"Read as widely as you can," an interview with Okechukwu Nzelu

by Amy Baxter

I first read Okechukwu Nzelu's debut novel in October of last year after seeing a quote from Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie, on the front cover. 'Effortlessly capture[s] the tricky nuance of life, love, race, sexuality and familial relationships', she said. And I, a helpless book buyer, was sold. Nzelu's debut is, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air in what is an often stagnant publishing industry. I am a lover of warm books, books that envelop you in their world and swallow you whole, funny books, romance books. The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney is all of this and more.

I reached out to Nzelu after he was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, one of the three Black authors to be shortlisted. It is impossible to divorce reading literature from our environment; and the announcement of this shortlist, a celebration of Black literature, comes at a time when Britons are seeking out anti-racist literature like never before. Nzelu's book is a reminder that Black authors write great books of all genres, and that a book can be uplifting and a beautiful description of a Black woman's life and an empathetic discussion of race. And Nzelu is as every bit as interesting and humble as you might hope.

So we’re having this digital chat straight after the announcement of your shortlisting to the Desmond Elliott Prize. This is, for our followers who may not know, an extremely prestigious prize, and extremely well deserved. How do you feel?

Thank you so much! I'm so grateful to the judges for choosing my novel to stand alongside two writers I admire so much, and to be selected for such a huge honour is really encouraging as I work on my second novel. But to be honest, it's still not entirely sunk in. It's such a dark time in the world right now, and I think I'm past the age of always pretending I'm okay when I'm not. What's happening in America is really weighing on me, and at the same time I'm really glad that I've been chosen for a shortlist that helps honour my hard work and that of my publisher and agent. Both of those feeling exist side by side at the moment.

You were nominated for The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, an extraordinary novel which I believe has been so successful because of the ability of your writing to resonate with anyone. When writing, did you have a specific audience in mind?

I really appreciate you saying that. The novel went through several drafts before Sharmaine Lovegrove (my publisher) saw it, but throughout all of the versions of the story, I was trying to get across the message of both the diversity of our world and also the interconnectedness of it. This is why the three main black characters have very different experiences (Nnenna is half-white, a teenager, heterosexual; her father, Maurice, is Nigerian, an immigrant, twenty years older, devoutly religious; Jonathan is of Jamaican descent, also in his late thirties, struggling with his faith, and gay) but they still end up playing a vital role in each other's journeys. I wanted readers from a range of backgrounds to be able to see parts of themselves in the book - and to see other people, and those people's emotional responses to things. We don't often see mainstream discussions or even encounters between different parts of the black community (partly because blackness and black communities are often seen as monolothic and static) and I wanted to address that.

When you were looking for a publisher, and indeed an agent, did you feel that people shared this vision?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Publishers and agents consider a range of things when they take on books, and one of them is whether or not they feel a personal passion for the work. Rejection is always disheartening, but when you start to doubt whether your work will form that personal connection it can be really difficult. I was very, very fortunate that New Writing North gave me an award in 2015 and, as part of their support, introduced me to Sharmaine Lovegrove, who published my novel through her imprint, Dialogue Books. I couldn't ask for a better home for my work. It was immediately clear that Sharmaine understood what my writing was doing and what the book needed. What's been interesting is that since the book was published, readers and reviewers have talked about how some of their experiences mirror Nnenna's, or Joanie's, or Jonathan's, and that they wish they could have seen these experiences in fiction when they were growing up. That's the most wonderful gift for me as a writer, to know that I've provided a kind of companionship.

How was the editorial process for you? Dialogue Books were founded to platform non-mainstream stories, did you feel any pressure that your book needed to start a conversation working with them?

By the time I sent Sharmaine the manuscript I had been working on it for years and I really wanted her input as an editor in a major publisher. Sharmaine and I had a long conversation about where the draft was and what it needed. The editorial process was intense, because I was working full-time at the time, as a teacher (I've taken a small step back from my teaching work since then), but I found it so deeply valuable because it's such a rare gift of an experience. How often, outside of formal education, does an experienced and invested person very closely read what you've written, and talk to you about how to improve it? I felt very fortunate and still do.

I felt no pressure from Dialogue Books to make my book one thing or another; the conversation was really collaborative. I found that, in the time between submitting the manuscript and our first editing conversation, I'd anticipated some of Sharmaine's suggestions, which was encouraging (time away from your manuscript give you really valuable insights into the work). One of the great things about the process was that I felt that Sharmaine liked the same things about my manuscript that I did, as well as seeing some ways in which it could be better. 

Do you think that having imprints specifically for this purpose is useful?

I do. I know that there are arguments against them but I've not heard any I find convincing. I have a great deal of respect for some of the work published in other imprints and publishers that don't have the same aims, but I think that Dialogue is on a mission that's special and urgent and impactful.

What made you want to write Nnenna’s story?

It came about as a confluence of things. Since I was about 14 I've had no relationship with my father and I was raised just by my mum, which has been a profoundly impactful thing for me. It's at the heart of how I think about feminism, masculinity and all sorts of other things. I always knew I wanted my writing to reflect that. I wanted to use my writing so that people who'd had similar experiences could feel less alone and maybe even laugh about it.

