Centering, Appropriation, and Satire: A conversation with Chinelo Okparanta

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Chinelo Okparanta’s first novel, Under the Udala Trees, won the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for General Lesbian Fiction, and was long-listed for a number of prizes including the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, an NAACP Image Award, and a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. She has published work in journals such as The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, and Kenyon Review.

Her second novel, Harry Sylvester Bird, follows its titular white protagonist from his teenage years into young adulthood, as he struggles to make a place in the world, despite a difficult relationship with his racist, unemployed father and his germaphobe mother. In college, Harry meets a fellow student, a Nigerian woman named Maryam, and falls in love.

The story continues as Harry tries to make a life in New York City with Maryam, at times bumbling and loud-mouthed and at others, seemingly paralyzed by the world around him. And when Maryam begins to pull away, Harry is forced to confront his identity as he never has before. The portrait drawn in the book is irreverent and critical, yet always sympathetic.

I spoke with Okparanta over email about Harry and about the book.

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The Rumpus: The novel takes place entirely in first person, and is told from Harry’s perspective. What drew you to this point of view?

Chinelo Okparanta: Harry is essentially a character who believes that he is a great ally. He sees himself as better than his parents. But in all his allyship, he winds up centering himself in the struggle for racial justice to the point of essentially seeing himself as the victim. Writing the story in his point of view (POV) was simply an extension of that metaphor of a man who centers himself in a narrative that is not his to claim. The real heart of the novel, of course, lies in the Black, Black African, immigrant, and general POC communities whose narratives Harry empathizes with but also feels entitled to. And yet Harry is also a sympathetic character in the sense that he really is trying his best. In some ways, it is normal human behavior to be so empathetic that we wind up accidentally centering ourselves in other people’s struggles. For instance, a friend of mine once lost a parent. She was so distraught and crying, and of course, I was so distraught on her behalf that I also began to cry, to the extent that, at one moment, she even had to placate me. In that moment, I realized that there was something wrong with that dynamic. I should have been the one to comfort her. But instead, I had accidentally turned the focus on myself. With Harry Sylvester Bird, the centering happens to revolve around race. But it is worth it to ask ourselves in what ways we are guilty of making ourselves the focus in other people’s struggles and tragedies. The novel is an honest interrogation of the ways this centering occurs where race is concerned.

As for Harry’s voice specifically, he is an unusual young man, precocious but also naïve, with a history of reading and obsessing over works of literature from the 1800s and beyond, and I wanted his voice to reflect that. He is a satirical character, and his unique voice is also an extension of that characterization.

I was also aware that writing the novel in the POV of Harry would raise questions of appropriation. Harry Sylvester Bird is actually a purposeful interrogation of the notion of appropriation and examines appropriation on more than one level.

Rumpus: If the narrator of this book was Maryam, how would that change the story?

Okparanta: Maryam is a young Nigerian woman whom Harry meets and begins dating when he arrives in New York City. If the narrator of the novel were Maryam, the story would be a different novel altogether. The plot could go several different ways. One plot perhaps would be very basic—about a Black female character coming to college in a new country, learning about the unfortunate past of her boyfriend, contending with the racism and microaggressions she experiences from the boyfriend, and finally deciding against pursuing that relationship. Another plot could make Maryam a member of the only Black family growing up in racist Edward, PA. Whichever way I plotted it with Maryam as the narrator, it would be a whole different novel. In my experience of it, readers would either pity the character of Maryam for the racism and microaggressions she has to endure. Others might bring up questions essentially in defense of Harry, such as, “Is she sure she was understanding his intention?” Or, “Surely, that’s not what he meant by that,” and “Perhaps she just took it the wrong way.”

In writing it in Harry’s POV, yes, it raises other kinds of questions. But it also seemed fitting that Harry’s acts of racism should come straight from him, and by his own admission. It was interesting for me to explore the paradox of a character essentially owning up to their role in racism while also being ignorant of it. If, in this case, Harry is himself admitting to us, in the fictional world of the story at least, that he in fact did carry out these racist behaviors (even as he also believes he is doing his part as an ally), then what next? What to do with a character like that? Fiction holds a mirror up to us as a society. The type of person who in some ways admits his own racist mindset and yet also denies that they are guilty of racism does in fact exist in our real world. Do we turn our heads away from the satire because it borders too closely on our reality?

