Today, I’m going to be sharing an interesting interview which I had with Okechukwu Nzelu, author of The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney. Okechukwu Nzelu is a writer and teacher. He was born in Manchester in 1988 and read English at Girton College, Cambridge. His work has been published in Agenda, PN Review, E-magazine and The Literateur and his essay ‘Troubles with God’ was published in the anthology Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (Trapeze, 2019). In 2013 his radio play, Me and Alan, was broadcast on Roundhouse Radio. In 2015 he was the recipient of a New Writing North Award for The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney.
Nzelu’s debut novel has been praised by a number of renowned authors, including Bernardine Evaristo author of the novel Girl, Woman, Other, and joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. She describes it as ‘Smart, serious and entertaining’
The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney is a coming-of-age story about Nnenna, a half-Nigerian teenager living in modern-day Manchester with her mother Joanie. The novel cuts across race, family, identity, sexuality and religion with sprinkles of humor here and there. As mentioned in an earlier post about hot new books, other must-read titles in this genre are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and
Candice Carty-William’s Queenie.
Alright, grab a snack (or not) and read on, because this will be fun..
Book Clubs Nigeria: Tell us a little about how TPJONM first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
Okechukwu Nzelu: I think the first thing that sparked the story was an idea of the kind of story I wanted to tell: I knew I wanted to write a novel that was largely about family, and I knew I wanted to write a story of redemption and self-discovery. The first thing that crystallized in my mind was the idea of the mother-daughter relationship. I was raised by a single mum for part of my childhood, so that experience has had quite an impact on me: among other things, its made feminism very important for me, certainly. Then as I redrafted the novel over and over before submitting it to publishers, I started to think about other questions, and then the shape of the novel as it is now began to clarify itself. I’m very interested in other people, and in the idea of alternative scenarios and these ideas came to the fore: what would my life have been like if I’d been a girl – a prodigiously intelligent girl with a gift for languages? What would my life have been like if I’d been an only child? Or a single mother who had a child at a young age? What would my life have been like if my support network had been more tenuous? Or if my mental health had been in a worse state? This novel took me years to write and in that time, I mixed all these questions together and explored them through a set of characters whom I got to know very well. Over time, that mixture became The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney.
BCN: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
ON: That’s an interesting question! I can think of a few books that could do with more exposure, but I don’t want to accidentally slight any writers by suggesting that nobody likes their book! And on the other hand, while publicity and accolades and places on bestselling charts are fantastic and important things financially, professionally and personally, the issue of ‘appreciation’ is tricky because if someone really loves a book and is moved by it – even just one person – that’s such a precious thing, no matter how much publicity the book gets outside of that.
But one example of a book which I think deserves a wider audience, would be I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It’s a beautifully-written story of a teenage girl observing her family, her exciting new neighbours and her own growth towards adulthood, with all the comedy and complications that those things involve. I’ve read and re-read it several times and it definitely influenced my writing style (and its ending must have influenced the ending of my novel, now I think about it). It’s a deeply wise and funny novel, which I think is often marketed towards girls; and while I know that many female readers adore the book, I think more men should read it, so I’d say it’s under-appreciated in that sense. Just because something is ‘for girls’ (and I think that it’s okay to for something to be written with female readers in mind), that doesn’t necessarily make it inferior or lacking in weight; it also doesn’t mean that men can’t get a huge amount out of it, as I did.
BCN: What’s that one thing about you that a lot of people do not know?
ON: I’m a painfully slow reader. I always have been, even though I love reading. This meant that studying English at university was…interesting, but it also means that now, I take a long time to read anything, no matter how enthusiastically someone recommends it to me. But I do my best!
BCN: Writing can be hard work. How do you unwind?
ON: Amen to that! Writing can be hard work, and it can also be hard on the self-esteem – notably, Zadie Smith (among others) has commented frankly and wisely on the difficulties of writing. It’s all too easy to look at your work, feel disappointment, and then let that disappointment spread to yourself. Sometimes I think it’s good to just get out of your head a bit, so I find running (or any other exercise, really) helpful. Something about it just makes me feel more optimistic and capable. And when I’ve got a plot problem to figure out or a character I want to define more sharply, I often find that by the end of a run, I’ve got some ideas.
BCN: Cats or dogs?
ON: I’ve never had a pet, actually. I spend so much time writing, reading, teaching or just away from home, it wouldn’t be fair to the pet. But if I had to choose… I’d probably say cats. I like their independence, and they’re really beautiful creatures.
BCN: If you could choose a book character to be for a day, who would it be and why?
ON: That’s a really tough question! A lot of my favourite books are stories of discovery and growth, where the characters experience things that I wouldn’t envy (or wouldn’t want to repeat, having experienced similar things myself) before they move towards new and different versions of themselves. So that rules out a lot of my favourites…
Just one character? Hmm… Okay. I’d choose – and I know this is an odd choice, but bear with me – Will from the medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. This is for three reasons (1) I love the poem, and always have; it’s a beautiful and moving work, considering what it means to live a good life, what it means to write instead of getting a ‘real’ job, and the need for social change in an unfair world (2) Will has a lot of dreams in which he sees all sort of things that allow him (and the reader) to see the world in a new light, which means (3) Will falls asleep a lot, so that sounds pretty cushy. How could I say no to that?
That third reason sure is hilarious!
Have you read The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney yet?
You can connect with Okechukwu Nzelu on Instagram and Twitter @Nzeluwrites