Armchair Travel: Take a Trip to Nigeria with Writer Chinelo Okparanta

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Okay, so every road trip on two or four wheels needs a great tune, right? How about this one?
Yup, that's Fela Kuti and right now we're taking off for his native Nigeria. No need to book a flight, just pull up a chair, an armchair. We've invited Nigerian American writer Chinelo Okparanta to share her picks for our armchair travel series this summer. And Okparanta says you just can't travel to Nigeria without reading her first pick, it's the classic 'Things Fall Apart,'  by Chinua Achebe.

Chinelo Okparanta: Growing up, you know, I knew the name Chinua Achebe. I knew it before I actually understood the importance of his writing, of his name, of what he had done culturally for us. It was a name that was just spoken all around me. 'Things Fall Apart'  is a story of our history. The book itself, you know, is set in pre-colonial to colonial Nigeria. He wrote 'Things Fall Apart'  at a time when stories about Africa were very racist and problematic. And, you know, an African voice writing African stories, a Nigerian voice writing Nigerian stories, in a sense he gave us back our dignity.

Werman: I mean, when we talk of kind of traveling via the armchair, 'Things Fall Apart'  was written more than 50 years ago. Do you think readers who read it today will find a Nigeria in it that still exists?

Okparanta: I think that, you know, there is that ongoing, but hopefully somewhat resolving of what colonialism has done to our country. They are still ongoing to an extent, but that's not the Nigeria you'll find now if you went back. You know, there are traditions that still linger. But, you know, the nature of tradition is that traditions do change.

Werman: Now, the next book you've chosen is 'Half of a Yellow Son,'  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It takes us to another point in Nigerian history. Namely, the Biafra war. Late 60's, am I right there?

Okparanta: Yeah. The Biafra war, the Nigeria Biafra war as some people call it. So, 1967 to 1970.

Werman: Why that book in particular?

Okparanta: Because it's a different period in Nigeria's history and I think it's a very important period. And a period that has not been written about so much, in fiction at least. And I think that book was very brave, and I think that it opened up the dialogue.

Werman: Remind us just what the Biafra war was all about. It was an ethnic conflict, right?

Okparanta: It was. Just generally speaking it was a conflict between the different groups, the Hausa and the Igbo people mostly, and the Yoruba were sort of in there. Basically there was a war, the Biafra, which is the Igbo people, they decided that they wanted to form their own country. Oju could declare the, he was the leader at the time, and he declared the Republic of Biafra.

Werman: I gather your parents are both survivors of Biafra. What stories have they shared with you?

Okparanta: Any of the stories I hear come from my mom. She's the storyteller of the family. We got folktales from her, but we also got stories of the war from her. And the war was extra important to her because she actually lost her father during the war. You know, a bomb exploded and a piece of it went through his heart and he died that way. That sort of broke apart the family.
I'm actually currently working on a novel which might or might not center on the Biafran war, but I'm not, I'm still working on it so I'm not quite sure where it will lead.

Werman: So you selected a novel from the 50's, a novel set in the 60's and early 70's, and then a third book, 'Love is Power or Something Like That,'  set in contemporary Nigeria. That's by A. Igoni Barrett. Barrett writes short stories about an entirely different Nigeria than Adichie and Achebe.

Okparanta: He definitely does. His book is completely contemporary. Many, if not all, of the stories are set in Lagos. In the book we see things like internet cafes, cell phones, it's basically a modern Nigeria juxtaposed with traditional elements. And his storytelling is a more laid back storytelling. There's less urgency to it in a way. And that's not to belittle, you know, his stories or anything. I actually believe that that's a good thing in a way too.

Werman: Right.

Okparanta: That we can actually just tell our stories, the day to day stories of people without the weight of topics such as colonialism and war. That's a sign of progress, I think so. But I enjoyed his stories. There's an easy humor in the way he tells them.

Werman: Well Chinelo, let's end by talking a little your book that comes out this August. It's a collection of short stories titled, 'Happiness, Like Water.'  Where did the title come from?

Okparanta: [Laugh] That's a good question. The title comes from one of the stories. There's a character who is asked whether she's happy, and she says, well, you know, happiness is like water. She keeps trying to grab a hold of it but it keeps slipping between her fingers. And so that's where the title comes from. But it was actually interesting arriving at a title. We went through quite a few of them. So if you look online I'm sure that you will see a title that says, you know, the collection is 'Too Much Wahala,'  which also means too much trouble. That's the word. Or too much problems. Wahala is the word for problem, or trouble, or issues. But I think we settled on 'Happiness, Like Water,'  because the collection is really stories about the general pursuit of happiness.

Werman: Fela Kuti, as you know, had this song, water no get enemy. Animistic gods and goddesses often transform out of river water or well water in Nigeria. Water often gets personified in Nigerian culture. Why is that? What's so special about water?

Okparanta: Water is important. I mean, water is life. You know, without water we can't live so it would make sense that water would be personified. You know, I don't know that it's a Nigerian thing, or like an Igbo thing, or, you know. It's not, it's an everybody thing. Water is vital to life, you know? So maybe that's all it is.

Werman: Chinelo Okparanta. Her first, book a collection of short stories is titled 'Happiness, Like Water'  comes out this August. Chinelo, thank you for taking us on this short trip to your home of Nigeria.

Okparanta: Thank you for having me.


Werman: All summer we'll be exploring books that let you travel the world from the comfort of your home. Armchair traveling, we're calling it. We're asking for your help, and we've received some great responses so far. Debbie Cooper in New York recommended, among others, 'The Sheltering Sky,'  by Paul Bowles. Great choice. It follows a couple, originally from New York, as they journey to the North African desert. Share your favorite armchair travel books for the summer at This is PRI.