When Chinelo Okparanta finished writing her long-awaited second novel, Harry Sylvester Bird (Mariner, July), during the pandemic, she knew the story would challenge readers to reconsider their views on race. Speaking via Zoom from her sunny apartment just outside Washington, D.C., Okparanta, a 41-year-old associate professor of creative writing at Swarthmore College, says that getting people to talk about the racial themes explored in the novel was her intention. “I wrote the story as satire, an exaggeration, to open up the conversation,” she explains.
Readers may be surprised that Okparanta’s white protagonist doesn’t identify as a white man at all. Instead he sees himself as a Black African, and while ignoring the reality of his skin tone and the belief system of his xenophobic and racist parents, he works to get in touch with his true inner self, to humorous effect. But after spending a semester studying abroad in Ghana, he’s forced to confront his whiteness in ways he never expected.
Okparanta arrived in the U.S. when she was 10 after her Nigerian father was accepted to a graduate engineering program at Boston University. She enrolled in public school and quickly learned that she was a good writer; during her first year in Boston, she won a citywide contest with an essay about social justice. (She gave the prize money, a $100 savings bond, to her parents, who were struggling to make ends meet.)
In high school, Okparanta discovered she was also gifted at the sciences, and as an undergrad she considered becoming a doctor or pharmacist. Once she realized she couldn’t stomach the sight of blood, however, she decided to become a teacher.
“Writing was something that I thought I’d do on the side,” she says. She taught at a middle school in Brooklyn for a year before going to graduate school. From there, her path was winding. She went to Rutgers to earn an MA and then started a PhD program at the University of Iowa. She never finished the PhD and, after a sojourn teaching secondary school in Allentown, Pa., went back to Iowa, attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her MFA.
Okparanta’s first book, a collection of short stories titled Happiness, Like Water, was published in 2013, a year after she finished her MFA. She’s since filled her résumé with a collection of fellowships, residencies, and awards, as well as faculty appointments at Columbia, Howard, and Middlebury.
In Harry Sylvester Bird, the narrator is a white teenage boy coming of age in the fictional suburban town of Edward, Pa. With the hot-button issue of cultural appropriation simmering in publishing circles for years and arguably brought to a boil by the 2019 novel American Dirt (which saw mixed-heritage author Jeanine Cummins inhabit the mind and perspective of a Mexican narrator), Okparanta knew that she had to get her character just right, lest she offend rather than provoke. But she believes that writing from the perspective of a white male is within her right. Having experienced enough microaggressions to know that sometimes even well-meaning white people do not realize how deep their words might cut, she wanted to try to get into the mind of one of those well-meaning white people.
“I have suffered the wound, so I know the texture of the pain,” she says, loosely quoting Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo. It is easy for Okparanta to write a laundry list of racial slurs she’s endured, the first coming when she was a girl and her classmates in Boston called her a monkey and asked if she lived in trees in Nigeria.
Okparanta’s debut novel, the Nigeria-set Under the Udala Trees, was released to critical acclaim in 2015, with the New York Times naming it an Editor’s Choice and Booklist calling it “a deeply affecting debut novel.” When submitting Harry Sylvester Bird to her agent, Jacqueline Ko at the Wylie Agency, she nearly turned in a different book she’d also been working on. Then she realized that book’s narrator was too similar to the one in Under the Udala Trees.
“African writers can get pigeonholed,” she says. “I wanted to show my range as a writer.”
Okparanta also had a strong sense that this story needed to be told now. The Trump years weren’t easy ones for her, as an African immigrant and Black woman in the United States, and she wanted to explore this hostile time in her fiction.
Ko agreed that there was a timeliness to Harry Sylvester Bird. “We agreed that Harry’s story was so compelling,” she says, attributing the well-drawn characters in the novel to Okparanta’s gift for storytelling. “She has such a masterful way of writing. It’s so unapologetic. You almost don’t know what to think when you’re reading it, but then she guides you in her writing and the ride is this very amazing experience.”
The seeds of Harry Sylvester Bird first came to Okparanta while she was teaching a class at Columbia about the power dynamics at play when writing about other cultures. After she and the students analyzed works including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, they concluded that writing about unfamiliar cultures can be done, but it needs to be undertaken with care and respect.
It’s one reason why Okparanta made Harry a sympathetic and relatable character. He’s kind and openhearted. He’s in tune with the social injustices unfolding around him, even within his own household. And yet he doesn’t always understand the complexity of his own worldview. He thinks he’s more understanding than the average white person, but in many ways his thinking still relies on the faulty assumption that if one is open-minded and accepting of people of color, it is impossible to be racist or offensive.
“Harry comes across as very well-meaning but very misguided,” says Rakia Clark, Okparanta’s editor at Mariner. “I think that readers will recognize him and the community that he comes from.”
The story, told in four parts, begins when Harry is 14 and on vacation in Tanzania with his white, conservative parents. He cringes at his parents’ racially and culturally insensitive behavior, such as when his dad, after giving a driver a $2 tip, says, “It’s enough money to eat for a year.” At one point, Harry spots a Black African man at a dinner event and feels he has a closer bond with the stranger than he does his own parents.
As the pandemic unfolds in the story, Harry moves to New York City and grows estranged from his parents. There, his college relationship with Maryam, a Nigerian immigrant, deepens. His best friend, Damian, is African American. Yet Harry does and says problematic things. When he and Maryam go on their first date, he asks her if she’s committed to “dismantling white supremacy.” Maryam’s response: “You’re serious?”
In the final section of the novel, Harry and Maryam participate in a study abroad program together in Ghana. The couple’s relationship grows strained as Maryam longs for her family back in Nigeria, and the reader is given her perspective on Harry as he continues to make insensitive comments that nag at her, such as when he snaps a photo of a young African child and says it reminds him of the pictures in National Geographic. “Beautiful children! So exotic-looking!” he later says.
Later, when Maryam and Harry tour the Cape Coast Castle, a fort on the Ghanaian coast with a dungeon where enslaved Africans were held, they engage in a discussion about race with others on the tour that turns into an uncomfortable, cringe-worthy disagreement about whether white slaveholders had souls. Harry, who feels as though he’s being blamed for slavery simply by virtue of his whiteness, thinks he’s adding a worthy perspective when he snaps, “Of course they have souls.” “I was shocked,” he narrates, “by my defensive stance.”
The tense conversation ends with a psychologist in the group asking, “What kind of childhood trauma caused white America and white western Europe to be the way they are? We all know that these social disorders are often a result of childhood traumas—parental abandonment, for instance. And consequences of abandonment include the inability to feel guilt.”
At that moment, Harry is overcome by guilt, and he runs out of the room in tears.
Okparanta recalls that exploring these types of “inherited burdens” of Harry’s traumatic racist childhood and of the painful racial injustices of a larger nation wasn’t easy. “So much of it was hard to write,” she adds. “At times, I grew very emotional because of how real these characters were and how fraught the racial conditions in the U.S. were during the time I was writing the novel.”
Still, Okparanta says she tried to find lightness, even in the heaviest of scenes: “Given the satirical bent in the novel, there was also a lot to laugh about.”
Brooke Lea Foster is a journalist whose second novel, On Gin Lane, is due from Gallery this month.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Okparanta had visiting professorships at Columbia, Howard, and Middlebury; she had faculty appointments at these schools.