My Thoughts On Chinelo Okparanta’s “America”

I’ve joined a group of bloggers to review the Caine Prize 2013 shortlisted stories. More feedback and reactions on ZunguZungu.  

Now, we’re reviewing America by Chinelo Okparanta.

Chinelo Okparanta’s America is a strong contender for this year’s Caine Prize. Chinelo crafts the story the way an old woman narrates a folk tale to her wide-eyed grandchildren. Twists and turns and flair galore. This writer is obviously intelligent. Her presence is heavy in the story, a contrast to Elnathan John’s Bayan Layi, a story in which the writer is almost completely invisible (which is actually very had for a writer to do). In America, Chinelo is visible. Her stamp is all over the place. Though I do not know the writer, personally, after reading this piece, I feel as if I have an idea of who she is, her interests and such.

The theme in this story is similar to some of the other shortlisted stories- Foreign Aid by Pede Hollist

Chinelo Okparanta currently teaches at Colgate University. Her story "America" has been shortlisted in the 2013 Caine Prize series

Chinelo Okparanta currently teaches at Colgate University. Her story “America” has been shortlisted in the 2013 Caine Prize series

and Tope Folarin’s Miracles. America is multilayered – love, nostalgia, hope, memory, international policy, education, poverty, development, coming of age—they’re all here. The lesbian factor sprung up out of nowhere, a brilliant way to go about it. Several times while I read this story, I questioned the parents’ reaction to the lesbian love affair. The mother was upset about it, but did not do much apart from making snide comments. Her father totally accepted it as well. I found this a bit hard to believe. The parents’ did not seem to be well educated. I imaged them as villagers who may have moved up a bit on the ladder but not much, based on the information Chinelo provides in the story. So, the non-antagonistic reaction of their daughter’s lesbian love did not seem very realistic.

This writer is a keen observer and this story is so rich with details that create a tone, a mood, scenes pass by with a movie-like vivid fluidity. I enjoyed the frequent mentions of riding on a bus.Time and place were strong factors here, and I always like a story that is grounded in time and place. Perhaps, at times the story is too conscious of itself, especially when talking about the environmental damage in the Niger Delta, as in this excerpt:

I tell him that decades ago, before the pipes began to burst (or maybe even before Shell came into the area – and of course, these days, it’s hard to remember a time without Shell), Gio Creek, for example, was filled with tall, green mangroves. Birds flew and sang in the skies above the creek, and there were plenty of fish and crab and shrimp in the waters below. Now the mangroves are dead, and there is no birdsong at all. And, of course, there are no fish, no shrimp, and no crab to be caught. Instead, oil shoots up in the air, like a fountain of black water, and fishermen lament that rather than coming out of the water with fish, they are instead harvesting Shell oil on their bodies.

I tell him that the area has undergone what amounts to the American spill, only every year for fifty years. Oil pouring out every week, killing our land, our ecosystem. A resource that should make us rich, instead causing our people to suffer. ‘It’s the politics,’ I say. ‘But I’m no politician.’ Instead, I tell him, I’d like to see if we can’t at least construct efficient and effective mechanisms for cleaning up the damage that has been done. I tell him that Nigeria will benefit from sending out students to study and learn from the recent spill in the US, to learn methods of dealing with such a recurrent issue in our own Niger Delta.

A young Nigerian teacher at a Visa application interview at the American embassy, a teacher who has never been to the U.S. and works at a government college and throughout the story comes across as laid-back, sometimes timid, and curious responding in this manner to an officer, seemed a bit much and preachy.

This story presents culture in notes. I imagine a trail of sticky notes on a desk. The writer may have an interest in culture and this story is quite informative in those aspects. The folk story about Nnamdi climbing the udara tree (another version of the Jack and the Beanstalk story that I grew up with) is evident of that cultural interest. I look forward to reading more of Chinelo’s work.

Check out other responses to America:

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva

Kate Maxwell:

By Chika Oduah

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