Rumpus: The Pennsylvania town of Centralia is integral to the first half of the novel, a real-life town that sits atop a continual coal fire. Why is Centralia an important setting for this book, and how does it relate to the other settings, such as New York City?

Okparanta: Centralia began to burn in 1962. Today, it has only 5 or so residents and only a few houses remaining in it. In the novel, both Centralia and New York City serve as escapes for Harry. With Centralia, Harry goes there to escape fighting with his parents. He decides to rebuild it as a senior year high school project in order to avoid getting a job. His attempt at rebuilding the town is essentially a commentary on and an extension of the performative nature of his attempts at fixing anything. He, of course, cannot truly be expected to repair an entire town; he is just one young man. But the naïve way he goes about it is an indication of his myopic mindset—which is, to update appearances as a solution, and nothing more fundamental than that.

Rumpus: The story begins in Kiminkazi, Tanzania, in 2016 when Harry is a teenager and ends in Manhattan, New York, in 2026 when he is a young man. How did you arrive at this time frame?

Okparanta: The general idea for the novel came to me beginning in 2016. This was probably not a coincidence, as 2016 was the year in which I—and many people of color around me—began experiencing a lot more microaggressions and a lot more profound and explicit forms of racism than perhaps we had ever experienced before. I was personally overwhelmed by these experiences, and eventually, a story just came out of that. After reading the novel, a moderator at one of my events commented that the best description she had read for microaggressions was “small cuts.” It was even more poignant when she explained that, after amassing so many small cuts, it’s quite a deep wound that forms. I think anyone who has been the recipient of these so-called microaggressions would agree. They are indeed like small cuts, but after a while the wound is deep. Imagine a whole segment of the world full of people with all these small cuts who are doing their best to move beyond the pain of their wounds. And meanwhile there is another whole segment of society who just can’t see the wounds, or refuses to see them or acknowledge them for whatever reason, or who sees them and attempts to fix them, but only superficially. This is what Harry Sylvester Bird speaks to.

The novel is essentially a snapshot of where we were as a nation beginning in 2016 and beyond, as well as globally. In writing it, I was interested in the kinds of conversations surrounding race that were going on at the time and are still going on. I did a lot of qualitative research as I travelled around. I asked people from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life about their experiences and general thoughts on race, history, relationships, and more. Some of the responses I got were definitely interesting and eye opening.

The novel goes on to 2026, so it is also a fictional sort of warning bell for the kind of world we might wind up with if we continued as we were.

Rumpus: Several chapters in the book deal directly with the pandemic, with masking, and with the idea of germs. Was it difficult to include the pandemic in the book?

Okparanta: The novel’s setting covers the period of the pandemic, and since the novel’s world is a near-reality world (albeit also speculative), I decided to include the pandemic. But I made sure to make the novel’s world clearly different from our own world which meant that I had to do a bit of pandemic fabrication: pandemic registration bubbles and pandemic checkpoints, pandemic police officers, etc.

Rumpus: How long did it take you to write the novel? What was your process like?

Okparanta: The novel took several years to write. The idea began to form in 2016. I had been heavily thinking of the question of appropriation and in what ways it could be subverted in literature, etc. And then later that year, and in the years that followed, I found myself dealing with a lot of strange, almost preposterous racial discrimination incidents, even from people who supposedly had my best interest at heart. In the end, the novel came to me through the POV of Harry. As I envisioned Harry’s journey, I could see the ways in which Harry meant well, but all of his actions were just a performance. As I began to write his story down, he just continued to engage in more and more bizarre behaviors, though not completely unlike experiences that I myself had and that the people of color in my community were also experiencing at the time. Much of writing is about trying to make sense of what continues to nag at us. That is what Harry Sylvester Bird is for me. As a Black woman, and an African immigrant living for over three decades now in the US, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the state of racism in this country and in our world.

Rumpus: Are there any authors you see as influences for this book?

Okparanta: I was influenced by my study of many satirical works of fiction. Books such as: Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and many more. More recently, I read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Ling Ma’s Severance, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, and others.

Many of these are serious books with serious political commentaries, and while they do contain some funny moments, they are also sometimes fittingly grim.

Rumpus: Can you talk a bit about your use of satire?

