Religion, the Bible, and Personal Morality: An Interview with Chinelo Okparanta

Rae Winkelstein-Duveneck

Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta is a fiction writer, teacher, and graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In 2012, she was nominated for a United States Artists Fellowship in literature. Okparanta has been interviewed by the BBC’s The Forum, New African Woman magazine, GRANTA (New Voices), KRUI's The Lit Show (The University of Iowa), The Scarlet Scroll (Rutgers University), RTÉ Arena (Ireland), The Sun (Nigeria), and others. Her collection of short stories, Happiness, Like Water, is due out in May from Granta Books in the UK and August from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US, and will be followed by her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees. Happiness, Like Water has been listed by the Huffington Post as one of its picks for the best books of 2013.  Okparanta served as 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction at Colgate University and is currently Visiting Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Purdue University.

Okparanta’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals, including GRANTA, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Conjunctions, Subtropics, The Coffin Factory, and others. Told in her clear, lyrical, and incisive fashion with a keen focus on human drives and motivations, Okparanta’s stories deal with broad and complicated themes such as globalization, colonialism, capitalism, domestic abuse, sexuality, family, psychology, love, and religion. These larger concerns are often concretized in familial settings during times of crisis and upheaval, where irrational and selfish behaviors play out alongside an array of forbearances and, just as often, a sort of peace through contemplation seems to hover in the margin. This month, her story "Designs" comes out in The Iowa Review. In it, a Nigerian man carries on a compulsive affair with an American coworker. In preparation for the appearance of “Designs”, I conducted the following interview with Okparanta.

I was curious about her religious background and her personal views on the religious and moral topics that frequently figure in her stories. She has clearly given much thought to, among other matters, the Bible, hypocrisy, self-deception, and the notion of good and evil, as have many of her characters. We began the interview informally with a walk along the river in Iowa City, followed by a two-week email exchange during which she furnished the following answers to my questions.

Rae Winkelstein-Duveneck: You write quite a lot about religion in your stories. Do you often get questions about your religious background?

Chinelo Okparanta: I’ve been asked many questions about my nationality—about Nigeria and its oil wars, about the social phenomena that are the Runs Girls. I’ve been questioned about my views regarding the status of gays and lesbians in Nigeria. I’ve been asked about my experiences as an immigrant. I’ve even been asked about the Christian versus Muslim divide in Nigeria. But it’s not often that I’m asked about my own religious background. The short answer is that I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and when I became of age, I did my own research, and I made a conscious decision to continue as a Christian, though not as a Jehovah’s Witness.

RW: Since you mention it, do you mind first discussing religion in Nigeria? How much do you know about that history, and how does that knowledge influence your writing?

CO: I think most citizens of the country would agree that Nigeria is very religious. The country is divided in terms of Christianity versus Islam, and of course, there is major conflict as a result of that division.

Speaking as a Christian who has engaged in a sort of unscientific survey merely geared toward observing the span of Christianity within the country, I can say that all types of Christian denominations flourish in Nigeria. Beyond those that identify themselves under general umbrella terms like Anglican and Baptist and Protestant, there are, more specifically, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Winners’ Chapel/Living Faith Church, the Deeper Life Church, the Abundant Life Church, the list goes on and on. And, of course, there are also the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, contrary to some beliefs, are actually a Christian denomination.

As far as my writing is concerned, I do write a lot about Christianity. I write also about colonialism. Sometimes I write about the two hand in hand, because it is often hard for me to write about one without the other. It is generally understood that the Western colonialists brought their Christian missionaries to simultaneously colonize and Christianize Africa. By and large, people think of the 19th century when they think of African colonization, but the truth is that Africa has had an even longer history of colonization, and this history can be traced as far back as around 1100 B.C., when North Africa experienced colonization by the Phoenicians. Utica (in what is now Tunisia) is believed to be the first Phoenician colony in North Africa. Carthage was established in Tunisia roughly around 800 B.C. And, roughly around 600 B.C., I believe, the Greeks colonized what is now known as Libya.

