Nicole Dennis-Benn and Chinelo Okparanta Tell Their Own Stories
In Conversation on Language, Character, and the Perils of Code-Switching
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, is available now from Liveright; Chinelo Okparanta’s latest novel is Under the Udala Trees.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: In a 2015 Guardian article, author Taiye Selasi mentioned a review in which Nigerian author Helon Habila criticized NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names, of “performing Africa,” or worse, perpetuating “poverty porn.” According to that Guardian article, a reader had reportedly accused you, Chinelo, of poverty porn based on a story from your collection Happiness, Like Water. What pressures, if any, do you feel to represent your country in your work? Do you ever feel obligated to be an ambassador by virtue of being a writer? My mother has been the most fervently vigilant about how I represent Jamaica. When I told her I had an interview about my book as it relates to Jamaica, her first comment was, “Mek sure yuh sell yuh country right.” She has since reminded me every chance she gets as though there is something she fears—perhaps the prospect of the country losing tourists because of her daughter. And of course I’ve challenged her. Because what’s that supposed to mean, “Sell your country right”? I never thought of that as my responsibility.
Chinelo Okparanta: Well, that’s the whole issue of saving face, which it seems your mother is encouraging you to do. And, of course, it makes sense. Privacy can be a beautiful and necessary thing. And yet, there are stories that need to be told, and the power is in the telling. Which reminds me of a quote by Nora Ephron that goes something like this: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh… You become the hero, rather than the victim, of the joke.”
I think many of us writing from the margins would do well to keep this quote in mind. There should be nothing shameful about telling our own stories when those stories matter. And, regardless of how hard, how painful, how disturbing the stories we tell, it is in fact empowering to be the ones telling them. When we tell our own stories, we will tell them more honestly, more accurately, and in a less politically biased and oftentimes less denigrating way than anyone else could. By telling our own stories, we define ourselves, rather than leaving ourselves to be defined by others. We refuse to be disenfranchised. And there is dignity in that.By telling our own stories, we define ourselves, and not leave ourselves to be defined by others. We refuse to be disenfranchised. And there is dignity in that.
NDB: Right. As writers, don’t we have the right to tell the stories we want to tell? Don’t we have the right to weave fact into fiction without thinking the whole country will suffer?
CO: It seems to me that as writers we do have the right to tell any stories we want to tell. As fiction writers, we can make up anything we want and present it as something akin to fact. This is the power of fiction. But where national politics, racial agendas—those sorts of things—are concerned, it seems to me that we, as writers, should also be conscious of social consequence. When William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel based on history, in which he fictionalized a black man, turned the black man into one who fantasized nonstop about raping white women (“Without mercy take your pleasure upon her innocent round young body until she is half mad with fright and pain”), a portrayal for which there is no historical proof, he essentially neglected the issue of social consequence. In a society where (and a time period when) white women were falsely accusing black men of rape, some argued that writing a book like that only served to give power to a false narrative, and to feed white anxiety. And all the while, the real Nat Turner had a black wife whom he allegedly loved. No indication whatsoever that he was a raging rapist. So, why the disturbingly altered story by Styron? What was the agenda behind that glaring misrepresentation in a novel that was supposedly “historical fiction”?
Another example: When Joseph Conrad decided to portray Africans as savages in Heart of Darkness, that sort of portrayal also perpetuated a false narrative about Africans. In some ways this is why fiction has a greater obligation to truth. A false perception goes a long way, has the ability to do serious harm in the long run, for instance where policymaking is concerned, and in the politics of international relations. A continent that is thought to be full of useless barbarians might very well serve as the dumping ground for toxic waste. It’s good to be aware of this as we write. I’m more aware of it these days. Of the fact that fiction can have very real social consequence, even when that consequence is limited to the landscape of the mind—limited to the way we perceive others. It is a fine line to walk—that one between presenting reality in fiction as a call for positive change and presenting it in a way that perpetuates social damage. It’s a line that I’ve struggled with in my own fiction. Trying to make a point in a manner I believed would serve the greater good, and just praying, hoping that my readers would get it, that they would understand.
Were there any unflattering truths you found yourself telling in your fiction? And, if so, in what ways did you navigate the telling of these truths while also maintaining the dignity of your characters and of your country? Did you preoccupy yourself with the nuances of fact and fiction as you wrote? I tend to be obsessive with portraying the truths of my country (in my experience of it). Is this the same for you? If so, what sorts of things were you obsessive about portraying accurately?
