Chinelo Okparanta has had a meteoric year as a writer. She’s represented by one of the most prestigious literary agencies in the world. Her first novel and short story collection sold to Granta in the UK and Houghton Mifflin in the U.S. She’s done readings around the country. When she read her story “Runs Girl” at the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City, a reviewer wrote this strange, backhanded, one-two punch: “Okparanta’s stories are luminous. We’ll see what happens when she no longer has autobiography to turn into fiction.” Um. What?
“Runs Girl” is about a young woman in Nigeria who briefly turns to prostitution to support her mother. That aspect of the story isn’t autobiographical. But like any writer, of course, Chinelo draws from her lived experience and her vast powers of observation to create an imaginary world. In this episode, Chinelo and I wondered: if she weren’t a young immigrant of color—if she were a white writer, maybe—would she have gotten the same dismissive comment? Why didn’t the reviewer assume she had the same capacity for invention of any pro fiction writer? We talk about this, and about Chinelo’s first sold story at age ten, in this episode. (Right-click the small “Click here to start download from sendspace” in the small blue box, not the fake-out ads.)