Chinelo Okparanta

Interviewed by RL Goldberg and Alex Pickett

This story achieves an admirable balance between Chinasa’s everyday life and larger global problems—particularly some that are occurring in Nigeria. What are the challenges of writing about broader political/historical conflicts while keeping the focus on a character’s more specific and personal struggle? Do you think a fiction writer has a responsibility to connect these spheres in ways other writing cannot?

What a fiction writer sees as his/her responsibility depends on the individual writer. For me, the goal of my fiction is not so much to speak to the state of an entire nation as it is to speak to the goings-on of individual lives. But, I think it’s fair to say that the domestic quite often intersects with the nation, as does the nation with the global. At least, this is my experience of it. Where Chinasa is concerned, I wrote a story about the personal life of a character (her home life, her work life, her family relationships, her relationship with her friends, her romantic life, etc.). But Chinasa’s personal story winds up speaking not only to events in her individual life but also to the current events in the pair of nations that she calls home. The broader political/historical conflicts and concerns come out naturally from her life. Which is a good thing. It’s always best in fiction when these things come out naturally, rather than being forced.

Absence and separation seem to be at the heart of this story. Njika’s absence is a constant cause of frustration for Chinasa, whereas Zion’s notes are a cause for excitement. Neither of them is physically present for most of the story, yet Chinasa’s analysis and anticipation of their messages is a driving force. Meanwhile, Chinasa’s separation from her family and Nigeria is constantly on her mind. What does absence/distance mean to you and your characters?

For me, being away from Nigeria has meant that I go through similar anxieties as Chinasa, and, surely, as her mother. I worry, for instance, if the next bombing has claimed the lives of any of my family members or friends. I have a close friend who lives in Abuja, and who was there for at least two of the bombings; I worried when I could not get a hold of him whether he had been one of the casualties. Like Ije, I also had a family member in Bayelsa. It seems to me that, these days, distance gives us a lot to worry about. Where the story is concerned, if it’s not bombings to worry about, then it’s potential infidelity, etc. In a period of marked absence, humans that we are, we have a tendency to fill in the gaps—to create theories—anything to arrive at a full picture. Sometimes what we use to fill in the gaps only winds up causing us more distress. Sometimes, it makes us happy. Either way, happy or sad, filling in the gap takes energy. Closeness, by contrast, would seem to offer a sense of stability and security that distance does not. Closeness also allows us to conserve our energy, in the sense that we no longer have to exert our energies into filling in gaps. Chinasa, craving this sort of energy-conserving closeness from Njika but not getting it, goes seeking it from Zion. But neither does Zion turn out to be the answer she had hoped that Zion would be.

In an age where we are used to instantaneous communication, much of this story is about Chinasa waiting for information. She waits for Njika to get back to her on Skype, her mother to call, and for Zion to answer her notes. Oddly, it seems her most satisfying exchange is with Zion—and this exchange is not technologically driven. Importantly, this is one of the few moments of potential face-to-face contact. To what degree do you feel that technology impacts the ways characters in your work communicate?

I find, these days, that there’s a way in which we are getting complacent and resigning ourselves to conducting what should be flesh-to-flesh/human-to-human transactions via technology. I cringe to think that a time is coming when people start having entire lifetimes of romances via Skype or text or Facebook chat. It’s a terrifying thought, because to me that sort of thing simply is not real and could never be: Intonations of voice, playful teasing, smiles, gestures—all of these are lost on things like text messages, Facebook chat, etc. Emoticons try, but they are insufficient. We don’t really kiss a person via emoticon. We don’t feel her lips on our own. We don’t feel her warmth over Skype, or over FaceTime. We don’t take in her scent. We don’t embrace. These are probably the reasons why Chinasa concedes to meeting with Zion: She is looking for something real.

I love the section that reads, “Sometimes she thought how one day even love might become like a science. Everyone saying exactly the same right words. Everyone reacting the same exact ways. Love feeling and tasting and looking exactly the way some scientists in some laboratory determined that it should. Perhaps a development like that would solve many romantic disputes, maybe even bring down divorce rates to a cool zero percent.” There is something oddly beautiful, yet completely frightening about love being scientifically perfect. It seems that questions of perfection, utopianism, or ideality are key to your work. I’m thinking specifically of “Fairness,” which appeared in Issue 14 of Subtropics, where the narrator seeks to lighten her skin to become, what she perceives as, more ideal. What about characters in pursuit of “perfection” is interesting to you?

I guess I’m a perfectionist. I don’t know. I wish the notion of perfection did not exist, not even as an illusion. But I also wish the world were perfect.

I’m constantly bowled over by your endings. They are both startling and inevitable. But there also seems to be something punitive happening—in “Fairness,” Uzoamaka is punished not only by guilt but also by a lingering jealousy. In “Hello, I Think You’re Gorgeous!” there’s a self-fulfilling moment where Chinasa’s mother warns her to be careful, reminds her that “we always think we’re fine until we’re no longer fine.” It seems that, in some ways, Chinasa is punished—for her curiosity? For her infidelity? For desire? To what degree would you say that precariousness is predicated on the threat of punishment and intrusion?

I don’t actually see the story in terms of punishment. For me, one of the themes in the story is coming to terms with a bad situation and taking the steps to get out of it. Another theme is courage, the willingness to take risks. One of Chinasa’s other options would be to remain in her dysfunctional relationship, and she does, for a while. But then the appearance of Zion gives her the strength to entertain the possibility of a new relationship. She embarks on the risk. It turns out that not every risk in life pays off. It certainly doesn’t pay off for her. But, in a sense, isn’t life all about taking risks?

There is a moment after Chinasa receives the first message from Zion and she notes that she feels “embarrassment at the thought of having been caught unaware, of being followed and observed without her knowledge or consent.” Later, on the train, she is staring at two trans women, observing them, and she expresses solidarity with them. In so doing she simultaneously seeks to relinquish the power of judging and empower the women by smiling at them. Again, this reminded me of “Fairness” insofar as the narrator’s feelings about bodies—both hers and those of her peers—is complicated. On the one hand, there is a degree of shame and discomfort at being looked at; on the other, an acknowledgement of relative privilege and a desire for closeness. In “Fairness” Uzoamaka has class privilege compared to Eno. In “Hello, I Think You’re Gorgeous!” Chinasa sems to have both relative class and cis-gender privilege. In the end, both Uzoamaka and Chinasa ultimately receive so little reprieve or solace. In your work, how does privilege work to contiguously reveal, occlude, deny, and complicate other perspectives?

Privilege certainly is a recurring theme in my work, as is lack of privilege. Where Chinasa and the trans women are concerned, we get the sense that suffering has the potential to be a great equalizer, but that privilege makes it so that suffering does not in the end serve to equalize. So, Chinasa, though more privileged than these women, has suffered through a traumatic relationship that has somehow opened her eyes to the plight of these trans women. Suddenly she feels she can relate to them. She sympathizes. She attempts to show them this sympathy. There is a brief moment of connection between Chinasa and the women, but unfortunately, it does not go as far as even words. In the end, each party just remains in its respective side, no intercommunication, just polite smiles from one party to the other. Then they allow themselves to be swung back into the motions of living out their own respective lives, of satisfying their own respective needs. In the end neither side gets to really share or really listen or really understand—from a deep, deep, deep place—what the other is going through.

But one could also argue that it’s one step at a time, that a moment of connection is better than no connection at all.