food banks, not hospitals. But they were actually a sort of hospital, she said. Then, ‘Ah, what a country!’ What a country it was that had exactly what a person needed, if only the person knew enough to ask. She hadn’t even known that she could ask, she said. But somehow God had put it in her mind. And thank Heaven she did. Because things would surely get better from here. It would not be like in Nigeria where everyone had insisted that it was her duty to remain with Papa.

It’s this idealizing of America, so reminiscent of Nnenna’s imagining the US as a country of pure snows, that I knew would end up falling away.

It seems to me that we are a nation that loves to revel in perceived greatness, to proclaim ourselves to be beacons of justice and freedom, even when there is much work we still have left to do. Mama’s and Nnenna’s idealizing are by no means unreasonable, because I think plenty of Americans have the same sort of lofty thoughts about this country. Now obviously, no nation is going to project an ill image of itself, but do you think there really is something unique to the American sense of exceptionalism? Is any of it deserved? If we take Tumors and Butterflies to be a continuation of the Shelter storyline, it seems the protagonist has prospered, has found her way. And so, it seems, have you. I’d like to lead into a question so broad that it might be too stupid to even answer. But I’ll ask anyway. What do you think of this country? Of its people, of its culture? Are you proud and happy to live here? What do you see beneath the visions of pure snows: is it a thing tarnished and raw but still beautiful, still noble, still respectable? Or is it in truth a putrid thing, something we cover up with dreams of purity so that we don’t have to face the thing that’s really there in front of us? Is this place any better, any worse, any different from everywhere else?

CO: I think historically America has earned its reputation. It is a country known for its development of democratic political systems and for its reliance on the ideology of republicanism, that is, government based on the will of the people rather than the will of a king or dictator. But of course, there are negative aspects of its history as well—slavery, for instance. Also, the displacement of native tribes. I suppose the short answer is that I am proud to be American, the same way I am proud to be Nigerian. I love America for its ambition, for its pursuit of republicanism and democracy, for the opportunities that it offers. But I am also aware that, like any other country, it has its shortcomings. I suppose that the short answer is that for me, the snow has been equally as muddy as it has been beautiful.