Blogging the Caine Prize: Thinking Through Chinelo Okparanta’s ‘America’

On Monday Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’ was announced as the winner of the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. Building up to this announcement the five shortlisted writers spent a week in the UK, talking about their writing in the media and at events across London.  The conversations sparked by these events, the five shortlisted stories and the winner continue.  In the spirit of this, we felt it was important to ensure that our AiW Blogging the Caine Prize series was complete and to belatedly share reflections on Chinelo Okparanta’s ‘America’.

AiW Guest Lexzy Ochibejivwie

HappinesChinelo Okparanta tells a story that is particular, yet with universal implication in a swift and detached manner. Set in Port Harcourt and Lagos, ‘America’ is the narrative of Nnenna Etoniru. The story moves between her relationship with the Niger Delta environment and her choice of a same sex relationship with Gloria Oke. The story starts with Nnenna, our first person narrator, travelling in a bus to Lagos for an interview to secure a US visa. Through her observations of the landscape she sees from the bus window, Nnenna reveals the shift in the state of nature which once ‘thrived’, to plants that are now ‘little more than stumps, thin and dusty, not verdant as they used to be’ (107). It soon becomes clear that Nnenna’s desire to secure the US visa is tied up with her relationship with Gloria, her former colleague at the Federal Government Girls’ College at Abuloma. She shares her memories of their first meeting ’she wore a simple pair of black flats’, their growing intimacy ‘she started to visit me in my flat’, and their first kiss mixed with cake icing. Nnenna’s narrative of her relationship with Gloria is shadowed by Mama’s disapproval of ‘that sort of thing’, as she walks in on one of their early encounters and repeatedly insists on Nnenna’s responsibility to provide her with a grandchild. This is contrasted with Papa’s understanding that ‘love is love’ and of the advantages and freedoms that the US might bring, but where in Nigeria, policemen are watching and penalties for this action are ‘harsh’.

2013_okparantaThe story is driven forward both by Nnenna’s desire to unite with the ‘woman she truly loves’ and the destruction of the Niger Delta by the oil industry. Nnenna’s green card will enable her to undertake a Masters’ degree in Environmental Engineering, which she argues in her interview will enable her to learn ‘first hand’ about the management of the recent major Gulf oil spill, and to be with Gloria. As the story comes to an end, once she gets the ‘green-coloured card’, Nnenna starts to feel the push and pull of freedom and attachment, of the realities at home and the dreams abroad, and to question whether she has really got what she wanted. The story finishes with a folk tale of the golden hen, that Mama used to tell by candle light, evocatively highlighting that the golden hen or the green card both are and aren’t the end of the story, and the limited resources at the earth’s disposal.

Although the voice and imagery in ‘America’ is simple and understated, the narrative is truly a complex one. As different issues and ideas push and pull at the body of the narrative, it comes across as a nice piece of parcel which one opens, only to find out that another exists which needs to be opened in order to appreciate the first. In the end, it is perhaps the contrary markers given in the America and Nigeria of the story that serve to stitch the actions together; Nnenna’s comment about the oil spill in the Gulf in America stays in my mind:

America was nothing like Nigeria, after all. Here, roads were strewn with trash and it was rare that anyone cared to clean them up. Here, spills were expected. Because we were just Africans. What did Shell care? Here spills were happening on a weekly basis in the Niger Delta area. … But a spill like that in America? I could honestly not imagine (P.118).

For me, Chinelo Okparanta’s stance for the environment is the most important thing about this story. Of course important works of poetry, drama, and prose have tackled this theme,- Tanure Ojaide’s Beauty I Have Seen, Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta, Nnimmo Bassey’s I Will Not Dance To Your Beat, J.P. Clark-Bekederemo’s All for Oil and The Wives Revolt, Ahmed Yerima’s Hard Ground, Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow, to name just a few. However, I would argue that in no short story has the Niger Delta situation been rendered with such strokes of courage as here.

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Lexzy Ochibejivwie is a PhD student at the University of Lagos.  His research interests include women and the organisation of the short story form.  He is a writer, editor and public commentator.  In his spare time he enjoys both outdoor (football) and indoor games (scrabble, chess, table tennis).

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This is the final post in our series as part of Blogging the Caine 2013, in which a group of writers organised by Aaron Bady write about the shortlist for this year’s Caine Prize.

Read previous posts on Africa in Words about each of the shortlisted stories:

Gbesmisola Abiola on Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’ 

Rebecca Jones on Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’ 

Katie Reid on Pede Hollist’s ‘Foreign Aid’

Sylvia Gasana on Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s ‘The Whispering Trees’

C.E. Hastings on Elnathan John’s ‘Bayan Layi’

Read other responses to Chinelo Okparanta’s ‘America’ from:

Keguro Macharia: http://gukira.wordpress.com/

Kate Maxwell: http://skatemaxwell.wordpress.com/

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva: http://walkingdiplomat.blogspot.com/

Chika Oduah: https://chikaoduahblog.wordpress.com/

Veronica Nkwocha: http://veronicankwocha.com/

Aishwarya Subramanian http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/



Categories: Blogging the Caine Prize

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3 replies

Trackbacks

  1. Mother and daughter: a response to ‘America’ by Chinelo Okparanta | Multimodal Machaut
  2. My Thoughts on ‘America’ by Chinelo Okparanta | veronicankwocha
  3. Perhaps you missed (Festive 2013 edition) « Africa in Words

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