‘Don’t You Write Anything Happy?’: Chinelo Okparanta on Learning from Public Readings

Once, I did a reading in New York where an older lady came up to me afterwards and said, “Your writing is beautiful, and there’s no doubt you’re a great writer, but I’m sorry I won’t be reading any more of that story. That was just too painful for me.” Then, a year or two later, I did a reading in Florida where another lady raised her hand and asked, “Don’t you write anything happy?” After a couple more of those, it finally clicked. I realized that for many people attending a reading is like watching television at the end of a long day. They don’t want to be sad. They want to laugh. Chances are they’ll pick the sitcoms over the horror movies. This writing business is all about learning. So I learned. I learned that, while one’s larger body of fiction can have quite a bit of sadness and conflict and tragedy in it (and in fact, most good fiction does), in a reading environment, the average audience member seems able to tolerate only a little bit of sadness. They’d much rather the reading be sexy, funny, intelligent, and witty. But little to no sadness. Life is hard these days. There’s more than enough sadness in the world, so I certainly can’t blame them.

At The Rumpus, en route to the Wordstock Festival in Portland, Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta–author of the recently released novel Under the Udala Trees, and the 2013 story collection Happiness, Like Water–talked to Ryan Krull about waiting until stories feel ready to be written, trying not to bum out the people who come to readings, and Americans’ naivete about the dangers faced by LBGTQ people in other countries.

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