Novelist, Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel was gentle. Her next one will be unflinching: ‘Where Under the Udala Trees was gentle in its hopefulness for a changing world, Harry Sylvester Bird is a much fiercer critique—of race relations, of white-on-black power dynamics, of outright racism and lingering colonialist mentalities, of race-related microaggressions, of the historically biased white Western gaze in literature, of white Western exoticization of Africa, etc.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read several of the books in my parents’ library growing up—nutritional, pharmaceutical and chemistry books (my mother studied nutrition and dietetics and also studied and practiced nursing for some time); Jehovah’s Witness literature (my father is still a staunch Jehovah’s Witness); the Encyclopaedia Britannica (my father had a large collection of the encyclopaedia Britannica).
I also perused suspense novels, romance novels, and thrillers by James Patterson, Stephen King, LaVyrle Spencer, Danielle Steele, which were also present in my parents’ library. And then, of course, my mother took us to the Boston Public library very often after we arrived in the US in 1991, so I read books like the Sweet Valley High and Babysitter Club books.
For school, I read books such as Lord of the Flies, Island of the Blue Dolphins and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry those first couple of years after arriving in the US. I also read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in the following years, Mariama Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre, Camara Laye’s L’Enfant Noir, and many others, including Antoine de St. Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and Voltaire’s Candide.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
It takes me a while to think about and fully digest what I’ve read. Sometimes, years. For many things, I’m still thinking.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Albert Camus’s The Stranger. This novel made me realize how even very deeply flawed, highly unlikeable characters can have an important role in literature and in society’s understanding of itself.
It takes me a while to think about and fully digest what I’ve read. Sometimes, years. For many things, I’m still thinking.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I always edit as I write, but I also push myself to limit the editing and continue along. Then I edit and edit and edit some more.
What was your process for writing your debut novel Under the Udala Trees?
Under the Udala Trees took several drafts to complete. At one point I printed out the complete draft of the novel and lay the pages in order across the floor of my apartment so that I could see the novel in pages visually from a different angle than the traditional book manuscript format.
It’s such a simple novel for all that wahala, but at the time I was trying to figure out the best structure for it.
What’s the most interesting feedback you received about this book?
Some of the most interesting feedback I received about Under the Udala Trees from the Nigerian community were from Nigerians in Nigeria who came up to me, privately of course, and let me know how accurately my novel spoke to their own lived experiences.
Instead of being affronted or shocked by the novel, as some other Nigerians had been, they expressed gratitude to me for writing the story and allowing them to see themselves in literature.
Repeatedly, the most shocking feedback I received from Western audiences—in the UK, France, and the US—went something along the lines of: ‘Too bad about Nigeria. To be so behind with its laws.’ That reaction always struck me as odd for many reasons. In any case, the US Supreme Court had just legalized same-sex marriage around the time that the novel came out. Americans were proud of this fact, and it was, to them, a sign that they were far ahead of countries like Nigeria.
But of course, I always caution that the legalization of a law doesn’t mean that all the persecution or hate is suddenly erased. There’s always more work to be done. In fact, today, members of LGBTQ communities in the US are once again worried. Given what has been going on with the overturning of abortion rights in the US, it seems possible that same-sex rights might be next.
Albert Camus’s The Stranger made me realize how even very deeply flawed, highly unlikeable characters can have an important role in literature.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing a book?
The book controls you. You don’t control the book.
You have a second novel Harry Sylvester Bird coming out in July this year. In what ways is writing a second novel different from writing a debut novel?
Harry Sylvester Bird is a contemporary socio-political critique that has a few more layers to it than Under the Udala Trees. Instead of focusing on Nigeria, it has its lens primarily on America. Which is to say that, where, historically, white Westerners have gone to Africa and written about Africa and Black Africans from their white Western lens, this novel flips the script.
This is a novel with a Black African author’s lens on the West. And similar to the ways in which the white Western lens was very often unflattering to the parts of Africa it depicted, this novel’s lens on contemporary white America is not necessarily a flattering one.
So, in many ways, the novel is an equalizing of power, a sort of levelling out, an attempt to show that we are actually more and more on equal footing, and we, Black Africans, also have our own critical gaze on white America. In other words, where Under the Udala Trees was gentle in its hopefulness for a changing world, Harry Sylvester Bird is a much fiercer critique—of race relations, of white-on-black power dynamics, of outright racism and lingering colonialist mentalities, of race-related microaggressions, of the historically biased white Western gaze in literature, of white Western exoticization of Africa, etc.
But it is also a novel about historical trauma and the way these historical traumas have shaped our identities. Harry’s abusive childhood merits some examination as well, and is perhaps the groundwork behind the person he eventually becomes, in much the same way that history has shaped the nations and people that we have become.
