Interview with Okechukwu Nzelu

Nnenna Maloney is a teenage girl juggling friendships, school and sex. But as she approaches womanhood she also wants to connect with her Igbo-Nigerian culture.

Her close relationship with her mother, Joanie, becomes strained, as Nnenna demands answers about the father she has never known. A heart-warming cast of characters join Nnenna and Joanie as they grapple with questions of identity and belonging against the backdrop of everyday Manchester.

The story of a young woman coming of age is a familiar one, but Nnenna’s perspective seemed very fresh. How do you feel about the need for new, diverse characters like Nnenna, and what motivated you to tell her story?

I remember the first time I read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I would have been Nnenna’s age, 16, when I saw the novel in a Black History Month display at Manchester Central Library. And this will sound as corny as corn on the cob, but the book just… called out to me. I took it out and read it in two days (incredibly fast for me) and I couldn’t believe how great it felt to read a book with names I recognised, with language I was familiar with. It really did feel like home, and I felt so profoundly grateful for it when I finished. Shouldn’t more people feel like that, and more often?

As to why and how I wrote the story: funnily enough, a few people (with very good intentions) have asked me, what research I did before writing the story of a half-Nigerian teenager and her white single mum. It’s an interesting question, but things happened more organically than that. I could probably search my internet history and find the titles of articles and interviews I’ve read over the course of my life, but I never did ‘research’: I think if a man has to go to a library and fill up a notebook just so he can write contemporary female characters convincingly, there’s a problem.

Nnenna and her mother may be new characters, but they’re not new people: people like them are all around us, and if you listen to them, if you have a range of people in your life, they will share their experiences with you, as I have done with people in my life at various stages. Generally, people love to talk about themselves! It’s a very human trait. I think that’s why the novel is full of people from various different backgrounds and of various different experiences: I didn’t base any of my characters on specific people, but I grew up in Manchester, a very diverse city, so I really wanted to write the kind of novel that reflects my experiences.

Then, as I drafted and redrafted again and again throughout my twenties, I was developing my thinking on a lot of different issues and reflecting on my own experiences. I found myself really interested in Nnenna as one example of people who just about fit in certain ways, but who don’t necessarily feel like they ‘fit’: Nnenna goes to school with many middle-class kids who typically come from comfortable homes with two loving parents – but Nnenna’s home life doesn’t reflect that, and it’s hard for her to carve out a space for herself when she knows almost nothing about her father. How might that affect how she sees herself? How might that affect her relationship with her mother? What stigmas might she face? How might that affect her friendships and other aspects of her daily life? I really wanted to explore these questions with some light and humour.

Nnenna and her peers are sixteen for most of the novel. How did you find writing from the perspective of a teenager? Were you influenced by your work as a high school teacher? Did you draw from your own experience of adolescence?

Working with young people is hugely fun, and writing teenage voices is hugely fun. There’s that famous Louis de Bernières quotation about how ‘childhood is the only time in our lives when insanity is not only permitted to us, but expected’. I think children and young people break certain unwritten rules of behaviour because they’re figuring things out, or because they’re having fun or because they’re rebelling. Being a teacher definitely reminds me of this.

Funnily enough, though, I wasn’t really like that as a kid, myself: I’ve always been very independent-minded but for a few different reasons, I never really rebelled in the ways that some of my friends did. So I really enjoyed writing Nnenna, a conscientious, studious and thoughtful but imperfect young woman, put into situations where she’s faced with the choice to rebel, or to sit quietly.

So, writing the voices of teenagers who are figuring out love, school, sex, race and class, making mistakes, having fun, getting hurt, learning things – it was an absolute gift because as well as doing some serious thinking, I could really have a laugh. I drew on my own experiences, or just made things up that were consistent with reality as I see it. It wasn’t always easy, but I laughed a lot while writing this, and not just while writing the conversations between the teenagers. At one point in the novel, Nnenna compares the way she talks to her boyfriend with the level of conversation between Austen’s heroines and their love interests; what she doesn’t fully realise is that some of the funniest, tenderest and most enriching conversations she has are those she already has with her mother. I think that sometimes, very different types of love have certain things in common.

And the messaging chats! Loved ‘em. I grew up around the time Nnenna does, when instant messaging was taking off in quite a big way. I based the online conversations in the book on my own experiences with the (now defunct) MSN Messenger of the early noughties, but one of the best things about being in a classroom is that particular brand of cheeky wit that teenagers have, and that definitely found its way into the book.

