Perth Writers Festival Blog

Q&A with Author Chinelo Okparanta

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta’s writing is both dark and deeply beautiful, and a potent voice for LGBQTI people.

Her debut novel Under the Udala Trees, a gay woman’s coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war, has received plenty of praise from the critics and has been called ‘a brave novel seeking to challenge prejudice.’

You can hear more from this bold writer in the Perth Writers Festival Sessions Out of the Ruins, Dark Mirror and Love Language.

You were ten when you moved to the US from Nigeria – do you remember much about life there?

For all of the years after I first left Nigeria, I remembered quite a lot. Sometimes I think that I captured my early life in my mind in preparation for the departure. It was so big a move that for many years after, I would go over in my mind, for instance, all the roads that led to my primary school, or the path my siblings and I took to walk to my cousins' home. I didn't want to forget.

Years later when I did return to Nigeria, many things were just the same as in my mind, with exceptions, of course – the primary school buildings, for example, were much smaller than I remembered them, the field was almost miniature compared to the one in my mind's eye. I was much bigger, of course, no longer a child, and through my adult eyes, it made sense that the proportions would have shifted. And, of course, I remembered the food, the music and the people, a little aged by then. These days I go back often, several times each year, so remembering is, in some ways, no longer an effort.

For those who haven’t read Under the Udala Trees, could you please tell us what it’s about?

Under the Udala Trees is a novel about a girl's journey to womanhood. The story is set entirely in Nigeria, but it is my hope that people will find it a universal story, one that could very well take place anywhere in the world.

What inspired your debut novel Under the Udala Trees

Many things inspired the novel. My mother's stories of living during the civil war and her stories of how life carried on after the war were certainly inspirational. Her own father died during the war, and this aspect forms the opening of my novel. I was interested in paralleling two forms of war within the novel – a national, external war versus an internal, personal sort of war. The intersections of these two conflicts felt worthy of exploration. I was also interested in a young woman's growth in a society that seeks to define her only in relation to masculinity. How does she resist or transcend that definition? Does she transcend it?

Would you describe Under the Udala Trees as a love story or a war story?

It is both. In my experience of literature, most love stories are war stories, and vice versa.

At the same time that parts of the US are allowing same-sex marriage, Nigeria is criminalising it – what parallels do you see between the two nations and the treatment of LGBQTI people?

It seems to me that both nations discriminate quite openly against LGBQTI people, only one is more honest about its discrimination.

What do you consider the greatest love story ever written?

So many. I loved the Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and many more.

Who are your favourite authors and why?

I adore Alice Munro, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro and many others. Their style of writing is often calm, serene, emotionally intelligent and socially honest, and these are traits that I respect.