Chinelo Okparanta, at 38 has achieved impossible prestige, along with multiple fellowships and professorships across the United States, her debut short story collection Happiness like Water was nominated for countless awards.
Her first novel, Under the Udala Tree, won the Kirkus Reviews Prize and 2016 Lambda Literary Award. Guardian Life speaks to the woman unafraid to write about love.
What does Nigeria get wrong and right about gender?
Nigeria is a populous country, so there are a variety of people and opinions. It's hard to make a blanket statement about what an entire nation gets wrong or right, but I do believe that many people, regardless of national origin, would do well to thread a bit light on the physical.
Fundamentally, why is it that we privilege the physical over the psychological? Why do we give precedence to inconsequential outward physical appearance (manner of dress, length of hair, size of hands and feet, the jut of the chin, etc.) over what gender a person identifies with mentally, psychologically? Who died and made the physical more important than the psychological?
What is the difference between gender equality and women's empowerment?
I believe in Kimberlé Crenshaw's notion of intersectionality, which is to say that various forms of social identity and social stratification are always overlapping, and so should not be looked upon as separate struggles. Gender equality and women's empowerment, therefore, should go hand in hand.
In my opinion, the power of the oppressor comes from the false divisions that are created in the minds of the oppressed. Intersectionality, by my lights, means, basically, that as marginalised groups, we are all in this together, and when we start to create silly lines of division, we are simply doing ourselves a disservice by handing over all our power to the dominant group. Divided we fall, united we rise.
When did you first learn that language had power, and you wanted to wield it?
When I was a child, my father was very abusive, and some of his abuse came out physically--slaps, punching us, black eyes and bloody lips, shattered glass, that sort of thing--and others came out in words. Sometimes the words stung more than the beatings. And so I learned from my father that words have the power to change a person's relationship to self and to the world. Words have the power to make or break a person, and which one will happen to you--a making or a breaking--might often feel entirely arbitrary.
Are there any plot-changing chapters you edited out of Under the Udala Trees?
I edited out the original unhappy ending of Under the Udala Trees. I wanted the ending of this particular novel to be one of promise and hope. In the new ending, Ijeoma's mother becomes accepting (albeit after years of not being accepting). Ijeoma re-unites with her former lover, and they live together in general happiness. Too often, novels about marginalised groups end tragically, as if suffering is synonymous with being black or African or female or gay. These endings often inspire pity. But in my experience, marginalised groups don't want to be the subject or object of pity. They simply want to lead respectable, respectful lives like anyone else lives that are full of promise and hope.
What's the hardest scene you've ever written?
The sex scene between Ijeoma and Amina in Under the Udala Trees was difficult to write, primarily because I was always aware of the assumptions about me that the scene might incite. I also struggled with the scenes of domestic violence between Chibundu and Ijeoma (and between other husband and wife characters in Happiness, Like Water). These domestic violence scenes were difficult because I am familiar with that kind of abuse, and they are always quite a bit triggering for me to write.
What cultural value do you see in writing?
Any piece of literature is an instrument through which urgent social conversations can be had. Thanks in part to the publication of Under the Udala Trees, the conversation on LGBTQ rights in Nigeria has taken off; I've witnessed it with my own eyes. I've received letters and notes from Nigerians who have said that the novel completely changed their views on same-sex love. I've received numerous letters and notes from Nigerians and other Africans who thank me for "seeing" them and making their stories an accepted part of mainstream literature.