Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta was shortlisted for this year's prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. But she says that initially, writing short stories wasn't a style she thought she'd be good at.
"When I started, I thought I was a novelist, and I had written some short stories and I thought that they failed at being whatever short stories should be," Okparanta tells Tell Me More's guest host Celeste Headlee. "I'm not sure how it ended up that I somehow learned to write a short story."
She kept writing though, and the stories became Happiness, Like Water. Her debut collection which was published on the 13th August.
It draws on a number of her own personal influences. Born in Nigeria, Okparanta moved to the US when she was ten years old. Her parents raised her as a Jehovah's Witness. It's a faith that was at odds with her sexuality, and one that she no longer practices.
On why she likes to focus on the relationship between mothers and daughters
I am from a family of many, many women, and so, clearly that opens up my eyes to the issues that women have with their mothers.
I do have a very close relationship with my mother. And so it makes sense that some of the issues that come up in these stories will be things that are from my own personal experience. For example, I will say that my mother has pressured me very much about getting married. She doesn't pressure me that much any more, but you know, that's a topic that comes up very often in my family.
On writing about religion
I don't set out consciously to make any grand political statements about anything. You know, religion is a part of me, and I think that's why it comes out in my writing.
Somebody has asked me about On Ohaeto Street, and what I was trying to say about religious people. The truth is, I really wasn't thinking about any political statement — why the husband is the way he is, and why she leaves — she leaves because it's a bad situation. Not all Jehovah's Witnesses will act the way that he acts.
If I were to write a personal essay, I could have many many things to say about religion and being a Jehovah's Witness, but in that story, I was just portraying this marriage, and what happens, and how it falls apart.
On whether she worried about how she portrays Nigeria
No, I wasn't worried about that. The things you see, the images you see in these stories, this is reality. I am not making these things up. There are trash heaps, and there are littered roads. And, in as much as people would like to say 'Oh, you're portraying Nigeria in such negative light,' but they all know, deep inside that all I'm doing is saying the truth ... This is my experience of Nigeria and that's all I am doing is just writing.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Now let's hear from someone who came to the U.S. as a child and is now making some waves in the literary world. Chinelo Okparanta was born in Nigeria and moved here when she was 10 years old. Her parents raised her as a Jehovah's Witness. The faith was at odds with her sexuality, though.
All those influences, many of them can be recognized in her debut collection of short stories, "Happiness, Like Water." It was published yesterday. And it includes the short story "America," which was shortlisted for this year's prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. She was the only woman on that list. Chinelo Okparanta is with us now to talk more about the collection. Welcome to the program.
CHINELO OKPARANTA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: First, let me say congratulations to you. That's quite a heady list of honors for someone of your age.
OKPARANTA: Thank you very much.
HEADLEE: Can we begin with just the simple question of, why short stories? You know, there are very few writers who successfully do both the novel and the short story. Why did you end up in this format?
OKPARANTA: Well, I hope to one day do a novel, but actually, when I started I thought that I was a novelist and I had written some short stories. And I thought that they, you know, failed at being whatever short stories should be. So I'm not sure how it ended up that I somehow learned how to write a short story. But I submitted some of these stories to my agent and she just told me they're working, they're doing it and so I wrote some more.
And they piled up and they became the stories in "Happiness, Like Water" and so I'm not sure why short stories, but they are - stories in general - are easier when written in a shorter form for me because I can finish them. Sometimes, I finish them in one sitting and so that's, you know, something nice that you can have - the product almost right away.
HEADLEE: You know, a lot of the stories seem to be centered in this idea of family life and family relationships. But I'm interested in the mother-daughter relationships and I wonder how much of what you were writing about came from your own experience with friends or relatives, and how much of it you were sort of imagining issues that can arise between a mother and a daughter?
OKPARANTA: You know, a lot of it did come from experiences that I've had in my own life and in, you know, the mothers around me, for example, my aunts. I am from a family of many, many women, and so clearly that opens up my eyes to the issues that, you know, women have with their mothers. And so I do have a very close relationship with my mother. And so it makes sense that some of the issues that come up in these stories will be things that are from my own personal experience.
For example, I will say that, you know, my mother has pressured me very much about getting married. She doesn't pressure me that much anymore, but, you know, that's a topic that comes up very often in my family where I have so many female cousins. And it feels to me like every month somebody's getting married and so there's the, you know, the phone call - oh, this and this person is getting married. And then my mother looks at me and, you know, oh you're getting left behind. So those sorts of things, but she doesn't pressure me anymore. And you know, I have a wonderful relationship with her still so.
HEADLEE: Chinelo, if I could ask, you know, we mentioned in the introduction that you were raised as a Jehovah's Witness. The idea of religion, at least, comes up in your writing. When you were writing about religion, was that an unconscious thing, or were there things that you really wanted to say about faith?
OKPARANTA: I don't, you know, set out consciously to make any grand political statements about anything. You know, religion is a part of me and I think that's why it comes out in my writing. You know, somebody has asked me about "On Ohaeto Street" and what I was trying to say about, you know, religious people. And the truth is, I really wasn't thinking about any political statement about why, you know, the husband is the way he is and why she leaves. She leaves because it's a bad situation.
Not all Jehovah's Witnesses will act the way that he acts. You know, I have - if I were to write an essay, a personal essay, I could have many, many things to say about religion and being a Jehovah's Witness. But in that story, I was just portraying this marriage and what happens and how it falls apart.
HEADLEE: I also wanted to talk to you about the short story "Fairness." This - it was such a heartbreaking story. Not 'cause it was completely tragic - nobody dies. But this is about skin bleaching - young girls bleaching their skin to become more fair skinned. And the mother reads Vogue and Cosmopolitan and praises the young woman in her household whose skin is lighter than the others. What kind of experience did you have with this that drove you, I guess, to write about it?
OKPARANTA: I should say, first of all, that that is not based on my experience with my mother.
OKPARANTA: But I will say that there was one instance in particular when I was home in Nigeria and there were all sorts of comments about my skin color. And, you know, they would joke around - my aunts and my cousins. It was really just a joke. And they would say things like, oh, what soap are you using in America that is turning your skin so white? And so I thought I should write a story about it. But I should say also that "Fairness" is not really a story about skin bleaching.
It really is a story about a social hierarchy because this girl who is dark skinned has now decided to experiment on her house girl, who is essentially sort of like a maid. And so she inadvertently sort of punishes somebody else after she herself has been punished by society and by, you know, her mother.
HEADLEE: Nigeria is almost its own character in your stories. And I wonder what you came away - when you read back through this book of stories, what kind of character did you think the country took on? It's not always a positive light, is it?
We hear a lot about the litter on the side of the roads. Or I remember at the beginning of one of the stories, somebody scoops up a dead rodent and throws it into a huge heap of trash just across from their home. Did you - were you sometimes worried about the way that you were portraying your home country?
OKPARANTA: No, I wasn't worried about that. The things you see - the images you see in these stories - this is reality. I'm not making these things up. There are trash heaps and there are littered roads. And as much as people would like to say that, oh, you're portraying, you know, Nigeria in such negative light.
But they all know, deep inside, that all I'm doing is saying the truth, and sometimes what you need to do is just show things as they are so that maybe, collectively, we will all decide to do something differently. Maybe we will decide to clean up the trash heaps, you know. But this is my experience of Nigeria and that's all I'm doing is just writing.
HEADLEE: Well, the collection of short stories has been published as of yesterday. It's called "Happiness, Like Water." The author is Chinelo Okparanta. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and good luck.
OKPARANTA: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.