‘If I were famous, you wouldn’t have to ask, would you?’
Prizewinning novelist Okechukwu Nzelu on the joys of being a writer in Manchester
By Sophie Atkinson
We’re walking down Oxford Road when a woman stops us, staring fixedly at Okechukwu Nzelu. After a beat or two, she stutters “Are you famous?” “No,” he says, laughing, at the same time that I insist: “Yes.” Later he tells me that when the senior school students he taught used to ask if he were famous after his first novel came out, he settled on a killer response: “If I were famous, you wouldn’t have to ask, would you?” Still. If he isn’t now — after so many glowing reviews and award shortlists — it feels like he will be soon.
Nzelu, 33, was born in Withington and grew up in Bolton and Stockport — apart from a stint in Cambridge for university, he’s never left Greater Manchester. Back in 2019, he published The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, a debut novel about a white single mother and her biracial daughter set between Manchester and Cambridge which won him a Betty Trask Award. Although the novel covers a range of serious topics (mental health issues, navigating identity as a British Nigerian, loneliness in the gay community), there’s a buoyancy to it that means it’s always a pleasure to read. Now Dialogue Books, an imprint of Hachette UK, is publishing his second novel, Here Again Now, about a devastating event bringing two men with almost nothing in common closer together. It feels markedly different in tone from his first and is far graver than his debut outing but has a depth that rewards attention.
He has agreed to take me on a tour of his literary Manchester — his favourite bookshops and libraries. We start at Manchester Central Library, where he wrote much of his first novel, and I’m expecting to be lead into the Wolfson reading room since it crops up in The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney (“Nnenna would sit on the floor next to the desk where her mother worked away in the vast, circular Wolfson reading room, awed into silence by its seriousness, its high ceilings and the way even the smallest noise would echo”). Instead, we head to the Henry Watson Music Library — Nzelu was a keen pianist and flautist at school.
He attended Manchester Grammar School, the largest private day school in the country, where he experienced both verbal and physical bullying. He implies that the bullying was caused by the ways, as a gay man, he deviated from conventional ideas of masculinity. There was a certain pressure at school: “No matter what I did, it was never the right thing.” He couldn’t hold his hands in this way or his posture would be wrong and somebody would point it out and tell him that he was behaving in a way that was too camp. “I remember feeling I was always breaking some sort of rule that I wasn't responsible for and I didn't care about. And I think quite quickly I became quite dismissive of all that stuff because I figured out that nothing I did was ever going to be good enough.” Despite his experiences with bullying, he still speaks well of the school — they were supportive of his writing when he studied there and he later ended up teaching English Literature at MGS, where he was welcomed warmly back into the fold.
At this point, we’re ambling along under what feels like the first blue skies of the year to Waterstones on Deansgate. It’s here that he remembers feeling ahead of the literary curve by ordering in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel Purple Hibiscus as a teenager and in later years, going to see the French novelist Édouard Louis read there.
Conversation turns to the authors and novels which shaped his style. He mentions Jane Austen, whose big themes — “families and love and growing up and how perceptions of things change” — are a decent summation of Nzelu’s own work. He namechecks Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith, both of whom have inspired him to bring a strong voice to his work. He remembers reading White Teeth when he was home during the university holidays, “waiting at Stockport bus station like ‘Am I going to get mugged?’ I was by myself in the dark, laughing at this book.” It felt like a revelation to him that a person could write about multicultural Britain like Smith does.
There’s a wealth of fiction written by black British writers from the south of England, especially from London — Bernardine Evaristo, Candice Carty-Williams, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Natasha Brown being just a few names that come to mind. But it feels more difficult to think of black northern fiction writers. I wonder: does he feel there's a dearth of representation of black northern voices and was part of the reason he stayed here to rectify that? He explains that he doesn’t want his fiction to have the burden of demonstrating anything or speaking for “this massive thing: the black community, which is in fact several communities, same with the queer community”. He talks about the burden of representation: “If you give yourself the job of representing something, that really narrows down what else you can do. It really weighs down fiction, however well you do it. What I want to say is, this is humanity, this is something to celebrate and explore.”
