Some stories lay their plot out for all to examine — look, here are two people in love! — while others carefully parcel out information, each little snippet coming as a quiet shock. Chinelo Okparanta’s story tilts its hat to Amy Hempel and Raymond Carver in its quiet attention to characters, to subtle details and assumptions that are shrewdly overturned, to a finely wrought story that encapsulates the entire worldview of its narrator in a few pages.
America is a longed-for Oz to many of the Caine-Prize-nominated narrators, and this story opens with its Nigerian narrator Nnenna en route to an interview that just might grant her the opportunity to move across the Atlantic. The trip fills the first half of Okparanta’s story and draws us from descriptions of the local scenery into deep, dense memories of the past and of love — a narrative technique reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters,” Woolf noted as she wrote the book. “I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each come to daylight at the present moment.” As we shift into Nnenna’s memories, we start to realize just how deep, how unexpected these caves are: some filled with exhaustion and disinterest, others filled with secret love and hope, the rest yet to be filled.
I read stories because I want to understand how other people think. That parts of Nigeria can seem as strange to a native as they would to my American eyes is one sort of surprise; to hear a casual but wholly clear explanation of a foreign mindset is quite another:
“He doesn’t ask how exactly I expect to learn ... Perhaps he, too, has begun to see the U.S. the way most of us Nigerians do, as an abstraction, a sort of utopia, a place where you go for answers, a place that always has those answers waiting for you.”
So much has been casually interwoven into this story — even charged topics like same-sex relationships and crude-oil economics fit neatly into the narrative. Each subject is carefully placed so as to move us toward a greater understanding of Nnenna’s thoughts and hopes. Her life is coded in many different ways: She opens up to her parents about her love, but struggles with their passive lack of acceptance; she holds back from mentioning this love to the man who will grant her a visa, choosing instead to use the Shell oil spill as a reason to come to America; she eventually comes to decide, by retelling herself a version of Jack and the Beanstalk, that her future may lie in a wholly different direction.
This is the last of the 2013 Caine Prize stories, and I’m more delighted and astonished by this one than by any of the other four I’ve considered here at The Airship. Not only is this a story that carefully reveals Nigeria, but it does so with astonishing grace. The winner of the prize will be announced on July 8th, and I’m betting it will be Chinelo Okparanta’s “America.”