Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Chinelo Okparanta Paints the Truth

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Chinelo Okparanta, author of Happiness, Like Water (Mariner Books), discusses how Nigeria inspired her to be a writer.

As a child, we gathered around the candlelight when the electricity went out, listening to my mother’s folktales about talking fish, homemaking chickens, and fearful children. These were domestic stories, cultural stories, funny stories—the types of stories that served to entertain, but also to teach good from bad, right from wrong. They were set in Nigeria, or in some unnamed land that my child’s mind imagined to be in the depths of Nigeria. They were, each one of them, elaborate, chockfull of plot twists and surprises that rose to the level of miracles.

As an adult, when my mother’s storytelling became a thing of the past, I feasted my mind on a different kind of stories: written stories rather than oral ones. These stories were not limited to the domestic. There was something more to them than entertainment, and something that went beyond gaining instruction on right versus wrong. These were stories about Nigeria as well as stories about those nations outside of Nigeria. They were stories that spoke to a different sort of truth than my mother’s stories did. These stories were bold in the statements they made: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Antoine de St. Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, Voltaire’s Candide. Later, I would be introduced to even more writers: Anton Chekov, Leo Tolstoy, Alice Munro, Mariama Bâ, Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Chopin, Kate O’Brien, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison. And even more Nigerian writers: Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Cyprian Ekwensi, Flora Nwapa, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Uwem Akpan.

As someone brought up by so many stories, it is unsurprising that I wound up a storyteller. Upon examination now of my own stories, I can see that they are in some ways an interesting combination of the oral and written tradition. Many of them could very well be spoken stories, which is not something I did intentionally. They also contain a sprinkling of folktales, or at least, tales within tales, which also speaks to the oral tradition. But of course, ultimately, mine are written stories. And, like my mother’s stories, many of them are set in Nigeria—and, why not? Nigeria is, after all, the reason I write. It is the country in which I learned to be. I write about Nigeria because Nigeria gave me my soul.

My stories paint the truth of the country, in my experience of it: a beautiful country from my memory of a time before-before. A country of gorgeous landscapes—white sand and gray sand and red sand, more than enough for many a child’s play. A country rich in natural resources, rich in intellect, rich in history, in culture, among other things. But it is also a country in which I still find myself immersed in darkness each time I return: a shortage of electricity, the same as when I was a child, though several decades have since passed. Now, we watch loved ones lying on hospital beds, in critical condition. And we watch as, right before our eyes, the power goes out; and we are aware that people will lose their lives as a result, and we are aware that many before them have lost their lives as a result. It is a country in which friends and family members continue to be victims of ritual kidnappings, and victims of armed robberies, and victims of religious deceit. It is a country in which women and children continue to be victims of domestic violence. A country in which the government is overrun with corruption.

Even though these are pathologies shared in varying degrees by all other countries, it saddens me more deeply where my own mother country is concerned. If I had the power to do so, I would change it. But we all know that change is hard. So for now, I have no choice but to continue watching and praying for the lights to come back on. And I know that there are many like me, watching and praying for the lights to come back too. I have no grand political agendas where my writing is concerned, but I do love my homeland, and sometimes it is easy to feel a profound sort of helplessness where certain aspects of it are concerned. And sometimes, in that state of helplessness, there’s not much else to do but write a story.