Which is all to say that the novel’s racial critique can be biting at times, and there is a lot that is serious about the novel, but there’s also a lot that is deeply humorous about the novel (of course, this depends on the reader’s racial and socioeconomic status, outlook on race and race-related historical atrocities, level of identification with certain childhood traumas, and perhaps most importantly, the reader’s sense of humour. It’s important to remember that members of different races, different identities in general, socioeconomic status, etc., experience many aspects of the world differently, therefore, what we find funny will also vary).
More than anything, this novel is simply a chronicling of where we are as a global society—how far we’ve come and how much work there is still to be done where race relations are concerned. Writers write stories that reflect society. Harry Sylvester Bird is essentially a satirical snapshot of race relations in America at our specific point in time in history.
What should the readers expect from Harry Sylvester Bird? Which books would you say it is ‘in conversation’ with?
Harry, who narrates the story, is from a white American working class, abusive, racist family. It is no wonder that he seeks to distance himself from them. In as much as he is very flawed, he also has good intentions. The novel, is of course, an acerbic social critique where racism is concerned.
We’ve come so far, and yet, in contemporary America, there’s still a lot that Black folks have to undergo in the hands of even some of the most well-meaning white folks (thankfully, not all). But the novel also asks us to look at Harry’s childhood and the way his childhood shapes the adult he becomes. Psychologically, there’s a lot to talk about there that goes beyond ‘criminality’ or ‘racial exploitation’. And, in examining the character of Harry, some of us might be willing to look at our own childhood traumas and the way they have shaped the adults we have become. The question would then be, will Harry succeed in becoming a better person than his parents and upbringing might have set him up to become? Will he succeed in paving a separate, non-racist path for himself? How easy or difficult is it for us to do better than our forebears? Serious, maybe depressing questions. And, Harry surely doesn’t make it easy. But it is a satirical novel, so there’s also a lot to laugh about (again depending on your racial identity, general outlook on race, sense of humour, etc).
To answer the second part of your question, Harry Sylvester Bird is in conversation with many satirical books, from Voltaire’s Candide to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, in which he recommended selling poor Irish children to the aristocracy as food, as a direct criticism of injustices of the ruling class toward the lower class. A Modest Proposal, of course, caused a backlash at first, but it did succeed in getting the aristocrats to see themselves in relation to their treatment of the lower classes.
It’s important to remember that members of different races, different identities in general, socioeconomic status, etc., experience many aspects of the world differently, therefore, what we find funny will also vary.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
There are many. But one is: ‘Write about what matters to you.’ Also, ‘write what you want to understand.’ For Under the Udala Trees, I wanted a safer world within Nigeria for LGBTQ community members. I wanted to sway intolerant and even hate-filled mindsets in Nigeria and around the world. In all of that, Ijeoma’s story came to me. So, I wrote the novel.
For Harry Sylvester Bird, the racial tensions in the USA, where I currently live and have lived for the past 30 plus years, as well as the racial prejudices that I have been subjected to in the USA over the years, have made me curious to understand how even certain (again, not all) well-meaning white liberals can find themselves complicit in similar acts to outright racists. So I wrote the novel also to try to open up a conversation about that.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why)?
I’m excited about quite a number of contemporary authors. Dolen Perkins Valdez has a new book out called Take My Hand, and it is a beautifully written historical novel that speaks to the racial injustices in the US. Jessamine Chan’s new novel The School for Good Mothers is brilliant and moving. It is in conversation with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but is its own completely original work. Akwaeke Emezi is a divinely inspired writer. Anything of theirs is a great read. Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is intricate and excellent. Nita Prose’s The Maid is such an intriguing character study. Bernardine Evaristo is just brilliant all around. I enjoyed Chibundu Onuzo’s Sankofa. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was enthralling. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is brilliant. Severance by Ling Ma is a powerful US virus pandemic story, set in an alternate contemporary US, a little similar to the way Harry Sylvester Bird is set in a semi-alternate contemporary US. Alain Mabanckou is another great writer. Jennifer Makumbi, Namwali Serpell, I could go on. Sometimes it seems there must be at least a million great, thought-provoking books. I’ve read many, but there are still so many more I want to read.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
For an essay I’ve been writing, I’ve been researching the Black is Beautiful Movement and Négritude. Also, I’ve always been interested in psychology, and every once in a while I do research into the range of human behaviour and their possible modes of manifestation. The DSM-5 is an interesting text to browse. Childhood traumas interest me, and the way these traumas can manifest in us as adults.
For Under the Udala Trees, I wanted a safer world within Nigeria for LGBTQ community members. I wanted to sway intolerant and even hate-filled mindsets in Nigeria and around the world.
What are you currently working on?
A new novel.
Question from Salem Afangideh: What’s your biggest writing goal or dream?
To have enough discernment to know which stories are worth being told and which ones are better left untold.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
When you set out to write your latest book, did you have any concerns, worries, fears? If so, how do you push past them?⎈
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