Chinelo Okparanta, the author of this year’s all-school read, Under the Udala Trees, visited the Island on Tuesday, September 27, delivering an impassioned convocation address to students, faculty, and staff gathered in the Olcott Center.
Through stories of her own life as a young immigrant from Nigeria and her experiences as a high school student, Ms. Okparanta emphasized the power of empathy, this year’s schoolwide theme, and the importance of reflection in creating art and in fostering understanding in the world.
“Empathy is learned,” she said. “We learn empathy by learning the ways that we want to be treated and deserve to be respected and by treating others with that same respect. “
Ms. Okparanta told the audience that she learned about the power of empathy from her high school French teacher, whose compassion and understanding influenced her personally and led to Ms. Okparanta’s later decision to become a writer. “Sometimes we need someone else to show us our own value and worth,” she said. “If they are able to see themselves in us, they will also be able to help us see our own strengths.”
Connecting with other people’s experiences is essential to creating art, in Ms. Okparanta’s view. “As a writer...I must take the time to listen to and hear and empathize with the plights of real-life individuals in order to be able to create good moving, meaningful art,” she said. “Any form of art that strives, at its core, to encourage empathy would do well to encourage people to spend more time thinking than talking.”
Ms. Okparanta also urged the audience to think about the actions they take in their own lives. “The first step to positive change is thoughtful reflection,” she said.
After the convocation, Ms. Okparanta met with CL English and Creative Writing classes and held a lunchtime discussion with other members of the community.
Ms. Okparanta is the author of two novels and a short story collection. She has won the Lambda Literary Award twice, the Jessie Remon Fauset Book Award in Fiction, the inaugural Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Publishing Triangle, and an O. Henry Prize for short fiction. She has published work in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, the Kenyon Revue, among other literary publications, and was named one of Granta’s six “New Voices” for 2012. Her second novel, Harry Sylvester Bird, was published this summer.
An associate professor of English and the director of the Program in Creative Writing at Swarthmore College, Ms. Okparanta is a graduate of Penn State University, Rutgers, and the Iowa Writer’s School, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts in writing.
Ms. Okparanta’s visit to campus was part of the Hubbard Speakers Series, made possible by a gift from Robert P. Hubbard '47.