Bookends: Chinelo Okparanta

Chinelo Okparanta

The Nigerian-American author of the novel "Harry Sylvester Bird" talks to the Radical Books Collective ahead of her appearance at their book club.

Image © Chinelo Okparanta.

Interview by
Radical Books Collective

Nigerian-American writer Chinelo Okparanta’s 2022 novel Harry Sylvester Bird will be her third in a span of only ten years. While Nigerian literature is prolific—it is consistently produced and widely read—Okparanta, a recipient of two Lambda Literary Awards for Lesbian Fiction, is one of only a few writers that explore themes of lesbian life and love. She debuted with a collection of seven short stories titled Happiness, Like Water (2013) that offered an evocative look at Nigerians at home and abroad. But it was her second novel, Under the Udala Trees (2015), that really synthesized Okparanta’s reputation as a writer who confronted audacious and controversial themes head-on. The novel is narrated by Ijeoma, whose illicit feelings for Amina are set against the backdrop of violence and displacement caused by the ongoing Biafran war. Along the way, the narrator tries her best to become a disciple of the Bible and to lead the heterosexual life deemed “normal” by society, eventually arriving at a bittersweet resolution. Many of these same themes—identity, self-discovery, and combating Christian ideology—echo in her recent novel, Harry Sylvester Bird. But this time, the setting is small town Pennsylvania and the protagonist is a white American male. In this Bookends post, Okparanta shares the long list of books—and an uncanny recurring dream—that inspire her.

Books to stare at

I’ve been inspired by everything—from Antoine de St. Exupery’s Le Petit Prince to Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory; from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to everything Alice Munro; from Camus’s The Stranger to Voltaire’s Candide; from Mariama Bâ’s Une Si Longue Lettre to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I love Marilynne Robinson’s writing; Housekeeping remains one of my favorite books to date. Recently, I read and loved Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Adichie. I love The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses, as well as Helon Habila’s Travelers. I love The Death of Vivek Oji and You’ve Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi. Right now, I’m very taken by Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman. Her writing is brilliant, as is her depiction of the historical struggles and injustices faced by American Indians. I’m also currently in love with Dolen Perkins Valdez’s Take My Hand. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in the recent past.

Tunes on loop

I love listening to 432 hertz and 963 hertz music. Last year, when I was quite physically ill and emotionally down, a beloved friend of mine introduced me to the benefits of these positive healing vibrations, and I’ve been hooked since.


I always have a cup of plain, room-temperature spring water on my desk as I write. I realized some years ago that I wasn’t drinking the recommended eight cups of water a day. So since then, I make sure to take healthy sips as I write. And I actually find it’s a calming habit that helps me to focus on the work. But, as for food, I don’t generally eat while I write. I love food so much that I like to focus on the food when I eat, and writing gets in the way of that.

Inspiration binges

I recently watched and loved Drive My Car (2021). It’s an aesthetically beautiful movie, and I also appreciated the winding and quietly suspenseful plot.

Cannot do without

I write in my faux fur white and gold vintage boho chair and my gold C table, with my split-leaf philodendron as my companion. The chair and C table are in the corner of my bedroom, so it’s easy to jump from the bed to that setup without having to face the disruption of changing rooms altogether. Also, the heights of the table and the chair are the right proportions for my body and make for a comfortable angle where my eyes meet my laptop screen. And, this way, I suffer no carpal tunnel aches. As for the plant, it’s just beautiful. It looks like green lace, and beyond that, it is a great air purifier, so I feel mentally happy and fresh when I’m seated next to it.

The look

I write in any of my black or gray PACT organic cotton leggings as well as any of my white PACT organic cotton t-shirts. Along with those, I wear any pair of cotton socks, because my feet are always cold. I have some sensitivities to certain fabrics, so cotton is my fabric of choice—low maintenance, breathable, and comfortable. I love PACT because their cotton is supposedly sourced via natural farming practices, and the clothing is made without any toxic chemicals. At first it was all about the body—the desire to write in fabric that felt gentle on the body. But then it also became about the earth. With all the destruction of the earth by mankind, I was also enticed by this brand whose mission it is to engage in good farming practices.

A recurring dream

I often dream of floating in the air, almost flying high in the sky—above buildings and trees, trying to land back on the ground but being unable to do so. Sometimes, I’m flying to escape danger or just randomly stuck in the air. But there are other times still, when I’m simply flying for fun, and in those positive dreams, I am able to land whenever I want! Go figure!

Witching hours

I don’t really have a writing regimen anymore; but since it’s summer, I’m trying to have one. I wake up, brush my teeth, shower, eat some fresh fruit along with some pumpkin and flax seeds, write for a couple of hours if the writing juices are flowing. Other days, when the juices are stagnant, I wake up, brush, shower, eat, and just think about writing—LOL.

The book club on Okparanta’s Harry Sylvester Bird meets virtually on August 20th.

About the Interviewee

Chinelo Okparanta is a Nigerian-American writer whose works include the short story collection Happiness, like Water (2013) and two novels, Under the Udala Trees (2015) and Harry Sylvester Bird (2022).

About the Interviewer

Radical Books Collective creates progressive conversations about writing and publishing through virtual book clubs, literary events and podcasts.

Further Reading