NDB: Like you, I write my experiences of my country—the good and bad, but hoping to successfully tread that fine line. Since setting is a character in my works, it has to embody complexities, too; contradictions—redeeming qualities and ugliness—that make any other character well rounded. I obsess over authenticity within the broader social and cultural context. While I have every right to make things up—plot-wise and character-wise—I obsess over making sure to stay true to setting, which works both ways for me—as character for sure; but also an instrumental part of my characters’ development. I watch and read a lot of social commentary to keep updated on news back home. Though I write fiction, my stories must take place in the “real world.” Even if I don’t intend on writing the “real world,” it seeps in because I am a product of it; an active participant in it—the politics, the socio-economic disparities, the religiosity, the homophobia, the classism, the complexionism, the sexualization of our girls. When those things do show up in my work I have to get it right. So much so that I take regular trips back home to talk to people, take pictures (my home study has numerous pictures of Jamaica and our people), and do research on aspects of my culture that I yearn to revisit in order to make sense of it. However, I usually end up writing my way through a dark tunnel, discovering myself in the process. That’s the only way I see preserving dignity—by telling truths.Since setting is a character in my works, it has to embody complexities, too; contradictions—redeeming qualities and ugliness—that make any other character well rounded.
For a long time, Jamaica has been depicted in mainstream culture as a place to throw caution to the wind, let your hair down, smoke some weed, rent a dread (or a young girl), listen to Bob Marley, and take pictures of grinning locals. I like that you brought up Joseph Conrad’s portrayal of Africans in Heart of Darkness. In books I have read about Jamaicans, the working-class—particularly our women—are caricatures. This is why I write. I have always felt this obligation to tell the truth—the reality behind those grinning smiles; the desperation of those locals willing to give their bodies for this month’s rent or light bill or school fee; the motivation to bleach their skin; the reliance they have on tourists to make “Every t’ing Irie.” As you say, a false perception has the ability to do serious harm in the long run—an island portrayed as beautiful with happy inhabitants is certainly grounds for exploitation.
I describe Here Comes the Sun as a “love letter to Jamaica.” While writing the novel I traveled to Jamaica and spoke to people working in villas and hotels where I stayed to gain more insight into their worlds. They unmasked themselves once they trusted I was one of them. I read excerpts of the novel to them on their breaks and listened to their responses. They loved Margot, a fictional hotel clerk with hunger pangs so loud that it drives her to make certain decisions. They understood her actions and felt an amount of pity for her that I never would have expected. That was rewarding for me.
Though I know their stories intuitively as a working-class Jamaican myself, I always like to gain even more depth in my travels since there is no such thing as “one story.” I am liberated by this fact. I write freely about Jamaica knowing that my story and that of my characters might be different. It’s all different experiences of a place.
Given that we write stories with universal themes, how do you feel when people quarantine your stories as “other people’s issues” by virtue of taking place in Nigeria or narrated by a Nigerian protagonist? I remember attending your panel at Brooklyn Book Festival in the fall as you promoted Under the Udala Trees—someone asked a question about the state of LGBTQ people in Nigeria and you made a profound point that LGBTQ citizens face similar problems here in the United States. In fact, LGBTQ individuals are still violently targeted and discriminated against in areas of the country despite the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage. Talk about this some more—the inability of some people to see that our problems are the same no matter where we are. Do you feel limited by your status as a Nigerian writer? Similarly, did you feel any trepidation writing gay Nigerian characters given your large Nigerian following? You had mentioned at the launch of Under the Udala Trees that someone stalked you on Facebook and basically threatened you. Elaborate more on that and what it means for you to create authentic stories that defy cultural norms.
CO: I have family living in the state of Maryland, in the United States, so I am more familiar with the struggles of the LGBTQ community in that area. To put it broadly, there was a recent survey taken in the area in which something like over 50 percent of the LGBTQ youth expressed feeling unsafe in school as a result of their sexual orientation. During one of my recent visits to Maryland, all over the news was the murder of a LGBTQ young woman who had been killed by her boyfriend supposedly because her boyfriend was embarrassed to be seen in public with her, due to her transgender identity. Several studies claim that up to 40 percent of the homeless population in the area is made up of LGBTQ youth. Isn’t it a bit tragic that these kids don’t feel safe or welcome in their own homes, by their own families? Yes, even in America. Many of these LGBTQ youth never graduate from high school, due to the fears and discrimination they face. And speaking of discrimination, wasn’t it just the other day that the legislation allowing business owners to deny services to gay couples was signed in Mississippi? My point is homophobia is still a huge problem in the US, and it might be a bit premature to go around declaring the battle won, even in America.
