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“Runs girl” and “America”: two stories by Chinelo Okparanta
Chinelo Okparanta is a Nigerian-American writer. Originally from Port Harcourt in the Rivers State of South Nigeria, she moved to the USA as a child. She has worked in secondary school education and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa.
Her first collection of stories, Tumors and Butterflies, as well as her first novel, Under the Udara Trees, are forthcoming. Two of her stories, however, have already been published in Granta, the British quarterly magazine of new writing. Runs Girl can be read on the magazine website, while America features in Granta’s issue 118.
Both of these stories centre around an educated young woman, who has to make choices for herself and the people closest to her. Both are set in Port Harcourt, in the region of the Niger Delta.
While telling the protagonist’s story, they also bring to the fore problems affecting the whole of Nigeria: the inequality that the petrol industry has deepened rather than reduced, the pollution that has come with oil rigs and is also a consequence of the runaway consumerism boosted by the “petro-naira” wealth. In these stories, the area of the Niger Delta appears as a lost garden of Eden. Its tall mangroves and fruit trees are surrounded and menaced by a sea of thrash, the blue rivers that cross it are blackened by constant oil spills, the fish killed. The pain and regret for what is lost is palpable in Okparanta’s writing. Black is the colour of the crude that soils the bodies of children playing in polluted waters. Black are the shiny loafers and stiletto shoes on the feet of the wealthy, the ones who profit from the oil industry, and black are death and misfortune for the less fortunate.
Particularly difficult is the situation for Nigerian women. For them it is hard to fend for themselves «honestly», without a man on their side. Runs Girl tells about Ada, a young woman who strives to help her mother resist a sudden and mysterious illness. The two women live on their own (Ada’s father is dead), trying to make ends meet: Mama sells her crops at the market, while Ada, who studies government policy at the university of Port Harcourt, does her best to help her. Both are deeply religious and read the Bible every day, but when Mama falls ill (after a bad omen: a dead rat dropped at their door by a black bird), Ada is helpless. The treatment provided by the public hospital does not help, but is all that Ada and her mother can afford. Njideka, a fellow student of Ada’s, insists that they should consult a specialist. The only way for Ada to pay for the visit is to be a “runs girl” for once, suggests Njideka, who is a runs girl herself. In Nigeria, we understand, runs girls go out and perhaps sleep with mugus (oil executives), or “Yahoo Boys” (internet scammers) in exchange for money to pay for their expensive clothes and mobile phone bills. Ada indignantly rejects Njideka’s offer at first, but as her Mama’s health deteriorates further, she decides to accept. However, her efforts as a runs girl make things worse rather than better. At the end of the story, Ada, left alone and overcome by shame for the sin committed, dreams of creating a new Eve «from a new set of bones». This new Eve, she imagines, will walk among the trees in the garden and drink from the water of its river. She will also eat the forbidden fruit, without being cast away from the garden. Instead, she will be permitted to ask for forgiveness, and she will be forgiven.
Ada’s new Eve, granted permission to make mistakes, is very different from Njideka, whose world of luxury is hypnotic but paid for at a high price. Her lifestyle is in stark contrast with the simple world of Ada and her mother: they have no flat screen TV, no air conditioner, no patent leather shoes. Yet, their garden is no Eden either: between Ada and her mother no words of affection are possible, only prayers, and Mama is merciless. Ada rejects both of these pitiless worlds, she can just wish for a different way of living.
The second story, America, is included in Granta’s issue titled Exit Strategies, which collects pieces on escape or migration. Its protagonist, Nnenna Etoniru, plans to leave Nigeria for America, «an abstraction, a sort of utopia, a place where you go for answers» for most Nigerians. Leaving is a lengthy process though, and Nnenna must submit to three interviews at the American embassy in Lagos before she is finally given the green card granting her immigration to the country. Three times must she travel all the way from her hometown, Port Harcourt, to Lagos: each time a long, uncomfortable journey on roads ridden with potholes, littered with thrash, on buses that often break down.
The reason for her desire to leave is disclosed little by little: during her last, successful journey, Nnenna recalls her previous trips to the embassy, at the same time reflecting on her life and desires. We learn that she is a teacher of science at a private college for girls but would rather work to protect the environment. We also learn that her lover Gloria Ike, an expert in education policies, has ended up teaching in an American university. Nnenna recalls how she first met Gloria, and how her parents reacted to their relationship when they found out. Surprisingly, her father only warned her to be careful, because same-sex love is harshly punished in Nigeria.
During her journey and after the interview, Nnenna continues to reflect on Nigeria’s future, on her love for Gloria and the fear that, if she is too long in joining her in America, Gloria will grow tired of her. But her application has been accepted: Nnenna has somehow managed to persuade the Embassy official that, once in America, she will be able to study Environmental Engineering and even learn about the measures taken to deal with the aftermath of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (the BP oil spill?). So one day, back in Nigeria, she will be able to work for her country, where oil spills happen on a weekly basis in the Niger Delta region and oil rigs left abandoned by Shell keep exploding.
All information about Nnenna and her plans is released bit by bit, and each turn of the story is unexpected. America does not end with Nnenna leaving Nigeria, but with her doubts. Before collecting her papers at the embassy, she wonders whether she really wants to leave her country, perhaps not to come back anymore, whether she can live happily with Gloria and disappoint her mother’s desire for a grandchild. She muses on folk tale her mother used to tell her when she was a child: the story of a poor mother and his child who come in possession of a golden hen producing gold coins. Thinking of her country’s difficult situation, Nnenna equates Nigerian crude oil with the gold in her mother’s tale, and Nigerians with the golden hen. If all the golden hens leave, what will become of Nigeria?
In her carefully constructed stories, Okparanta draws on Nigerian culture, with echoes from the Bible, traditional stories and superstitions. While focusing on an individual’s story, she brings up questions unsolved in Nigeria, first and foremost the destruction of entire ecosystems, with no real long-term advantages for the country and its people.