Victoria Smith interviews award-winning writer and Desmond Elliott Prize nominee, Okechukwu Nzelu, and discusses his debut novel, Nnenna Maloney, literary inspirations like Bernadine Evaristo, balancing writing with teaching and ensuring that underrepresented voices are heard in literature.
Okechukwu Nzelu has the most wonderful voice that smiles down the phone when I speak to him on a grim January afternoon. He is the brightness in a tunnel of misery – a point just after the holidays during my first placement as a trainee secondary English teacher, when I feel like I’m scrambling along, failing at everything, achieving nothing, pleasing no-one. It’s a standard mid-PGCE feeling.
And one that Nzelu completely understands. He has done the same, about five years ago, following the Teach First route of teacher training in Manchester comprehensives.
And he is still teaching. Nzelu is not only an acclaimed writer, he is also a real-life practitioner of perhaps the most pernicious craft: teaching. It’s a profession that is ripe with writerly inspiration but it is also terribly demanding. I wonder how he finds any time for writing. ‘It’s difficult. But somehow I manage,’ he says. He is currently drafting his second book, which he hopes to finish this year.
In interview Nzelu is warm and open with a voice that emanates compassion, a quality that also shines from every page of his debut novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney (published by Dialogue Books and reviewed here last year). He’d finished a draft of Nnenna Maloney in 2012, and carried on redrafting (skipping the year of teacher training when he wrote ‘not one word’), submitting 1,000 words to the Northern Writers’ Award in 2015. He was announced as a winner in May and, using the money and support provided by the Award, he went on to polish and then publish Nnenna. It was a turning point in his writing:
‘It gave me such encouragement and validation – to know that someone had looked over my writing with a professional eye and wanted to reward it … they gave me lots of encouragement.’
I ask him how the Award works, and he said that he received money and support. The people at New Writing North put him in touch with his current agent and editor. ‘They are wonderful,’ he says.
Novels aren’t Nzelu’s only genre. He has always written: plays, prose, non-fiction (articles and essays, including a contribution to Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, edited by Derek Owusu) and poetry. He says that ordinarily, he finds poetry the least satisfactory form of self-expression, but he found that during his current work in progress, he has begun to explore the boundaries between prose and poetry, similar to the way in which Bernadine Evaristo plays with form in her award-winning Girl, Woman, Other, a novel he enthuses over: ‘It’s just fantastic’.
Nzelu cites many other influences in his writing, particularly Jane Austen (he has read everything except Northanger Abbey – which he’s saving so that he never quite completes her oeuvre). Others include Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. We both gush over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. He also cites Zadie Smith’s White Teeth as ‘a huge transformation – when I realised fully that you can write however you want about whatever you want’ giving him the inspiration to build his own unique narrative. Interestingly, he says that he’s a very slow reader, and I wonder if that’s what makes him such a good writer: reading meticulously, he’s able to absorb how others have perfected their craft, pick apart their method and apply the skills in his own prose.
But Austen remains a favourite, along with George Eliot, and he says their style always finds its way into his work (I say that having recently, almost obsessively, read through some Austen adaptations such as Jo Baker‘s Longbourn, Curtis Sittenfeld‘s Eligible and Maya Slater‘s Mr Darcy’s Diary, and wonder, if he had to retell an Austen story, which one would he pick).
Like Austen, Nnenna Maloney is meticulously observed. Yet unlike Austen, it gives us a glimpse into lives that often pass unnoticed. It is perhaps this facet of Nnenna Maloney that I most appreciated. As a middle class white woman reading Nnenna I felt as if I could, fleetingly, access how it might feel to be black in a culture dominated by whiteness. I felt that the book, which is so accessible and so well-observed, permitted me access to something that has seemed elusive – what it means to be black in modern Britain. That gap in understanding I think is one of the things that is wrong with Britain at the moment. We don’t – can’t – understand each other. We don’t communicate. Don’t let each other in. And that’s partly to do with ingrained prejudices but I also think it’s to do with a certain British temperament. We’re diffident, tight-lipped, containing ourselves neatly within our own zones. We don’t want to step on each other’s toes, don’t want to interfere.
Nzelu’s compassion, the deftness with which he handles his characters, his descriptions of Nnenna’s experiences, gives readers a glimpse into what life might be like if you’re not white. An issue with white people is that we treat blackness as ‘something to be consumed but not necessarily anything to engage with’, as articulated by Akwugo Emejulu, professor of sociology at Warwick University. I think books like Nnenna Maloney encourage us to engage with the black experience; they help us to empathise with and understand those who may seem different to us for whatever reason. Books like Nzelu’s are invaluable for allowing us insights that might help us to treat each other with more respect and care, and bring us all closer together.
Nzelu seems to agree:
‘I wanted to educate people on what it’s like to be as a Black person in Britain today and in the 90s. It’s really important … I didn’t want to write a book about Igbo culture – I wanted people to read something that made them think ‘ah’ – that makes people empathise with those whose experience is different.’