As for my writing Nigerian gay characters, I knew ahead of time that many of my fellow Africans would not exactly be thrilled with my subject matter. I was indeed sent some threatening messages via social media. I did not return home for quite a while after my collection was published due to feeling unsafe. Because, of course, anything could happen. Before my novel came out, I knew quite certainly that it would not be a hit as some other books out there, because there would be, at least in Nigeria, a desire to want to bad-mouth a book like it, given its subject matter and the extreme homophobic mentality of much of the country. But I wrote the book anyway. It’s been interesting bearing witness to the two sets of reactions: The West says, “Oh, we’re done with that struggle. That was a thing of the past! Those Africans are so behind!” Meanwhile, Africa says, “Oh, what is this girl doing? That gay thing is not part of our culture. It’s a Western disease. What is she doing, trying to bring that Western disease to us?” So, in their different ways, they are both sort of in denial. It’s been interesting to watch.
Do I feel limited by my status as a Nigerian writer? Not really. In some ways, my Nigerianness is the fuel to my art. In any case, at the end of the day, the only thing that can truly limit me is my mind, not some fairly circumstantial category as nationality. And I do my best to protect my mind.
NDB: We write about the human experience as a whole—things many of us as humans live through despite our culture. But sometimes one’s susceptibility is marred by perceived “otherness.” I had someone say to me, “Wow. I had a great upbringing here. We don’t hear of much incest cases.” Or “Wow! Little girls selling their bodies for money? Not where I’m from!” I wonder how many people really feel that way. Also, there is a tendency to separate books according to the writers writing them—at least from what I have seen in some bookstores. While our culture certainly fuels our art, there is that “ghetto-ization” that inevitably occurs. But your response about not feeling limited by virtue of the label “Nigerian writer” is a wonderful perspective.
CO: Oh, thank you for the elaboration on the question. Yes, of course, I write about the universal human experience: love, marriages, families, growing up, etc. These topics are not specific to Nigeria. But also, like you, I’ve heard some Americans, upon finding out that I’m from Nigeria, say things like, “Oh, Nigeria! Isn’t it that country where there is a lot of governmental corruption? Isn’t it that country with lots of bombings and from which the girls got kidnapped? Isn’t it that country from which we get those 419 email scams?” Yes, all of these are attempts at “othering.” Where my writing is concerned, this sort of “othering” can be restrictive and reductive, for sure. But I just try to focus on my work. Eventually, the work has to speak for itself, and with time, people will start to see how just universal its preoccupations truly are.
Incidentally, I should mention that I once asked an aunt why she was so adamant about not wanting my cousin (her daughter) to come live in the US. My aunt responded, “The US? That country where they kill black people? Never!” In some ways, countries earn their reputations. Likewise, in some ways, it’s human nature to be reductive.
NDB: Also, the point you made about homophobia still being a huge problem in the US is valid. However, one thing I must say as a married lesbian is that I am benefiting from these rights—like being on my wife’s health insurance. It’s extremely helpful and validating to be able to walk into a doctor’s office together and be acknowledged as spouses, or existing openly in each other’s professional worlds as wife and wife without fears of being demoted or fired. So I disagree with the notion that we’re celebrating too soon. Although there is discrimination in certain pockets—which we certainly cannot deny—I must say that at least we have rights as married couples. The struggle for full equality continues, for sure—just like it has after the Civil Rights Movement. While there is still racism, we are existing in an integrated society with rights as blacks (which is relative!). That’s still something to celebrate, although we still have a long way to go.
CO: Yes, of course. The US has certainly made great strides. And each step deserves its own sort of ceremony. My point only is, as you also mentioned in your question, that LGBTQ people in the US still face serious violence and discrimination despite the Supreme Court ruling. As with the issue of black lives, the work is not yet done.
NDB: And I know that our respective countries—Jamaica and Nigeria—also have their journeys, too. I do identify with your frustration with that statement “Bringing western practices to our culture.” I hear it all the time, too. When I got married to my wife in Jamaica, the Jamaican media went wild with the news, and most comments were the exact same thing. It made me laugh, since I always knew who I was attracted to before America.
CO: You mentioned Margot earlier. But your novel follows the lives of not just Margot, but also Delores, Thandi, and Verdene. I was so taken by these women, how real and authentic they felt. I’m always interested in authorial inspiration. What was your inspiration for these women? How did they arrive to you? Did you always know what their separate struggles would be? Or, did that come to you after lots of revisions?
