Chinelo Okparanta: “Benji” from TNY, 11/8/13

TNY art by Merlin

TNY art by Merlin

This is the year I got fed up with many things, big and small.

I got fed up with the Supreme Court and the general assault on voting rights the June decision precipitated; I got fed up with Florida for legally permitting the following and killing of people with dark skin who are presumed armed if they’re walking on a sidewalk; I got fed up with a Texas senator who decided pouring money into his campaign war chest was more important than the ~800,000 workers who went unpaid for three weeks, or the $24 billion it cost the American economy to shut down the government for reasons that shifted every hour as one then another became increasingly ludicrous for even the most deluded to claim; I got fed up with the United States accidentally killing children and adult innocents, in my name for the theoretical sake of national security. I got fed up with myself and the rest of America for not rioting in the streets over the string of outrages generating from the mouths and computers of people in power. I got fed up with us for saying words like “freedom” and “justice” without having a clue what those words mean to those who constantly see their basic human, civil, and legal rights shot down again and again by those who say them the loudest.

And I got fed up with the small stuff, too. Though, let’s face it, everything’s small stuff after that.

I got fed up with Project Runway for finally degrading into The Heidi Klum Ego Trip and Product Placement Hour subtitled: Let’s find out just how stupid is our viewership is. I confess to being stupid enough to hang on a couple of years too long, so now I’m outraged with myself. And, in a somewhat-but-not-entirely-unearned move of guilt-by-association, with Top Chef, which I haven’t even been watching, much less recapping. I’m counting on Ben Folds to restore my faith in the possibility that someone in show business has integrity.

So maybe I’m primed. Maybe I’m just so used to being fed up, I get fed up over everything.

Because now I’m fed up with The New Yorker.

The story in the November 11, 2013 issue, “Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta, is a point-by-point rewrite of Alice Munro’s “Corrie” from the October 11, 2010 issue (I wasn’t reading TNY regularly then; I encountered it via the PEN/O.Henry 2012 prize anthology).

Now, TNY has published “tributes” and “recastings” before; two I recall right off the bat are Lorrie Moore’s “Referential” (an homage to Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”) and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from the 12/12/11 issue. In both cases, the author interviews discussed primarily the reason for the rewrite, though for the latter, it’s hardly necessary. Repurposings of that title – WWTAWWTA Mad Cow, Cancer, Bubbles (of the economic variety, to my great disappointment, though I now have a desire to write something about other bubbles… hmmm… crank up the Mesostomatic, I feel another round coming on), Haruki Murakami, balls (which lived up to its title) are almost as common as “This is Just To Say” spoofs.

I have no problem with homages, “after” works, tributes, recastings, whatever you want to call them. I very much enjoyed “Referential” – I used it as a springboard into the Nabokov – and I liked the Englander version better than the original (which, to be honest, never hit home for me). But here’s the thing: in both cases, there were clear indications as to what was going on. I wish it had been in the print issue, where the stories were, instead of the blog, but that’s where they hide the “novel excerpt” notices, too, so that’s just the way it is (good reason to always, and I mean always, read the online interview). With Okparanta’s story, however, the Page-Turner interview never mentioned the “homage” angle until the blogosphere exploded, at which point they edited in a “new” question.

Now, I think there are two basic possibilities, and several variations of each of those.

First possibility: TNY didn’t recognize the rewrite. Okparanta is a fairly “hot” author at the moment, and I would imagine they were glad to have her name in the TOC. But was the story accepted without editing, or even reading? That’s a genuine question; I have no idea how these things work at the level of TNY. I recognized the similarity right away, and I’m an idiot (though I did spend an unusually large amount of time on “Corrie” and learned a great deal from it, courtesy of several blog posts at Reading the Short Story by Charles May); is it possible someone read Okparanta’s story and didn’t recognize it? Don’t the TNY fiction editors actually read the magazine beyond what their boss puts on their desk?

Second possibility: TNY knew it was a reframing of the Munro story, but chose to leave that out of the author interview. Maybe they think their readers are stupid. Maybe they thought it’d be more fun that way. Maybe they think differently now, since something got them to edit the original Page-Turner interview to include the “tribute” angle. And what was Okparanta’s role in this? It’s a sad situation no matter what happened, and could’ve been so easily prevented.

As for the story, read “Corrie,” reverse the sexes, remove the religious references and the language play, and what’s left is “Benji.” A woman who’s poorer than she feels she deserves meets a man who’s wealthier than she thinks he deserves, sleeps with him, gets him to eagerly offer her money for specific but factitious purposes. He eventually figures out he’s being duped. Okparanta has kept the initial meeting over a meal, and the transfer of a servant from one household to the other (she did add a twist to that). It’s not a bad story. In fact, it’s interesting to read, in light of the updated Page-Turner interview:

I had the story in my mind for a long time before I sat down to write it, and by the time I began writing it, I knew that there would be certain aspects of the story that each character would know, and certain aspects that each character could not possibly know. Also, I knew that there were certain things that the reader would need to know, and certain things that the reader could not be allowed to know, at least not right away…. After reading “Corrie,” I wanted “Benji” to work as an homage to Munro regarding the parallel plot/structure points, but with different sociocultural contexts, in a way that gave rise to, I hope, a wholly new story.

Had all of that been in the original interview (I didn’t see it until after the update, I’m not sure what it contained other than there was no reference to Munro or her story), I’d be writing about the story now, instead of the mishandling of the story (don’t worry, the fine folks at The Mookse and the Gripes have it covered). But that’s what happens when you don’t read your own magazine. Or you think your readers are stupid. Or whatever it was that went on here.

So I’m fed up with TNY. I’ll get over it; at least I hope I will. I’ve discovered some great stories in the two years I’ve been reading them weekly, and though the frequent inclusion of excerpts-disguised-as-stories annoys me, there’s something of value in that as well. Next week, or maybe tomorrow, or even an hour from now, some official will say or do something stupid, and I’ll be on to something else. Maybe that’s why we’re not rioting in the streets. Outrage fatigue. We’re fed up with being fed up, that there’s more where that came from, that it’s an endless stream, and after a while, it’s just easier to tell yourself you’re overreacting and watch cute cat videos.

And if you’re thinking it’s deceptive to title a post and then barely mention the story in the post, you’re right. It is.

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5 responses to “Chinelo Okparanta: “Benji” from TNY, 11/8/13

  1. Very enlightening. I had no idea this was a re-casting of an Alice Munro story. Frankly, that makes me very angry. I found “Benji” to be completely insipid and flat. The characters are two-dimensional and there’s absolutely no conflict whatsoever.I see now that’s because the author was following a completely pre-conceived blueprint; coloring by numbers, as it were. And I completely do not buy her explanation that she wanted it to “work as an homage” to Munro but from a different social context. Sell that literary B.S. somewhere else. All that basically means is: “I’m going to get away with copying someone else’s story by setting it in Africa.” Maybe I’m overreacting?

    • Hi Grant – Whole lotta people “overreacted” to this, including me. I’d like to think Okparanta was caught in the middle, but that’s mostly because I’d prefer an editor rather than a writer be the bad guy. 😉
      Had I known what she was doing, I would’ve invested more effort into investigating just how she did that, and where I felt it succeeded – I like the idea of “cultural recasting,” and let’s face it, there hasn’t been a truly “new” story since Homer – but I’m not interested in participating in this increased level of deception.

  2. Pingback: TALK: VidPo #3 | A Just Recompense

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