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The City and the Writer: In Port Harcourt with Chinelo Okparanta

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

               —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Port Harcourt as you feel/see it?

Port Harcourt is robust—it has an elegant sort of robustness. Even in the heat, the women walk as if gliding. Some carry pails on their heads, but even so, their gaits are graceful and even-paced. And when it is harmattan and the roads are dusty, there is something ethereal, almost celestial, about the sight: dust like clouds.

Port Harcourt is raw, too: raw voices of the hawkers calling out to the automobile drivers, raw earth, raw heat, raw humanity. Raw as in of nature; the good kind of raw.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

This is not heartbreaking per se, but one memory that still haunts me today is of an armed robbery, in which my family, all six of us, were held at gunpoint.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The scent of rain, before the rain comes. Sometimes everything turns to gray, and even the smell is gray. Like the waft of gray cement blocks being saturated in water. Also like the aroma of gray sand being cooked by the sun.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Igoni Barrett published a great short story collection entitled, Love Is Power, Or Something Like That. It’s a collection with a sense of humor. I enjoyed it very much.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I return to my primary school in Abuloma very often. I return in my mind’s eye, which allows me to come and go as often as I please. And when I do, I see it just the way it used to be: the green fields over which I used to tumble as a child, the tap where I used to play with my schoolmates, the gates which announced Federal Government Girls’ College, along which the vendors sold their velvet tamarinds and ice cream and groundnuts. All of it is just as it used to be all those many years ago. 


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The whole of Port Harcourt is one big iconic literary place, owing to its book festival, which the city has hosted for some years now. In 2014, Port Harcourt was even named UNESCO World Book Capital, the first in Africa south of the Sahara.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you? 

All of Port Harcourt is a seductress, each part in its own way.


Where does passion live here?

In the hearts and souls and faces, and in the smiles and laughter of every single citizen. It is my experience that the people of Port Harcourt have very happy dispositions. We see this especially in their smiles. But smiles are a little like tricks; they don’t always tell the whole story.


What is the title of one of your works about Port Harcourt and what inspired it exactly?

“America” was inspired by many things, but its heart lies in the idea of patriotism. Which is to say that the story not only deals with Port Harcourt, but with Nigeria as a whole. It is, in a sense, an exploration of how much of a pull our “homes” have on us. Sometimes it is hard to leave, even when a good opportunity presents itself.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Port Harcourt does an outside exist?”

Outsides always exist. One appreciates Port Harcourt for exactly what it is, owing to those places that it is not. It seems to me that a place becomes itself in relation to those spaces outside of it.



Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta is the author of Happiness, Like Water. A 2014 O. Henry Prize winner, and a 2014 Lambda Literary Award winner for Fiction, she was a finalist for the 2014 New York Public Young Lions Fiction Award and for the 2014 Rolex Mentors and Protégés Arts Initiative. Her stories have appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and Tin House, among other journals.

Published Nov 17, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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