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Chinelo: How I conceived story in Caine Prize shortlist

Saturday June 15 2013

Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta.

Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta. Courtesy/Nation 

By CARLOS MUREITHI [email protected]

Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta moved to the United States when she was ten. And unlike her fictional character Etoniru in the short story America, she has a rational outlook of the “land of opportunity”.

“Thanks to my Nigerian upbringing, I am a more objective observer of things in the United States,” she says.

But the opposite could also be true: “I’d like to think my stay in America has made me a more objective observer of things back home”.

Okparanta, whose short story has been shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing, sees herself as a constructive critic of both the United States and Nigeria.

Yet America exemplifies the somewhat out of shape fantasy among some Nigerians that the United States is a dream country to be in. For them, the United States is an abstraction, a sort of utopia. It is a place where you go for answers and a place that always has those answers waiting for you.

“It was the general consensus in Port Harcourt (and I imagine in probably most of Nigeria as well) that things were better in America,” the protagonist in America narrates.

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This is a discussion that Okparanta has heard among family members and friends whenever she is in Nigeria.

“Many of them have mentioned going to America to pursue their studies, to gain employment, to own a home, a car, etc. There’s also a great desire to own American products – beauty soaps and creams, brand-named American clothing: Calvin Klein, bebe, DKNY, etc.,” Okparanta tells Lifestyle.

The conversation about the United States was also a dominant one in her debut short story collection Happiness, Like Water. In the piece, the dream of opportunity and accomplishment in America consume the book’s characters.

Different issues

In America, the protagonist Nnenna Etoniru seeks to go to the United States as a means of escape from different issues in her home country, Nigeria.

Etoniru, a science teacher by profession, embarks on a third trip from Port Harcourt to the American Embassy in Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria for a visa interview appointment. Her previous two attempts at getting the travel pass were unsuccessful.

But she’s still at it because she wants to go and be with her girlfriend Gloria, who probably found a way of allowing herself to get lost in America after moving there from Nigeria three years earlier.

With flashbacks and stories-within-stories, Okparanta tells Etoniru’s story against a backdrop of the topics of oil, and homosexuality, in Nigeria.

It’s not strange what made her write the story that took her a week to complete.

Says Okparanta: “I was back home in Nigeria and National Electric Power Authority (Nepa) had just taken light. Nigeria, despite its oil wealth, has been far from successful at accomplishing equal distribution of electricity”.

“At that time, my cousin, who had gained admission into several universities in the United States, was preparing for a visa interview, and I was helping her with the preparation. What would be credible reasons for a Nigerian to want to go study in the United States instead of in Nigeria? The Gulf oil spill had just happened. The story came to me then.”

In America, Okparanta writes of how criminal gangs tap oil straight from the pipelines, rebel militias steal oil, refine it and sell it to help pay for their weapons, and old oil rigs that had been left abandoned by oil companies now explode.

She admits that she’s not an expert in oil matters, but is of the view that Nigeria would benefit from creating Nigerian-owned, Nigerian-run refineries. And as far as environmental protection, it would have to begin with improving the system of education – making things like textbooks and lab equipment more available to Nigerian students.

Government officials

“But something will have to be done to ensure that government officials in charge do not fall into the temptation of accepting bribes,” she adds.

America doesn’t mark the only time a Caine-shortlisted has touched on homosexuality. Last year, Malawian Stanley Kenani’s Love on Trial, which was about a man arrested for “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between males”, was shortlisted for the prize.

“Jail time, fines, stoning or flogging, depending on where in Nigeria you were caught,” Okparanta writes of the consequences of being gay in Nigeria.

Two weeks ago, Nigeria’s House of Representatives voted to ban gay marriage and outlaw any groups actively supporting gay rights.

“I think it’s unfortunate, but I’m not surprised. A similar Bill was passed back in 2011, making homosexuality—and the aiding and abetting of it—a crime punishable by 10-14 years in prison,” says Okparanta. “Of all the things that are considered abominations, such inhumane treatment of fellow human beings should be among the greatest of abominations.”

So perhaps the United States would be the best place for Etoniru and Gloria’s kind of love.

“Her (Etoniru’s) reasons (for moving to the United States) are understandable,” says Okparanta.

Okparanta’s narratives in America are exciting. Here she is on the days after oil producers came to Nigeria: “Now the mangroves are dead, and there is no birdsong at all. And, of course, there are no fish, no shrimp, and no crab to be caught. Instead, oil shoots up in the air, like a fountain of black water, and fishermen lament that rather than coming out of the water with fish, they are instead harvesting Shell oil on their bodies.”

Except the story fades out in the latter stages, just as Etoniru’s visa interview at the American embassy ends. This point would have been a good one to end at.

In fact, Okparanta declares it in the passage: “The story should end there, but it doesn’t.”

Attaining visa

Still, she takes us through Etoniru’s seemingly regretful thoughts about attaining the visa she so badly wanted, and an unneeded story within a story about a boy, his mother, a goat, a wicked old man, a golden hen and golden coins.

Okparanta, who is one of four Nigerians out of five writers whose stories were shortlisted for this year’s Carine Prize, was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

She was awarded an Astraea Foundation for Justice Lesbian Writers Fund grant in 2011 and was a nominee for the United States Artists Fellowship in Literature the following year.

She teaches at Colgate University in the US, where she is an Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction.

Her sources of inspiration are varied.

“There are many works that have had an impact on me. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Mariama Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre, Antoine de St. Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices. I also enjoy reading the stories of Alice Munro. I like what she does with structure, and I like that she often deals with themes related to women and women’s rights,” she says.

In her count, Okparanta has had around a dozen short stories published in literary magazines such as Granta, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions and Subtropics.
She’s currently working on her debut novel, Under The Udala Trees.

“I’m hoping to be done revising by the end of this year, for publication hopefully by the end of 2014,” she says.

In the end, Okparanta hopes that America highlights the complex emotions involved in deciding whether to leave or to remain in one’s native country.

The winner of the £10,000 (Sh1.34 million) prize is set to be announced at a celebratory dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday, July 8.

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