Chinelo Okparanta

How did you become a writer?

I always wrote as a small child, but primarily essays. I won a number of contests, starting at age 10, shortly after my family and I arrived in America. I remember an essay contest held in the greater Boston area that was advertised under the umbrella of "Justice for All." Most of the middle school students in the area entered. I wrote about different types of violence. Domestic violence was at the forefront of my mind. I was happy when I was announced a winner. The prize was a $100 savings bond, which was great, since my immigrant family was very poor at the time, and every day was a struggle. Those were the days when we relied on church food banks and thrift stores for nourishment and clothing. We--all of us, my 8 and 4 year old sisters included--had been cleaning floors and trash rooms and laundry rooms to be able to afford living in our basement, cockroach and mice-infested apartment. My writing, in a sense, became a minor sort of salvation, a respite: We could afford just a bit more with the money that I earned in that contest.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I claim so many influences--I love the works of Edwidge Danticat, Flora Nwapa, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Jumpa Lahiri. Of course, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. My own classmates at Iowa were also influential, as well as my teachers--Marilynne Robinson, Samantha Chang, Jim McPherson while he lived, Ethan Canin, Robin Hemley and Michael Martone. I was also a lover of French and Irish literature--Le Petit Prince by Antoine de St. Exupéry, Candide by Voltaire, Molière's L'Ecole des Femmes, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien. 

When and where do you write?

Formerly, in the early morning, before rising from bed, when my head was still clear. Now, whenever I have time and feel inspired. 

What are you working on now?

A novel and a collection of short stories.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. I never approach writing with a sense of "I must sit down and write this very minute." I write only when I feel inspired, which makes it more fun and less like an obligation. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Focus on the work. All the rest is a great distraction. 

Also, during a group dinner at an artists' residency in Umbertide, Italy, a poet whose work I greatly admire, cautioned, "Never believe your own hype." I thought that was sound advice. He's one of the most humble writers I know. But if you're a person of color, a marginalized woman, a member of the lgbtq community, a victim of abuse, a person who is trying so hard to build yourself up from the falling apart-ness of life, for whom every day has been and sometimes still is a real struggle, a person who sees confidence as a thing belonging only to other people, then I say believe your own hype a bit. Sometimes believing can be a matter, not of arrogance, but of self-assurance, and ultimately, of survival. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Focus on the work. All the rest is a great distraction.  

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the short-story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. Her honors include an O. Henry Prize, two Lambda Literary Awards, and finalist selections for the Young Lions, the Caine Prize, the Etisalat Prize, the Rolex Mentors and Protégé Arts Initiative, and the International Dublin Literary Award. She currently lives in Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University.