We’re walking towards Blackwell’s on Oxford Road when he tells me he was inspired by the Old Testament narrative of the Book of Ruth: how the book is about “What we’d now refer to as ‘chosen families’”. The book follows Ruth, a woman who, after the death of her husband, refuses to go back home to her family but instead chooses to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi. “Perhaps the most important moment in that story is when Ruth says to Naomi, ‘Where you go, I'll go, your God will be my God.’ That was a really powerful moment for me because I thought what if that could happen today and with men, and why didn't it happen with men in the story? What is it about masculinity — despite the fact that the patriarchy is so powerful — that holds men back as well as women?” This was something he decided to explore in the novel, set in contemporary London.
“I wanted to take a straight identified man and say, even he, somebody who has obeyed all the rules — who has got married, who has had a child — has actually been mistreated by the patriarchy into which he fits quite well,” he says. “Because I think traditional ideas of masculinity and patriarchy aren't good for anybody. I wanted this to be a novel where a straight and queer character could come together and be loving and mutually supportive.”
In Blackwell’s, Nzelu tells me it’s one of his favourite places to buy books in the city centre (for a slightly further-out recommendation, he also loves Chorlton Bookshop, which we didn’t make it to). We stumble across a poster of his upcoming event at Central Library and I ask him if it feels surreal to see his face on posters. Of course! But it felt more surreal to receive the physical copies of his first novel in the post, he tells me. To hold the work of multiple years, seven or eight drafts’ worth of work, in his hands.
After Blackwell’s, we head to the Northern Quarter to visit Queer Lit, which he tells me opened last summer. The bookshop was founded to better represent the LGBTQ+ community in Manchester and they have an unexpected problem. The cashiers gesture to a corkboard to the left of the tills — particularly generous customers can donate money so that anyone who can’t afford books can have a book bought for them, and the corkboard bristles with post-its marked with donations. But everyone who frequents the shop keeps refusing financial aid, they say. “Everyone says that the book money should go to someone who needs it more than them! But come on — these vouchers are here to be used.”
The cashiers are delighted to see Nzelu — they show him where the copies of Here Again Now are stocked. When we leave, I ask him about the thing I find most striking about his work — his prose has a warmth that you don’t see a lot of in contemporary fiction. Is it an expression of being brought up as a Christian? He sets me straight: he’s not religious anymore, but he believes in the Christian idea of the journey of life as one from sin to redemption. “Really, we should be trying to make ourselves better for the people around us. And that we shouldn't be allowing ourselves to be isolated by the fact that we've made mistakes. We should be trying not just to forgive, but also to be worthy of forgiveness.” He wanted his second novel to be about two people who are increasingly moving closer to being good for one another.
The playwright Lorraine Hansberry once wrote about a grey area that a writer of realist fiction operated in, between what does exist and what doesn’t but could exist. “I think fiction writers have a capacity and sometimes even a responsibility to show what can happen,” Nzelu says. “So often we're divided and at the bottom of that is bigotry and closed mindedness and I wanted to show, OK, but that doesn't have to be the end. What might it look like for somebody who has made terrible mistakes and been homophobic and misogynistic and really has so many regrets about life and being a bad father and husband? What would it take for someone to turn it around?”
After we wend our way down a weirdly sun-baked Market Street, he tells me he feels Manchester is a particularly wonderful place to be a writer in. “It's very vibrant but also quite small and nurturing. It's not as disparate as London is, you don't get the sense that you're miles away from people who are doing the same things as you.” As such, he notes, it's easier to meet creative people here. Manchester isn’t perfect, he says — it needs more investment, and despite its multiculturalism, “It’s not a utopia of diversity and inclusion, it just isn’t. There are problems here too”. But studying in Cambridge opened his eyes — what he enjoys in Manchester isn’t readily available everywhere in England. “I can walk through my local park here, overhear five or six different languages, just walking around and that's amazing and that doesn't happen everywhere.”