Of Nnenna, the central character in Nnenna Maloney, he says simply: ‘She’s accountable for a mystery for which she is not responsible’. It’s such a great phrase, describing how Nnenna is an unwitting enigma – to her schoolfriends; to her mother; to herself – someone on whom everyone projects various expectations, based mostly on her looks. There are other books that address white prejudice, such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, but they feel more like polemics. Nnenna Maloney gives us unfiltered access to the consciousness of people whose perspectives we do not normally see and hear.
However, Nzelu isn’t writing specifically to educate, or even particularly for white people. He is also writing for the ‘other’, for those who lack a voice in mainstream white culture:
‘There’s a point in the novel when Nnenna overhears a conversation which she thinks might be racist, but as the only black person around she lacks the confidence to challenge it publicly, and then she feels bad about herself because she isn’t braver. I think a lot of people of colour have been on that emotional rollercoaster many times, and I wanted to give them a sense of being less alone than they might think.’
‘Literature can do a lot to affect the experience of disadvantaged people,’ says Nzelu. Literature that gives voice to minorities makes those minorities feel heard and, in doing so, empowers them to speak up for themselves, to take action.’
At the Stoke Newington Literary Festival that I attended earlier this year, attendees raised much concern over the bias of UK publishing towards the white middle classes, towards London (not only in the type of books published, but in those authors whose work is published). Nzelu’s success shows how the landscape is shifting. Dialogue Books, Nzelu’s publisher, founded and headed by the beautifully named Sharmaine Lovegrove, is helping to spearhead that change, shining a light on communities whose voices have been so long suppressed. Nzelu applauds the recent success of so many women of colour: Candice Carty-Williams, Bernadine Evaristo, Yvonne Battle-Felton and Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize’s own Sara Collins. There is a surprising absence of black male writers emerging (at least, they aren’t being lauded to the extent of their female counterparts), which we don’t discuss, but writing up this interview, I wonder if there’s a significance to that. I’d like to go back and ask. Whatever the reason, Nzelu himself is a beacon of dual achievement – a black male whose writing also represents the north of England.
‘Hopefully we’re entering a time when we break past the ceiling. We need a diversity of experience. That is when the literary scene becomes richer and richer. It’s great to be part of [the Dialogue] family of writers. We have different backgrounds and writing styles and interests. We are all part of a really exciting movement.’
With regard to his own writing, Nzelu says that he writes when he’s got everything else out of the way – either after eight or, his preferred time, from ten ‘til one in the morning. I’m amazed that he has any energy left after teaching. He must have an iron determination. He says that it’s important to find a project that you’re ‘almost obsessed by’ (I remember Jill Dawson making exactly the same observation at a recent talk). ‘Writing takes a lot of hard work.’
He advises aspiring writers: ‘Read a lot. Spend a lot of time writing: have discipline and be honest with yourself about how much you’re doing. Try to find people who can read your work and give you feedback that is as objective, well-informed and honest as possible.’
He thinks about his writing ‘more or less constantly’, sifting through the ideas that have moved through his mind at the end of every day.
I ask him my most burning question, which is if any of my favourite characters from Nnenna Maloney – Jonathan and Nnenna – might get a spin-off. I want to read about Nnenna’s further exploits, I want Jonathan to have a fairy tale happy ending. He smiles down the phone:
‘No – I wanted the novel to end as it did, with every characters’ ending. I wanted to say something about what it means to come to the end of some kind of journey.’
I like this answer. That a novel can show the realistic end of one journey and the beginning of another. I shall content myself with the idea of Jonathan’s happy ending. Lord knows he deserves it.
Okechukwu Nzelu’s The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney is published by Dialogue Books. Click here to purchase the book online and here for more information about Nzelu and his writing. Follow Nzelu on Twitter @NzeluWrites and Instagram @nzeluwrites
The Desmond Elliott Prize longlist can be viewed here. The winner of the prize for 2020 will be announced on Wednesday 6 May.
Lucy Writers and Victoria Smith would like to thank Okechukwu Nzelu, Millie Seaward and all at Dialogue Books for allowing us to publish this interview.
Join Dialogue Books’ Virtual Book Club!
Join founder and publisher, Sharmaine Lovegrove, and Dialogue Books authors for Dialogue Book Lounge, a virtual book group broadcast live via IGTV.
Every week Sharmaine and her fantastic Dialogue Books authors will discuss their work and invite you to be part of the conversation. The first Dialogue Book Lounge featured the award-winning author Yvonne Battle-Felton, who discussed her acclaimed novel, Remembered, a book that has drawn comparisons with Toni Morrison for its searing exploration of a family haunted by the past horrors and traumas of slavery; the second featured the award-winning writer and translator, Saskia Vogel, whose debut novel, Permission, is an exploration of sexuality, loneliness and grief.
This Thursday Sharmaine will be talking to Jhalak Prize nominee Niven Govinden about his dazzling novel, This Brutal House, which is set in New York’s drag ball community and explores issues of belonging, family and queer life.
The feature image of Okechukwu Nzelu is by Liz Appleton. This photograph and all images thereafter are courtesy of Dialogue Books.