I think what students get from my course is just being able to look inward and examine themselves to see what's wonderful and important about their own lives and their own culture.

Chinelo Okparanta

As a sixth-grader, creative writing professor Chinelo Okparanta had recently arrived in the United States from her native Nigeria when she entered an essay contest whose theme was "Justice for All." She wrote about domestic violence.

"That was me, as a child, working through issues that were on my mind and of significance to me," she says. "As a younger person, I wrote essays as a way of processing the world. Now, as an adult, I'm able to process the world through my fiction. The whole idea of navigating and negotiating things around you — that is what drew me to writing."

The author of the critically acclaimed Happiness, Like Water (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) and Under the Udala Trees (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), Okparanta in 2017 was named one of the United States' top 21 authors under age 40 by Granta, which bestows the awards just once a decade. She also received the 2014 O. Henry Award and is a two-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award.

Okparanta says every student has personal experiences worthy of writing. But some think their cultural perspectives aren't interesting enough.

"Many students are not aware of the importance of their own cultural background," she says. "When I taught in Iowa, for instance, I was stunned when students would say, 'Your culture's exotic and strange, so it's interesting.' And I'd say, 'Well, your culture's exotic and strange to me, so it's interesting to me — why don't you write about that?' You don't have to jump to Africa or India or China to find interesting material. I think what they get from my course is just being able to look inward and examine themselves to see what's wonderful and important about their own lives and their own culture."

Once they're able to appreciate and mine their own rich material, Okparanta hopes students won't hamper themselves by aiming for commercial publication.

"The best thing is for students not to worry too much about the publishing industry, and just worry about their writing," she says. "Worry about what you want to say, how you want to say it, and developing your craft."

The real reward, she says, is in sharing stories, published or not, that connect us in meaningful ways.

"I come from the African tradition of storytelling, which is the oral tradition. Growing up, my mother told me stories, and her mother told her stories. Storytelling is important because it teaches. We learn from the stories of others. We learn who we are, what the world is, and about the possibilities of existence."

Updated April 27, 2017

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