"Distance Offers Me Protection"

by Chinelo Okparanta

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Your book “Under the Udala Trees” begins with the main character Ijeoma's childhood which is overshadowed by Nigera's Biafra civil war (1967-1970). What led you to focus on this dark era?

My mother was a child during the Nigerian Biafra war and I grew up around stories of her life at that time. She lost her father when bombs hit his home, just as Ijeoma's, the novel's protagonist, father was killed early on in the novel. From a young age I knew how our family suffered after he was gone. They lost their property and my mother was sent out to work as a house girl. But while Ijeoma had decent wardens and wasn't abused in any extraordinary way, my mother told me she sometimes starved as a house girl.

The novel fuses Igbo and pidgin and English. Is that your vernacular or is it a specific voice you developed for the main character?

Growing up in Nigeria people would speak Igbo and traditional languages and mix it into their spoken English alongside pidgin. Sometimes pidgin dominates -– for example in market places, as it is effectively the language of commerce. Meanwhile, in school you would speak English, unless you are out for recess playing with friends from your ethnic group and then you might speak your own native language.

At home the house girl would speak pidgin, we were expected to speak a formal English, but my mother would always communicate in Igbo. There was a nice fluidity in moving between languages and I think that came out naturally in the novel.

And sometimes the novel left Igbo phrases without translating them...

Sometimes when my mother yelled at us she would shout first in Igbo and then would repeat it in English, for emphasis. That influenced the novel. Sometimes though I translated Igbo as literature is a way of preserving stories. For instance I translated traditional folk tales. Even among Igbo people, there are different memories and tellings of those tales but I wrote them as I recalled them.

You live in the United States. Does this distance give you freedom to challenge potentially explosive themes in Nigeria – like the lesbian love story at the heart of your novel?

In some ways the distance offers me protection. For instance I know two gentlemen writing about LGBT topics in Nigeria. One was kidnapped and the other was violently attacked multiple times – all because of their writing. I have not faced physical assaults but there were threats. When I was in Nigeria doing publicity for my first book Happiness Like Water people made scary comments on social media, threatening to attack me. Once I was interviewed on a radio show and in the last minute the interviewer said she couldn't talk about my novel or else she would be fined, as it dealt with LGBT topics. But of course what I have endured is nothing compared to what people writing in Nigeria are up against.

Do you feel that you have given Nigeria's gay population a voice.

Yes, the response is overwhelming; everywhere I go people thank me, saying that because of reading the book, they finally feel like they have been seen. It has offered so many people serenity, solace and a home. This gives me the sense that this book was needed and that I am reaching the people who need it the most. For that I am grateful.

How did you start writing?

I was always a creator of a child. I would make little books with a staples or a rubber band as a spine. Then in middle school and high school I began writing essays, often on social justice. I continued to write and somewhere along the line I switched to fiction which allowed me greater freedom to explore larger topics. Truth is contestable and questionable but in fiction you see the truth but no one's debating it with you. Instead you present one truth, one story.

Your main character's formative reading habits spans “Things fall apart” by the Nigerian literary hero Chinua Achebe and Emily Brontë's “Wuthering Heights”. Do you share your main characters eclectic reading habits?                                                 

Growing up, I read lots of Chinua Achebe and my mother read us many Nigerian writers. Also living in Nigeria I grew up surrounded by French speaking countries and my French classes introduced me to Voltaire, Molière and many more. In addition to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, my mother read us Cyprian Ekwensi's The Drummer Boy, Onuora Nzekwu's Eze Goes to School, etcShe did not read us Wole Soyinka or Flora Nwapa as children, but she mentioned the names enough for us to know of these writers too. As smaller children, she read us the Yoruba folktale "Alade Has a Horn," along with several others.

How much do you identify with the label "African Literature" or "Diaspora African Literature"?

Nobody likes to be pigeon holed. A pigeon hole is something that encloses you and hides you – it puts you in a box. With all labels, it is usually somebody else defining you – trying to put you into a corner. Nobody wants that.

Many of us are proud to be Africans, proud to be African writers, but nobody wants our identities to be used as a weapon to constrain us within one category. Our identity is something to be celebrated, something to be shared, but not something which should limit us.

Do you have issues with how the West uses the term African literature?

Many times, yes. For a book to be dubbed as African literature, it means getting the West's stamp of approval. And not everything qualifies. This brings us to the issue of gatekeeping and what stories the West wants to hear from Africa. One problem with letting someone else define you is that they see you as they want to, only giving you access to that certain space or narrative. It's limiting. For example, if gatekeepers push for specific stories - like so-called poverty porn. Focusing on the poor is not specific to African literature. It's a strain of literature which dates back to Charles Dickens and Jonathon Swift. It's not a problem of the stories themselves, but more a problem of the system, which only allows certain stories to be told.

Have you encountered these pressures?

It's not as if I've been told to write a poverty porn story but I have been asked why I am writing about the Biafra war. Someone told me "it's already been done" as if you can only have one story from that chapter of history. That was an attempt to limit me and put a quota on how the story is told. Civil wars can be told a billion times from different perspectives. These attempts to limit us manifest themselves in many ways. 

Unter den Udala Bäumen. Wunderhorn, Heidelberg, 2018.

The interview was conducted by Jess Smee

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