KR Conversations

Chinelo Okparanta

Chinelo Okparanta is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in GRANTA, Iowa Review, Southern Review, Conjunctions, Subtropics, and elsewhere. Her collection of short stories will be published next year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (USA) and GRANTA (UK). She has taught at the University of Iowa, where she was the Provost Postgraduate Visiting Writer for Fiction. She is currently Olive B. O’Connor Creative Writing Fellow in Fiction at Colgate University. Her story “On Ohaeto Street” was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?

I wrote “On Ohaeto Street” during one of my frenetic periods of writing, so, fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have a clear memory of writing it. It seems to me, though, that the story must have come out fluidly, or else I would remember the struggle.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

I’ve learned that it doesn’t come by force. It should never be by force.

Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?

I tend to look for an eclectic mix of stories, and so I very much enjoy journals such as GRANTA, Subtropics, and Conjunctions, to name a few. And once a week, I do enjoy having breakfast with my New Yorker.

Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?

I’m especially in agreement with Larkin’s first stage. I generally only set out to write when I have found myself sufficiently obsessed with the topic/story at hand.

In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?

Just write. Sometimes it will be good. Sometimes it will be bad. Write anyway.

Just read. Sometimes it will be good. Sometimes it will be bad. Read anyway.

Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.

I was a quiet child, very shy. I struggled with class participation throughout most of my schooling. It was not until Iowa that I learned to be confident in my voice, literally and figuratively speaking. In that sense, Iowa has been important to my writing.

But long before Iowa, my high school French teacher, Mrs. Brenda Nickles, laid the groundwork for my writing by instilling in me a love for literature. In her class, we read Molière’s L’Ecole des Femmes, Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville, Marguerite Duras’ Moderato Cantabile, Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean, Voltaire’s Candide, Antoine de St. Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, the list goes on. Mrs. Nickels’ class allowed me to immerse myself in reading. Interestingly, we read all those books in French. And, even as ninth graders, we discussed them as if we were university students, our desks gathered around in circles, our faces serious, gravely contemplating topics such as love, war, loyalty, foreseen and unforeseen betrayal.

I’ve had many teachers outside of the two listed above. I’m sure they know themselves.