Chinelo Okparanta, left, and Susan Muaddi Darraj


Chinelo Okparanta, left, is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees, and Susan Muaddi Darraj wrote the short story collection A Curious Land: Stories from Home, both published to critical acclaim in the fall.

Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees and Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land: Stories from Home, which were published in the fall, bring to life characters who live in troubled lands far from New Jersey. Under the Udala Trees (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) portrays one woman’s struggle for selfhood in civil war-torn Nigeria. A Curious Land: Stories from Home (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015) relives life in a West Bank village to bear witness to the experiences of Palestinians in the last century.

The authors themselves have a few things in common as well. After graduating from Rutgers University–Camden with master’s degrees in English, with creative-writing concentrations inspired by professors such as Lisa Zeidner and J.T. Barbarese, Okparanta GSC’06 and Muaddi Darraj CCAS’97, GSC’99 have gone on to win many literary awards. Okparanta won the Lambda Literary Award in 2014 for her collection Happiness, Like Water (Mariner Books, 2013) and Muaddi Darraj won a book of the year award for her 2007 collection The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) as well as the Grace Paley Prize in 2015 for A Curious Land. And the authors share the conviction that their studies at Rutgers propelled them to their respected places in today’s literary landscape.             

Rutgers Magazine: Under the Udala Trees is about protagonist Ijeoma’s coming-of-age in Nigeria, and her struggle to balance her mother’s expectations with her own homosexuality. A Curious Land is about life in a Palestinian village through many generations and the challenges of making a home there. How autobiographical is the work?

Chinelo Okparanta: One aspect of the novel was loosely inspired by the story of my mother, who grew up during the war in Nigeria and whose father died in it. Still, there are great differences between the reality and the fiction.

Susan Muaddi DarRaj: Very few of the stories are based on my own experience, although I used to spend summers in the West Bank in my parents’ village of Taybeh, which is very much like the village in the book. 

RM: Both books take place in volatile parts of the world. Did you set out to address what has happened and is happening politically in these places? Did you hope for political consequences?  

CO: I do intend for the book to have political consequences in Nigeria, to be a push for repealing the antihomosexuality law that was signed in February 2014. When President Muhammadu Buhari was in Washington, D.C., last summer, I made sure he held my novel firmly in his hands. I hope he’s read it. I hope he thinks about what he’s read.

SMD: I really wasn’t trying to write a political book. I was trying to show people that Palestinians have a history, and in that history there are things most people can relate to, like marriage, love, family, and death. 

RM:The themes of your books are not new to you. Chinelo, a story in Happiness, Like Water recounts a transatlantic lesbian relationship, and a mother’s disappointment in it. Susan, The Inheritance of Exile was about Arab-American women. Will you keep writing about these subjects?

CO: I don’t believe there’s a quota for how many times a person can write about a topic. So long as the person does it well, it will be worth reading.

SMD: I do think this is my subject. I can be a person who helps other people feel connected to the Palestinian experience. And that’s what I want to be: a literary bridge.