Now, as far as Christianity goes, it has probably also existed in Africa for a long time, probably much longer than the generally accepted notion that it first came into the continent during the period of British colonialism. When I was a child, my Bible, The New World Translation, had a map of Paul’s missionary travels. It had, in green, his first missionary travel. In red, his second missionary travel. In purple, his third. And, in pink, his journey to Rome. Looking at the map now, I see that Paul went all over the place, from Rome to Malta, to Thessalonica, to Corinth, all the way to Jerusalem. Though his travels do not appear to have led him, that is, his person, into Africa, there is all indication in the Bible that Africans were amongst the witnesses of Christ’s life, and witnesses to the ministry of his apostles. It is possible that these Africans went on to share what they witnessed with other Africans, which is all to say that there’s no reason to believe that Paul’s Christian teachings did not reach Africa as early as AD 45-60, which is the time of Paul’s missionary journeys. I also seem to remember reading somewhere that Mark (of the Gospel of Mark) founded the Church of Alexandria (in Egypt) sometime between AD 40 and AD 50.

As far as Nigeria is concerned, the advent of Christianity there is something that I’ve been unable to trace, but what I do know is that Christianity or not, the country has a long history of religiosity, albeit of the native/pagan variety. For example, the Igbos believed in personal Chis, which were minor gods, like the sky god, the earth god, etc. They believed in the spirits of wealth, the yam spirit, the drum spirit. And then, they believed in Chukwu, the Almighty, the Supreme God, something akin to the Christian God. All of this existed long before the Christians came, which is to say that religion existed in Nigeria before the Christians came.

RW: Do you ever write about the pagan religions of Nigeria?

CO: Yes, I do. This idea of personal Chis and of Chukwu, the Almighty, is a sort of recurring thread in my novel. Basically, the novel carries with it an underlying discourse on the intersections of the old and new religious ways.

RW: Your short story “Designs” deals with the topic of colonialism. Can you talk a little about how colonialism ties into this story?

Yes. “Designs” is a story that is not about colonialism, but also is. In the past when we as Nigerians have talked about colonialism, we’ve reverted back to the Achebean idea of our country having been exploited and corrupted and rendered a political jumble by the West. And, of course, all this is true. But “Designs” is a story that in some ways encourages introspection. It is a story that incites us to take a look at ourselves and own up to the ways in which we’ve had a hand in our own corruption and exploitation. But really, one could argue that it’s simply a story about a man having an affair.

RW: The last line of this story is really striking and quite beautiful. Unlike many male characters in your stories, Nonso is moved to self-examination, and has a sudden realization about his actions, his "role in all of this". Any comments?

CO: I think the ending is very much open to interpretation.

RW: Nonso's only positive reference to Nigeria is natural, not cultural - he refers to his love for the rain and the scents of millipedes and snails. Culturally, he seems to prefer America completely and, until the end of the story, he unquestioningly insists on taking on American ways. Do you think it's a mistake to set no boundaries on the influence of a new culture?

CO: I think that when you idealize any given culture, you tend to lose sight of its shortcomings, of its failings. When you finally open your eyes and see it for what it is, what you see might not be as pleasant as you expected.

RW: You were raised a Jehovah's Witness. In your short story "On Ohaeto Street" (The Kenyon Review), the main character, Chinwe, and her mother laugh when the mother invites in Jehovah's Witness who comes to their door, believing there is no chance he will convert them. Even after officially converting, as a result of her marriage to this man, Chinwe seems indifferent to the religion. Having grown up a Jehovah’s Witness, did you also take their mission with humor?

CO: Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness was never a humorous subject for me. There was so much fear associated with it that it was never something I took lightly. I can say from personal experience that most Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take their mission lightly. We attended meetings at the Kingdom Hall four days a week. We were required to do Bible studies at home with my father, outside of these Kingdom Hall meetings. We were required to answer a certain number of questions during the meetings, and if we failed to do so, we would often be flogged by my father or chastised for not meeting expectations. During the lectures at the Kingdom Hall, we were reminded repeatedly that Armageddon was coming. We were reminded of this with very vivid imagery in our Watchtower and Awake magazines, images of cataclysmic conflagrations—the sky all blown up in flames, orange and yellow and red. We were told that it would be a global war. Some of the details of this global war were taken from the book of Revelation. You can imagine the fear such imagery instills in a child.