Okparanta: It would appear that lots of people think that a satirical novel is simply meant to entertain readers, and that satire is meant to be primarily funny. The truth is that there are different kinds of satires. There are even terms for these types: Horatian, Menippean, Juvenalian. Sometimes the satire can be close to our reality; other times they are more detached—the use of animals as representations of humans, for instance, such as with Animal Farm. Some works of satire are almost entirely funny; others are scathing and only funny in parts. And then there are those that cast completely un-funny moral judgments on society; these can in fact even be scary. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian satire that is scary and hits close to home, quite different from but also in many ways similar to Harry Sylvester Bird. It is quite unpleasant to witness our world in the way that Atwood presents it, and yet, if we allow ourselves to engage with the commentary, we see the ways in which her fiction borders on our reality, and we see that there is truth in the criticism. We see that there is an important warning there. Harry Sylvester Bird has its laugh-out-loud moments, but similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, it is also a scathing kind of satire, a serious political criticism and a warning.

Rumpus: Were you concerned about the novel having a polarizing effect?

Okparanta: Many works of political satire are polarizing because they hit close to home for certain readers. For instance, Fahrenheit 451 was a polarizing novel. It’s true that books are not being burnt to the extent that they were many years ago in certain parts of the world, but Fahrenheit 451 was inspired by the political instability of Bradbury’s time. And the truth is, censorship and book banning are certainly increasing in our day. Fahrenheit 451, though a polarizing novel, remains a relevant work of literature in the way it satirizes censorship. Similarly, Harry Sylvester Bird is a response to the sociopolitical instability of our time in the way that it satirizes performative allyship and the kind of empathy that centers itself in other people’s struggles.

Rumpus: Who do you write for? What audience did you have in mind when writing this novel?

Okparanta: With all my works, my audience is primarily my community. This includes Black, Black African, Black African immigrant, general immigrant, and POC communities out there, and true allies of any race and citizenship status. My community is also my LGBTQIA friends and family, and more. My literature is generally an act of solidarity, a way of saying that I see you, and here is some literature to help us not feel so alone.

It’s one thing to talk about experiences of racism in our small groups (in safe spaces where, when we tell of our experiences, we won’t be asked: “Are you sure you understood it correctly?” or “Maybe they meant it another way,” etc.) but there’s a way in which literature is even more powerful than those small group conversations in that it validates our experiences on a grander scale.

In publishing Harry Sylvester Bird, I’ve had incredible feedback from many groups, especially the Black African immigrant and general immigrant and POC communities living in the US, and also from a number of white Americans, some of whom happened to be in interracial relationships. They have all been forthcoming about the ways in which they have related to the book. A woman the other day, for example, was telling me that she related to Maryam because of the way she believed that her ex really had loved her, but in the end she saw that she was just a tool he was using for his own selfish purposes, and yet she had remained with him for about a decade, just trying to reconcile her discomfort. One white man in an interracial relationship said that the book opened his eyes to the ways certain of his actions were received by his Black partner.

The other night, a moderator for one of my events told me the story of how she sent the novel to a bunch of friends, some white, one of whom called her crying because the friend felt guilty of many of the acts in the book. To which the moderator simply said something to the effect of, “Just try and finish it, and then we will talk.” So, yes, certain communities are grateful for the book. But it’s also a hard book for some members of other communities.

Rumpus: What, in your opinion, does true allyship look like?

Okparanta: Harry Sylvester raises exactly this question. The answer might look different for others, but for me, a true ally makes me feel safe by actually hearing me out, by not dismissing my experiences or immediately jumping to the defense of the other party. Such an ally admits their limitations while also holding themselves accountable. I have found true allyship in all groups of people regardless of race.

In any case, the job of political satire is to highlight by way of ridicule, exaggeration, humor, caricature, etc., particular issues that exist in our contemporary society. Harry Sylvester Bird is that kind of a book. It highlights the issue of performative allyship and shows us what allyship should not look like. Which is to say that true allyship should not look like Harry’s version.

Rumpus: Is it possible that there will be a sequel to this book?

Okparanta: I wrote the novel and also wrote part of the sequel even before the book was accepted for publication. People often want to know if Harry does better. The answer is that Harry does in fact eventually grow. But as is often the case with these kinds of growth, the growth is slow.

 

 

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Author photo by Kelechi Okere


Chelsea Voulgares lives in the Chicago suburbs, and is the editor of the literary journal Lost Balloon. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Passages North, Midwestern Gothic, Bust, and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.chelseavoulgares.com or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares. More from this author →