The majority of the novel is set in Manchester – with another timeline set in Cambridge. I personally loved this, as reading popular fiction set in the North can still feel like a novelty. As a Mancunian, was it important to you that the book was set there?

I’m so glad you enjoyed this! Manchester and Cambridge are the two cities I know best, as that’s where I’ve lived and worked and studied, so that was part of my decision. But they’re very different places: growing up in Manchester, I’d had friends of every world religion by the time I was 10. At my Cambridge college, I was the Ethnic Minorities Rep on the student council and I remember being surprised at just how many people had never heard of Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. We’d learned about it in primary school! I had very different experiences in the two cities and I wanted to reflect that in my writing.

I was also very conscious of many mainstream British novels being set in London. Some of those novels will always be my favourite books (White Teeth by Zadie Smith among them) but I wanted to write something that reflected my experience and portrayed the North of England in a nuanced, contemporary way. I did wonder if this would make it less appealing, but most British people who read London novels don’t necessarily know London that well, but you can still enjoy them because there’s something engaging in reading about someone’s experiences which are different from your own, so long as those experiences are convincing and well-written. So I tried to reflect the variety of different parts of Manchester and give some space to one of my favourite bits, Albert Square, which is like stepping into the Victorian era.

One of of the book’s central characters is a gay man. His storyline is at times very harassing, but he’s also a character who offers a lot of comic relief. Indeed, many of the characters in the book that discover or explore their sexuality do so in a very positive and hopeful way. Were you conscious of the way you wanted to depict these characters and their journeys?

I really was. I think a lot of LGBTQ+ literature offers tragedy or despair or trauma, and I don’t want to be critical of that because the sad fact is that those things reflect modern life for many queer people, especially queer people of colour. The statistics on mental health for LGBTQ+ people, even well into the 21stcentury, are very troubling. But I’m also aware that it’s a very human thing (and a particularly Mancunian thing, I think) to find light and even humour in some of the bleakest situations, so I wanted to do that, and have my characters do that too, where they could.

And then besides that, sex (heterosexual or otherwise) is just an absolute goldmine for comedy writing. I think there’s real intimacy and gravitas in the characters’ experience of sexuality, but sometimes you just have to laugh (I hope). Especially for the younger characters, human intimacy is very much uncharted territory, and so many of them are concerned with setting or shifting their boundaries, and with finding (or losing) themselves while experiencing intimacy with another person.

When it comes to Jonathan specifically, I wanted to uplift his voice. LGBTQ+ people of colour are being seen more often in mainstream media, but their stories are often still truncated or over-simplified and their voices are often ignored within the narrative, in favour of exploring the psyches of their white counterparts. But I wondered what would happen if, for part of the book, we only heard the voice of an LGBTQ+ person of colour? What if we had to listen to him, and only him? That’s partly why most of Jonathan’s scenes are nervous monologues with someone on the phone, or with a lover: I wanted the reader to get a sense of his profound loneliness (even when he’s with other people) and of how lost he feels. Ultimately, he has to decide whether (and how) to change his life, but the catalyst for this might come as a surprise.

Religion is a thread that runs throughout the novel. Nnenna uses bible verses as a means of writing in her diary, and we see many characters seriously struggling with their faith. You certainly don’t shy away from the problems within the church, but the issues are dealt with very deftly. Could you talk a little bit about why religion was such an important aspect of the story?

Thank you! I really enjoyed writing this nuance. When I was Nnenna’s age I was quite religious, and my Christian faith was a big part of how I saw the world. Although I no longer believe in God, the language and imagery of Christianity still resonate with me strongly. In particular, I’m very interested in ideas of the holy and the profane – and the ideas of redemption and forgiveness, and the idea that people and ideas that are easy to dismiss or condemn might be something completely different from what you might have thought.

Writing the church scenes was very important for me. I am critical of the church in some ways, but I also recognise that it provides something deeply important for some people. I think it’s important to recognise that people and institutions can be very problematic, or even destructive, while also being deeply benevolent in some ways. When writing about religion, in a lot of ways, I’m writing about humanity – the good, and the bad – so in that sense it’s quite representative of what I was trying to do in the novel as a whole.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney will be published by Dialogue Books on 3 October 2019.