Arts Muse

Okechukwu Nzelu: Voicing the Stories We Often Don’t Hear

Cara Lee speaks to author Okechukwu Nzelu about his writing, the current global climate, and their mutual love of Zadie Smith.

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Image Credit: Dialogue Books | Hachette UK, 2019

Okechukwu Nzelu is one of Britain’s most exciting new writers. A Manchester-born Cambridge graduate turned English teacher, his first novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, was published last October.  Accolades have already begun to stack up for Nzelu, with him recently winning the Betty Trask Award and being shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.  His debut novel has earned praise from the likes of Bernadine Evaristo and Candice Carty-Williams for its exploration of coming of age and the search for identity in contemporary Britain. I was delighted to have the chance to talk to him.

Your first novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, has achieved several accolades in the midst of such monumental global events.  How does that feel?

It feels incredible! Writing is such a solitary thing and having this kind of encouragement is invaluable, especially as I write my second book. I know it’s important not to rely too much on external validation, but at the same time I think you have to accept a pat on the back where you get it, too, especially at a time like this, when things seem so bleak.

What motivated you to write Nnenna’s story?

I knew the kind of story I wanted to write, first. I tend to think of dynamics and relationships before I think of many of the details of the individual characters within them, and that’s what happened here. In fact there was never really a moment when I thought, ‘I’m going to write a story about women and a gay man’; it was more a series of ‘what if?’ moments inspired by things I’ve seen or experienced, or just things I made up from scratch, really. What if there were a teenager who didn’t understand a crucial part of her own self? What if her mother is her biggest champion but also scared to let her flourish? What if we throw in a boyfriend who’s insecure about being less intelligent than her? What if there’s a gay man who’s struggling to find happiness? And I developed the story from there. I’m really interested in telling stories about ordinary people around us - single-parent families, for example, or stories about mental health - but also stories that we don’t necessarily get to read or hear every day.

Further, what are your overall aims when you write?  Why do you write - what motivates you?

There’s a really great essay by Zadie Smith in Changing My Mind in which she writes about her journey as a reader. She explains how, as a student, she read about Barthes’ idea that the text is entirely the reader’s to play with, that the author ‘dies’ once the text is read; she writes about how, as an adult, she reads to feel less alone. I’ve always remembered that. I think it’s very profound and that’s what I want to do in my writing: I want people to feel less alone. For me, growing up, reading was a way to develop my worldview and explore my identity by sitting in the company of the minds of people I admired, even if I’d not met them and never would. I want to give that to people, too.

In previous interviews you have stated the importance of White Teeth by Zadie Smith on your life and writing.  I'm currently re-reading it in preparation to study it next term at university and I love it, but in the current climate it still feels very pertinent.  Do you think things have changed since White Teeth was written?

I’m such a White Teeth stan! Oh my days.

It’s hard to say if things have changed. White Teeth is a hugely important book for me because, even though it’s set in London, it was the first thing I’d read that reflected the multicultural world I grew up in, in Manchester: I went to school with people like the Iqbal twins, and like Irie. It felt familiar.

On top of that, it was a book driven by a very classically ‘British’ sense of humour - you could compare it with something like The Idiot by Elif Batuman, published a few years ago: it’s funny and wry in a very different, much more American way, so much so that you can even hear the American accent when you read it. But it does this while discussing a community that, even now, a lot of people wouldn’t describe as ‘British’ but which definitely is. White Teeth is important for me because it depicts a Black and brown Britain I recognise, and because it articulated a Britain that too many people in power don’t celebrate or defend. Growing up, I remember there being a lot of scepticism regarding multicultural Britain, as if diversity were a project that a local council had tried and failed, rather than being the way this country is and the way it was built.

Have things changed now? I’m not sure they have. Racialised peoples continue to work, to raise families, to create, to make progress, but there is still a lot of racism running deep in the UK. Our government certainly isn’t driving positive change for Black and brown people in this country and when I think about the future, what hope I do have comes from the work I see being done by activists, writers and artists, not our leaders.

Having a book that isn’t set in or around London feels refreshing; being Manchester based and a graduate of Cambridge, did you feel it was necessary to move the story to places familiar to you?  Why is this?

Thank you! I wanted to write about cities I knew, because I knew I would be able to make those settings convincing, and because I have a real love for Manchester and Cambridge and I wanted to portray that. Also, in different ways, I came of age in both those cities, which is true for some of my characters.

But I’m also proud of the fact that the book has nothing to do with London. I love London but this country is too London-centric and that’s a real problem, both in terms of representation in literature, and more broadly in terms of investment. I wanted to write about Black British life outside of the capital, just to add a little something to the conversation.

How is your second novel coming along, and when can we expect to see it?

I’m editing it now actually, and it’s an exciting, weird process. I never expected writing a second novel to be easy, but I remember thinking that it would be easier than the first time around because I’ve learned some lessons about how to write a novel. And that’s true in some ways, but at the same time I’m trying new things - I want to break new ground, at least for myself, so that it really feels like a creative act - and with that comes uncertainty. But it’s an exciting place to be in. I’m in love with the characters. I’ve been thinking about telling this story for a long time. It’ll be published by Dialogue Books in Spring 2022. I can’t wait.

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