Chinelo Okparanta, one of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012, and author of Happiness, Like Water, a collection of short stories, will be a panelist at Afrilit2013. She answers our 5 questions about her collection of work and her influences.
Your short story collection, Happiness, like Water, contains stories of life in Nigeria and also in the United States. You tell very different kinds of stories. Can you share the inspiration behind some of the stories?
The stories in my collection are a combination of autobiography and fiction. But I will say that they are primarily fiction. Some aspects of them are things I know of or have heard of, but have not experienced myself, told in a fictional way. Other aspects are taken from my own personal life, but fictionalized as well.
Does being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness influence your writing, and if so, in what way?
Religion comes up a little in my writing, probably because of my Jehovah’s Witness background. But religion itself is not usually the central theme of the stories in which they appear. Not as far as I can tell, anyway. For example, in “On Ohaeto Street” I write about a Jehovah’s Witness man, but that story, in my reading of it, is more than a story about religion.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. There was a brief period near the end of high school during which I wanted to be a psychologist. And then I decided to become a secondary school teacher, which was a wonderful experience. Writing came much later for me—in my late 20s.
Who are your literary influences?
These days I find myself mostly influenced by Alice Munro. Her stories are so universal and many times I have thought that they are actually very much Nigerian. A recent project of mine was different from anything else I’ve written in the sense that it was essentially a study of one of Munro’s stories, modeled directly on hers, in order to put her Canadian story in conversation with my Nigerian one, parallel plot points and structure in attempt to put the narratives in a sort of cross-cultural dialogue with each other.
Aside from Alice Munro, I have been influenced by writers such as Chinua Achebe, Marilynne Robinson, Kate O’Brien, Ian McEwan, Helen Oyeyemi, among others.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Depending on the day, my advice changes. Currently, my advice is the same advice that I myself got not too long ago, which is, don’t be afraid to learn from other writers, or from those who came before you. Let them be your inspiration.
Chinelo will joined by Ayesha Harunna Attah, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, and Tope Folarin, at Afrilit2013.