As an adult, I suppose it’s easier to find humor in those things. It’s certainly much easier to attain indifference by way of fiction. But certainly, this was not the case when I was a child.

RW: Also in "On Ohaeto Street", Jehovah's Witnesses are referred to as a cult by Chinwe's mother. Do you think that's true, and what does "cult" mean to you?

CO: A cult, to me, is simply any group of people who share the same sort of ideas, who hold fast to these ideas in a private and/or sacred sort of way. They are bound together by these ideas, and bound together by any rites and rituals associated with them.

For me, the word cult by itself holds neither a positive nor a negative connotation. Or, at least, it seems to me that it has as much potential to be positive as negative. I cannot say for sure, but I doubt that at its inception the word held any negative meaning. It is my experience, through study, especially Biblical study, that we humans have a track record of inserting negative connotations to words that would ordinarily be inherently neutral. I suppose that is the way of humans and words: if we use a word enough in a certain special context, we often find ourselves associating its meaning to that specific context.

As far as whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult, by my definition, yes, they are a cult. But, by my definition, so are many other organizations that would not ordinarily consider themselves a cult.

RW: It's interesting that when Eze, the Jehovah's Witness visitor whom Chinwe later marries, explains his religious affiliation to her and her mother, he lists faith - the "good news of God's Kingdom, which as he said, would lead to everlasting life" - as his third reason, after more practical matters.

CO: We’re all human. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—survival needs come before higher order/self-actualization needs. It follows then that Eze would list the practical things first before everlasting life. First, we worry about living this earthly life, and then in the breaks between the worry of living our earthly lives, we might or might not find time to worry about the next life. I think this is the general pattern of anxieties for many of us. There are probably exceptions.

RW: Eze buys himself an expensive new car in the story, and throws many parties for people in the neighborhood, his chief aim being "to show off the car to them all in the shortest amount of time possible." Is there a comment here on hypocrisy within his religion, or that no prescription is made within it regarding vanity or greed, or is it simply that he is flawed, regardless of being a follower of a religious doctrine?

CO: We are all flawed. True that some have moral compasses that are not as functional as others, but in the end, who can claim perfection and be right in doing so?  

RW: Eze uses God to justify chastising and threatening his wife. Have you also observed people using God to justify abuses of power?

CO: Rick Perry did so in that anti-gay advertisement that ran on television not long ago during the 2012 presidential campaign. My father often said of the way he disciplined us, which involved beating us with his leather belts, or slapping, or just plain hitting—he often quoted directly from the Bible, citing God’s laws and saying things like, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” There’s also: “The rod and reproof are what give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame.” “Jehovah’s words,” my father would say, or something to that effect. And then there’s Proverbs 20:30, which, according to the New World Translation, says, “Bruising wounds are what scours away the bad; and strokes, the innermost parts of the belly.” Other Bibles have slightly different words and/or possible meanings: “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts.” Regardless of the translation, and regardless of the implicit or explicit meaning of the text, the point is that verses like these have been used to justify abuse and violence. Even victims use God and/or the Bible as justification for their lack of ability to “get out.” We’ve all heard of the abused wife who says she’ll stay in the marriage because “what God has yoked together let no man put asunder?” In my experience, God has been far too often a convenient (and disturbing) justification for many a bad behavior.

RW: Your work (for example, “Story, Story!” which appeared in Conjunctions, “Fairness” from Subtropics, and Under the Udala Trees) sometimes depicts idyllic, communal, and family-oriented childhoods followed by a period in which new Western products are introduced, relationships grow more complex and damaging, and time moves in a different way. Any comments?