I wanted to write about a female protagonist, partly because I didn't want the story to be perceived as closely autobiographical but also because I wanted to use my imagination to empathise and reach beyond my own experiences. That's part of the joy of writing, for me. There are parts of her story that chime with my own, though: I did well academically and I was raised to be able to 'better at English than English people' to insulate myself against some of the worst elements of racism, and I understand that completely, but I'm sad that I never learned to speak Igbo proficiently as a child. I'm learning Igbo, but French is my strongest foreign language (just as for Nnenna, although she's a prodigy and I am not) . So although both of my parents are Igbo, I know what it's like to have to teach yourself about your culture too, and the feeling that you're scrambling to catch up but being so fired up by what you're learning, and feeling that connection grow and deepen.

Then there were the things I'd read. By the time I started writing what became Private Joys, I'd had my eyes opened to the possibilities of literature by reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fiction and studying White Teeth by Zadie Smith at university. Those two authors gave me a sort of permission: almost overnight, I felt as though I had been told I could write about anything I wanted to, in any way I wanted to. I could mix up my white inspirations (Austen, Dickens, Hardy, David Nicholls etc) with Smith, Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Arundhati Roy and other writers to find my own style, and tell the story I wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell it. So why not write about black British life, in my narratorial voice, from the perspective of a young person living in the city where I grew up?  

Goodreads describes your book as a 'comic novel'. Would you agree with that statement? 

I would. I really wanted to write a comic novel because I think a book that makes you laugh is a wonderful thing. I remember reading White Teeth over the vacation while I was at university: I took it everywhere with me because it was this wonderful, funny book about a world I recognised. I remember finishing it and feeling so grateful. I wanted to pass on that feeling.

But I also think comedy can serve a special purpose. Perhaps particularly as British people, we often find it difficult to talk directly and plainly about emotions, about the heart, about pain; especially in public, such declarations tend to embarrass people, or to come off as 'too much'. Comedy helps ease people into that.

Race is at the forefront of your novel. In the past week, the Black Lives Matter has been wrenched to the fore as white people and non-black POC both in the US and the UK are starting to pick up books on racism and trauma. Do you think people can learn from fiction writing?

I do. As an English teacher I believe very passionately in the power of fiction to promote empathy. Conversations about structural injustices are so important, but at the heart of structural problems are human beings whose lives and feelings are hurt by systemic injustice. We have to be able to confront both those things.

Similarly, there is no substitute for reading full and accurate accounts of history, or for reading theory. Fiction shouldn't have to do the same things, really: a narrative needs to be free to tell individual stories, rather than being expected to represent whole cultures by itself. Nnenna's, Joanie's and Jonathan's stories are universal in some ways, and very unique in others; fiction needs to be able to do that. I was very conscious that I didn't want people to read my book and make generalisations. It's important that people are allowed to be unique. 

The copy for your book lists comparisons as 'for fans of Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.' Do you think these are accurate? Are there other books you feel yours should be compared to?

I hope so! I'm huge fans of them both. I loved Queenie. I think everyone should read it. It's so crucial that we have stories like that - relatable narratives about real, flawed, black women. And I've already spoken about how influential White Teeth was for me; I remember the first time I met Zadie Smith, at a reading of NW - my knees were actually shaking

Achebe's style is quite different from mine in some ways, but I tried to carry over his wryness and his ability to write complex characters who make mistakes, but while withholding condemnation. That can be a very valuable thing, and a lot of the time I tried to emulate it, although there are some characters in my book who deserve (and receive) my judgement.

One of the funny things about also being a teacher is that one of my students read my novel and told me he could see the influence of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, which is a novel I taught the class that year, and a favourite novel of mine. That was spooky, but really flattering.

What next for your writing? Do you think you’ll return to Nnenna? I'm editing the draft of my second novel, which will be published in Spring 2022. It's a story about Nigerian-British characters living in today's England, and about the forging of unexpected bonds between people who need one another. I can't reveal much more about it just yet, but I'm very excited about it! Beyond that, I have so many ideas for other types of writing; maybe even a screenplay for Private Joys, but it's all embryonic at the moment so I won't say any more just yet.

As for returning to Nnenna, I can't say, yet. It was a real gift to be able to tell Nnenna's story, and I feel happy with the way I ended the novel. But I often think about other untold stories in her world. That's not what my next novel will be about, but after I finish that book...who knows?

And finally, do you have any advice for young BIPOC writers?

Find your voice: read as widely as you can, and figure out what it is you love about the writing you love. That will help you find your style - but it's okay if that changes as you progress. Find people whose opinions you value and trust, and listen to their advice. Make room for your writing to change, but trust your instincts. 

Don't give up.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu (Dialogue Books) is currently available in Hardback from all good bookstores. Please support independent bookshops if you can!

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The print and digital literary review by Black, Asian, and racialised community writers.