NDB: The characters came to me fully formed. Thandi came to me first, followed by Margot, Delores, and Verdene. Once upon a time I used to I roll my eyes when I heard writers talk about muses speaking to them, but I must admit that they spoke to me, too. During my first visit back home in a long time I had to deal with a lot of feelings I had when I left. Thandi came to me as an embodiment of things that I’ve gone through as that working-class, dark-skinned girl at an elite high school with a yearning to be accepted by the class of people who looked down on her. I didn’t know the direction of the story—though it had been writing itself in my mind for years—until I returned to the island.
While at a gathering in Jamaica years later, I noticed a group of young local girls—girls who were no older than 18, each paired off with significantly older men. Suddenly I knew what was happening and why they were there with those men. I knew that for them, this was survival. In the unmanageable sadness I felt watching them, Margot spoke her story. Margot visited in the evenings at sunset in my home study in Brooklyn when I tended to write her. My mind was more relaxed to handle Margot at that time. Through her I conquered the hurt I have felt as a working-class Jamaican—the yearning to own a piece of paradise, though instinctively knowing that it does not belong to us. Margot was my heroine.
As if to defend herself, Delores started speaking, too, at a rapid speed. I knew Delores by virtue of being in those stalls at the craft-market with those women. They wouldn’t let me leave without buying something. One of them told me about her daughter, who was going to be a doctor. I bought the things she sold me because of that fact. I knew how hard it is to send a child to school back home. I knew how hard it is to have such a dream when you are a living in poverty with school fees, school books, and school uniforms to contend with. I had to buy this woman’s things. And in buying her things, I carried her story with me.
Verdene appeared naturally, too. I knew I wanted to get inside the heart and mind of someone returning to her homeland, claiming a country and a woman—both of whom never claimed her back.
I was taken by Ijeoma and Amina in your novel. I especially loved the juxtaposition of love in a time of war. What was your inspiration for these women? I believe that we tell our stories because they need to be told, hoping that they will be read. For whom do you write?
CO: Ijeoma was in part a product of the stories my mother used to tell me about her own experiences during the Biafran war. But the story then went in its own direction: Ijeoma would fall in love with another girl, an age-mate. The circumstance surrounding their meeting was not always crystal clear, but I only had to write the story out, and slowly things became clear.
For whom do I write? At first, I wrote just to clear my head, to process things that were happening around me. So, you could say I wrote for myself. At that time, being published was not something I’d given much thought. It had not yet become part of my reality. This was a good thing, I suppose. I was more able to focus on the writing without having so many voices in my head. These days, I think it’s fair to say that I still write for myself, but, clearly, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Speaking of audience, in chatting with many writers like us, there’s a certain care taken not to “explain” the culture away, and certainly not to dilute the cultural markers inherent in the work. Did you find yourself trying to make your work more accessible to readers outside of Jamaica? Given that you are being published in the US, did you face any pressures where “explaining” your culture to readers was concerned? In terms of local language versus Standard English, what were your challenges in writing the novel?
NDB: I never felt the need to explain away my culture. One thing that has always fascinated me about your work is your description of cultural foods—garri and yam porridge being among them. You never explained or defined garri, yet it has become a staple in readers’ minds. Similarly, I write freely, trusting the characters and staying true to them. Standard English and Jamaican Patois are spoken in our country. However, I use a lot of Jamaican Patois in my work given that the people I write about wouldn’t be speaking Standard English unobserved. I write about them in their most intimate spaces, and so I have to be as authentic as possible. In the past I used to be conscious of this. I was told by someone that a reader in the Midwest might not understand Jamaican Patois. They told me to take the Patois out of an earlier project. I nearly agreed, though it didn’t feel right. I had just graduated from my MFA program and thought the world would end if I didn’t obey this person, who I thought at the time had a lot of power. I think they were underestimating those readers.
Since then I’ve decided that I have more of an obligation to the people I’m writing about. Here Comes the Sun is a product of that defiance. I like to think of my stories as documentation and preservation of a language spoken by my ancestors, which is much more a part of our identity and culture than Standard English, yet which has been discouraged. James Baldwin once said that if we deny a language, then we deny the experience of a people. Our speech is dependent upon our social class, education level, and to whom we are speaking. One question I received during the editing process was how come some characters turn on and off their Patois in certain settings. (For example, Margot may speak Patois at home with Thandi and Delores, but wouldn’t really speak that way with Alphonso or Verdene. Thandi refuses to speak Jamaican Patois, because of its cultural stigma of being “backwards,” uneducated.) I make sure to put this internal and social conflict in context, allowing the reader who isn’t familiar with Jamaican culture to understand this discord.I like to think of my stories as documentation and preservation of a language spoken by my ancestors, which is much more a part of our identity and culture than Standard English, yet which has been discouraged.