CO: I would say that the issue is neither the West nor the products in and of themselves. The products are merely vehicles through which we witness the moral and/or physical decline of certain characters in a story, or of a certain sector of a story’s society; and it just so happens that many of the products have their origins in the West. What is true is that these stories do sometimes comment on the negative effects of capitalism—capitalism at its best, or at its worst, if you will.

RW: In your stories, there seems to be a high value placed on shared experiences – children bathing together or playing outside, families eating and attending church together— all in a sort of easy and consistent way. Is that sort of existence in your past, and would you like it to be in your future?

CO: Yes, this communal nature of existence was somewhat my childhood experience—at least in an idealized version of my childhood. It is certainly something that I’d like to be in my future. It would seem that life would somehow be rendered more meaningful where there are shared experiences, etc. But then sometimes it occurs to me that I have grown very much accustomed to solitude, and perhaps that’s just as well. 

RW: Nneoma, the main character in "Story, Story!" who repeatedly poisons pregnant women, is moved to tears by these words in a sermon: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The words cause genuine penitence in her, though she will still attempt the same thing after hearing them. I get the sense from your writing that there is a deep interest in self-deception and in the importance and difficulty of clear-sighted self-examination.

CO: Yes, we’re all quite adept at recognizing wrongdoing in ourselves and yet making excuses for our actions and in doing so repeating the cycle of wrongdoing.

RW: Yet some people seem to be able to change such cycles. What do you think accounts for that difference?

CO: I’m not exactly sure what accounts for the difference. Some people are probably just more introspective and more self-scrutinizing than others—more meditative as a whole, and perhaps more able to be honest with themselves. And, I suppose having a healthy dose of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder where morality is concerned does help to keep one from repeating a cycle of wrongdoing.

RW: Interesting. You wouldn’t by any chance be referring to yourself regarding that condition?

CO: Quite possibly.

RW: If you don't mind answering, what do good and evil mean to you? And for that matter, what does God mean to you?

CO: There is a thing my mother once said to me just as she made to reprimand me. She said, “It’s the devil in you causing you to behave that way.” After some time, I began to think that if there was indeed a devil in me causing me to behave in a manner that she deemed inappropriate, then there must also have been the opposite—something Godlike in me, causing me to behave in appropriate ways. After all, how would we define evil in the absence of good? And vice versa? It seemed to me then that perhaps the two things existed in a sort of continuum, where at one end was the one, and at the other end, the other. That is, in some ways, good and evil are merely two opposing extremes of the human condition.

As far as what God means to me, there are versions of this idea all over the place, and that is the idea that God is in all of us. He did create us in His very image. It’s a nice thought, this idea of God in all of us, and I try to be aware of, and to consciously foster the Godlike qualities in me. By extension, I try to be aware of, and to consciously seek out the Godlike qualities in those around me.

RW: You have written many scenes that take place in or at a church. Is there a difference to you in the way God can be felt or experienced alone and in a communal church setting?

I think that God can be felt or experienced in settings outside of the church or temple. There’s all indication of this in the Old Testament. But perhaps there is a serenity or quiet or sacredness to a church or temple that has made it, for some, the preferred setting for such spiritual experiences.

RW: In reading your stories, I often come across children whose urgent needs go unmet through negligence or misfortune. Do you think of personal experiences when you write these scenes?

CO: I suppose my life is in some ways the greatest informer of my fiction, thematically at least.

RW: The idea of a woman being an "empty barrel" and the sadness and sense of failure associated with this comes up in "Story, Story!" and “Wahala!” Do you ever think of the annunciations and miraculous conceptions in the Bible when writing these parts?

CO: I suppose those parts of the Bible are always in my head, tucked neatly away in some corner, but I’m not sure that they are consciously part of my storytelling, at least not where childbearing is concerned. In short, miracles of Biblical grandeur don’t happen in any of my stories, though some might say that the smallest pleasures of living are themselves the greatest miracles.

