Sabinews: Why did you decide to do a collection of short stories for your first book?
Chinelo Okparanta: It just happened that way. The collection was ready before the novel.
Sabinews: Did being shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014 change you or how you perceive your writing?
I go to Nigeria whenever I can, but always just to visit with family – never in the capacity of a writer. Etisalat was the first time that I was on the ground in the capacity of a writer. It was wonderful to be able to talk about my writing in the very setting that inspired many of the stories. It was also good to have the opportunity to engage with readers who understood in a deeper way where the stories had come from, and the social significance of the things I had written about. Throughout the events leading up to the prize ceremony (the radio interviews, the book fair, etc.), I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who had some kind of personal anecdote to tell me about some aspect of the collection. It was definitely a boost of confidence to see how engaged with the work people were. Especially the women. But also the men.
Sabinews: How important would you say literary prizes are?
Any institution that supports the arts is a wonderful institution, in my mind. That being said, it seems to me that prizes are political machines that sometimes have very little to do with the art itself, so my sense of it is that they should be taken with a grain of salt. Basically, I’m a huge fan of prizes, but my art does not depend on them.
Sabinews: Your debut novel Under the Udala Trees is set for release in September. Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s a love story of sorts– a literal and metaphorical bildungsroman in which Northern and Southern Nigeria are in a sort of tug of war, and also a tug of love.
Sabinews: Who chose the title? Does it have a special significance?
I chose the title. I love udalas, always have since I was a child. If you get the right one, it’s a nice burst of sweetness and tartness all at once in your mouth. It was also always fun as a child to chew its flesh until it turned into gum. But I love the fruit not only for its taste and capacity to turn into gum. I love it also for the myths surrounding it. Especially those myths having to do with womanhood. When you begin to do research on the fruit, you see that there are many, many myths concerning the udala and womanhood.
Sabinews: A lot of the stories in Happiness, Like Water were set, or partly set in Port Harcourt. Does your new book have that connection?
I was born in Port Harcourt and raised there for the most formative years of my life, so it’s the place that had the first and perhaps the most profound impact on who I am today. Which is probably why it featured quite a bit in my collection. And, yes, it will also feature–somewhat briefly–in my novel.
Sabinews: Aside from writing, what other creative activities do you engage in?
I used to draw and paint when I was younger. Also, I used to sew. Many of the clothing I wore when I was in high school, I sewed myself. But if I chose no longer to write, I think I’d devote my time to drawing and painting, not sewing. I might also properly learn to play the guitar.
Sabinews: You were a teacher for some time. Can you share an experience that stood out for you?
I ran a creative writing after school program with some of my middle school students in the school where I taught in Pennsylvania. I found that, at that age, my students were still largely uncorrupted by rules of writing—rules surrounding what they could or could not write, rules about what was beautiful and what was not. I appreciated this quality in them, so my program focused on just encouraging them to carry on in that path.
They wrote for an hour each day after school in their simple and bold and profoundly wise voices. It’s amazing how much creativity lurks inside the heads of eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds. It was such a wonderful experience working with them that I wound up setting up the first official literary journal (The Trexler Creative Times) that the school had ever had, so that the students could see their works in an official sort of way, also so that they could have a nice little memento of their time in the club.
Sabinews: If you pick up a book to read and find you’re not enjoying it, do you stick with it or move on to something else?
I always try my best to finish a book, because I know how hard it is to write a book. As a writer, I always bear in mind that every book is somebody’s baby and deserves to be respected as such. But it’s true that life is short, so sometimes you just have to move on.
Thank you so much for your time.
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