Posted Wednesday 22 December 2021
Kingston University students, staff and alumni have had a chance to meet acclaimed writer Okechukwu Nzelu at a special Big Read talk and book-signing event. Nzelu captivated the audience with reflections on his debut novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney – the title chosen for this year's Big Read shared reading initiative.
During the discussion, he explained how growing up in a single parent family and his relationship with his Igbo heritage inspired him to write about people living on the edge of communities. "I knew I wanted to write about a character who was struggling to connect with her Igbo heritage. It's the same heritage I share and with which I have a complicated relationship as a queer son of immigrants," he said.
"I knew I wanted to create a more honest and gentle portrayal of a single parent family than many of those I had seen in the media growing up," he continued. "I remember seeing a lot of portrayals of single motherhood that felt very unfair and I wanted to address that balance. Not with the idea that it was perfect or easy, because it was neither of those things, but with something more truthful."
The author has worked as a teacher throughout his career, helping students on their way to higher education, and as a lecturer, inspiring undergraduates as they begin university life.
Nzelu said he appreciated being part of the Big Read because he was able to help people connect with each other. "Being able to discuss the book in this communal space, with Kingston University students, is such a gift," he said. "I was speaking to students who were saying how it's helped them – that they got out of it what I really wanted to put in, this sense that this book is for people who need to make friends and feel like they belong. That really means a lot to me."
During the lengthy discussion, which was also streamed to online guests, Nzelu revealed his writing process and shared tips with the audience about creative writing and how to get published.
Now in its seventh year, the Big Read is an award-winning scheme which creates a sense of community for Kingston University students, staff and alumni and provides a common talking point for new starters.
MA publishing student Maria Nae, who was part of a team of student helpers at the event, reminisced on first receiving the Big Read book when she joined Kingston in September. "I thought it was fantastic," Maria said. "It was a great way to get involved and it was an ice breaker for people to talk about in that first week. I loved the book. It was very heart-warming, especially for people trying to integrate into the new university lifestyle."
The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney – winner of a Betty Trask Award and shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Polari First Book Prize – was published in 2019 and is a tribute to community, faith and forgiveness as well as growing up and growing into ourselves.
Professor Alison Baverstock, director of the Big Read, said it was a privilege to welcome Nzelu on campus. "We're delighted Nzelu was this year's Big Read author, and that he could visit in person for the author talk. His book helped students settle in and feel like they belong, which is what this project hopes to achieve each year."
Nzelu's second novel, Here Again Now, is being published in March 2022. It's about three Black men and what unfolds following a tragic event. It's more sombre than his debut, Nzelu explained, but at its heart it's about love. "It's about the surprising ways love can find you, and being a better person for the people you love. There's an inevitability about falling in love – it's an impulse in all of us that we can't shake or escape."
- Find out more about Kingston University Big Read
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