RW: Some of your characters are driven by one main desire or source of meaning. In "Story, Story!" and Under the Udala Trees, this takes the form of a persistent hope. Do you find that people are usually motivated by one main desire? Also, is there a kind of value in a long-term hope that does not prove fruitful?

CO: No. I don’t think that people are usually motivated by one main desire. Not throughout an entire lifetime anyway. I find, rather, that many desires—often conflicting—motivate a person. Also, desires change over time, get modified, or disappear altogether. Sometimes they last. As far as my stories go, I have a limited amount of space and time in which to tell them, and so it follows that I’d focus on the specific desire(s) that is/are most relevant to the context of the story being told, rather than focusing on all the other possible desires of my characters.

As far as hope is concerned, it’s quite similar to faith—at least it forms a part of the definition of faith, which the Bible describes as “the assured expectation of something hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities, though not beheld” (Again, that definition is from my New World Translation).

Being that such a hope is so assured, I suppose whether or not it proves fruitful somehow becomes irrelevant. Which is simply to say that perhaps sometimes hope is its own reward.

RW: Do you agree with the quote in your story "Grace" (due from The Southern Review) from 2 Timothy that states that "All scripture is given inspiration by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness"?

CO: Yes.

RW: What do you make of the passage about God forbidding the cripples from approaching his altar?

CO: A former professor of mine once told me to be wary of taking the Bible too literally, and also to try always to be mindful of the cultural and historical contexts within which certain scriptures were written. I think this is very sound advice.

RW: Do you think some commandments are less important than the two that appear in “Grace,” and if so, why?

CO: It is true that all other commandments can be summarized in these: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

RW: In your forthcoming novel, the main character Ijeoma thinks deeply about the Bible and sexuality and comes up with the idea of infinite possibilities. Just because there is Adam and Eve in the Bible, she reasons, why should the possibility of, say, Eve and Eve be then necessarily excluded and unnatural? Is this a line along which you also think in terms of sexual orientation and the Bible?

CO: Yes, I have and still do find myself thinking along this line, which is probably why it showed up in the novel.

RW: You've mentioned that several of the early readers of Under the Udala Trees expressed frustration or disappointment that Ijeoma does not “act passionately against her fate,” but instead acquiesces quietly to undesirable situations related to her sexuality. What is your response to these types of criticisms?

CO: I think some readers are more mindful than others of historical and cultural circumstances surrounding any piece of writing. As a realist writer, I want to be true to these specific cultural circumstances. We meet Ijeoma in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in Nigeria. As if Nigeria is not conservative enough today, we’ve got to remember to take it back a few decades as well. We’ve got to remind ourselves that this story is not taking place in present-day America, and therefore we should not expect this character to act the way we would expect the average present-day American to act. This is a culture where she can be stoned to death for merely speaking up about her desires. It follows then that she does not go about waging warfare in a loud and flashy sort of way. Not everyone has to go about their battles in loud and flashy ways. The changes that these quiet sorts will eventually enact might be subtle, but they are changes nonetheless. Emotional/intellectual dissent, though quiet, is still a form of dissent. It is severely understated, but one must realize that it often manifests itself in more meaningful and productive ways than outright warfare might.

RW: In “Runs Girl” (GRANTA), Ada's mother quotes "Happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty..." (Job 5:17) She appears to trust in God that suffering has a purpose. Do you feel that suffering can have a purifying or corrective purpose? Is there also meaningless, useless suffering?

CO: Yes, I feel that suffering can be purifying. I’m not in agreement with using suffering as a form of correction/discipline, but I do think one can learn from it. For example, if one somehow finds him/herself in a terrible accident, it is likely that, in the future, s/he will do anything in his/her power to correct whatever mistakes led him/her into such an accident in the first place. In that sense, I think it’s fair to say that suffering has served a corrective purpose.

That being said, I also believe there is meaningless suffering. Some people are adept at inflicting pain on themselves or on others for no good reason.   

RW: Chinelo, it's been a pleasure to interview you. Thank you.

CO: Thank you. The pleasure’s mine.