I noticed that you do the same thing in Under the Udala Trees with Pidgin—an eerily similar language to Jamaican Patois! As explained by your narrator, Ijeoma, Pidgin is the language of “amusement, relaxation, and conflict.” Your main characters speak Standard English with a sprinkle of Pidgin here and there. Or if Pidgin is spoken, it’s followed up with the Standard English translation. How did you navigate the two languages in the book?
CO: Your response makes me think of Angela Flournoy’s discussion regarding her use of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) in her novel, The Turner House, in her recent BuzzFeed profile. Flournoy explains that not every African American speaks the same way every time. There are certain situations in which a person might use AAVE, but then in a different situation would not. She is absolutely right. Language use depends on many factors: socioeconomic status, age, level of education, occupation, upbringing, type of social setting, etc.
There was a period in Nigerian history in which many families of a certain social class insisted that their children spoke Standard English, no traditional languages at home or in school. Yet, quite often our native languages still crept back in, as did Pidgin. This is clearly the case with Ijeoma, whose manner of speech is very reflective of the way many Igbo Nigerians of her socioeconomic status speak—mostly in English, with Igbo and Pidgin woven in throughout. Ijeoma, in fact, does not explain her Igbo or pidgin. There are many instances in which she simply uses Igbo and/or Pidgin with no explanation whatsoever. For instance, “Make I get wata abeg. Obere mmiri,” she recounts a soldier saying, a mixture of Igbo and Pidgin with no explanation or translation. There are many other instances of this, and then there are, of course, instances where the Igbo and/or Pidgin appear to be translated, but are actually just a realistic portrayal of the way many Nigerians talk. Growing up, my mother, for instance, would scold us in Igbo, and then for emphasis, she would repeat her scolding in English. We laughed about it, and we had a term for it: Repetition for Emphasis. Sometimes she did the opposite: she’d say something in English, then the repetition for emphasis would be in Igbo. The same thing happens in my novel. To foreign eyes, it might seem a translation, but actually it isn’t. As for many of the songs that Ijeoma recounts (“Ayi na acho isi Gowon,” for instance, or “Ojukwu bu eze Biafra nine”), they appear exactly the way they were sung, flowing seamlessly between English and Igbo. This is just the way the songs were sung, not an attempt on my part to translate them. Even the traditional Igbo women’s song, “Selense,” remains the same in the novel. No translation. No explanation.
And yet, there were times when I wanted to make sure a certain word or phrase, or an old folk song, archaic as it was, was understood by as many readers as possible, including my fellow Igbos. In these cases, I did in fact translate. It’s a personal call, in my mind. When certain people want to be accusatory (“Why are you translating the words for the sake of Western readers?!”), I have to remind them that Nigeria, quite unlike Jamaica, for instance, is a country in which hundreds of languages are spoken. As a Nigerian, I want to be read by as many Nigerians as possible. Given that not all Nigerians speak Igbo, and also given that some Igbo people no longer even read or speak Igbo, it was important to me to translate especially the songs that were older and less likely to be understood by even fellow Igbo people. And in doing so, I was also essentially creating a record of these old folk songs and phrases, along with their meanings. This strategy in itself is a method of preserving, and thereby, perpetuating the language. An archive on page. It is also a way of inviting non-speakers to learn the language—to, at the very least, see and appreciate the patterns of the language in the context of its translation. In my mind, it is also a good thing when literature engages its readers in this sort of way.
NDB: I hear you. I remember reading Gloria Anzaldua in college, then later, Junot Diaz—both of whom unapologetically insert Spanish in their works without explanation. Their works have challenged me to slow down and pay close attention to the context. I walk away from their works with so much more when I read that way. It was Gloria Anzaldua who said, “Until I am free to write bilingually and switch codes without always having to translate… and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.” I thought that was a really powerful statement and absolutely relevant to our discussion on writing our truths, our stories, as authentically and honestly as we can, preserving the dignities of our cultures, all while trusting the creative process and knowing that like language, there’s no such thing as one story.
Thank you Chinelo for such an insightful and invigorating conversation! I look forward to recommending Under the Udala Trees to more people, and reading your next book!
CO: Thank you so much for this exchange. I’ve enjoyed learning more about Here Comes The Sun. Huge congrats on your accomplishment! Wishing you light and love and all good things in the journey ahead.