Chinelo Okparanta: “Benji”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Chinelo Okparanta’s “Benji” was originally published in the November 11, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Update: When the following post was written, neither Chinelo Okparanta nor The New Yorker had acknowledged any relationship between “Benji” and Alice Munro’s “Corrie.” A week after publication, they updated the interview with Okparanta to explicitly acknowledge “Corrie.” That interview is here.

Trevor

I almost didn’t read this story. It was a busy week, and then word started going around in the comments below that it’s basically a straight-up knock-off of Alice Munro’s “Corrie” (which we covered here). Finally, I thought I’d better see for myself. All I have to say is this: one cannot even read the first paragraph without thinking of the great opening of “Corrie.” It’s disappointing, to say the least.

Betsy

“Benji,” by Nigerian born Chinelo Okparanta, is a gold-rush story. Set in Nigeria, the story observes the submissions and accommodations that we make in the service of wealth.

Wikipedia  reports that Nigeria has the second largest economy in Africa, one that is “on track to becoming one of the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020” (here). Oil revenues are very important to Nigeria, but, as Wikipedia reports, “the World Bank has estimated that as a result of corruption 80% of the revenues benefit only 1% of the population.”

How does a nation live with such imbalances? That’s an interesting question, given that the United States itself is right now in the midst of a series of economic earthquakes and the re-gilding of the uppermost tier of our society. As for the accommodations we make when things seem either very opportune or very unfair, Okparanta’s story suggests that our moral standards can get very slushy when money is to be had for the picking.

Her dry, clever story has the ring of Ambrose Bierce, if you like that kind of thing, which I do. With a neat plot and a slow twist, it is basically the story of a long con, but just who is conning whom is an open question.

Benji is a short, slight, light, unmarried and extremely wealthy man of forty-two, and he still lives with his mother. They share a house like a show-room, complete with a magnificent garden, house girls and gardener. His mother is the madam of house. As for Benji, there are questions. Has wealth has ruined him? Is he kind or just foolish? What exactly does he do with his time? Alare, his mother’s new friend observes it all with a calculating cool.

Nigeria is interesting to me: it seems like the United States in some ways – the vast fossil-fuel wealth, the wild-west nature of its current oil-rush, and the inherent civil dangers posed by its  tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions. The New York Times, for one, maintains a continuing feed on news from Nigeria: elections, Boko Haram, corruption, and oil thieves, but a good short story gives me an idea of how people there actually feel and think. I usually enjoy the trip abroad that a short story from another country affords, and Okparanta’s story is no exception. I find her clean style refreshing, and I’d like to take a look at her new book: Happiness, Like Water.

265 thoughts on “Chinelo Okparanta: “Benji””

  1. avataram says:

    It seems that various other stories in Yiyun Li’s collection are in conversation with different stories of William Trevor. In an interview with The Daily beast, she says that her story “Kindness” was inspired by Trevor’s “Nights in Alexandria”.

    http://thebea.st/TFez6I

    A quote from the interview:

    “She lists Trevor in the acknowledgments of the new book. What draws her to his work? “I like to imagine many of my stories having conversations with his stories (and many stories in the collection were written in that way, with a specific story of Trevor’s in mind).”

    Yiyun Li is an acclaimed writer. I have not read much of her, but she is one of New Yorker’s 20 under 40, has a MacArthur Genius Grant, was/is one of the judges for the National Book Award and two of her stories have been turned into films. Have we been unfair to Okparanta for something many writers from the Iowa Writers Workshop have been doing regularly?

  2. Roger says:

    It would be unfair only if Yiyun Li had (a) done a line-by-line mimickry; and (b) refused to acknowledge having done so.

    Yiyun Li is an amazing writer, by the way. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, are outstanding short story collections.

  3. Artsy says:

    this discussion distinguished itself by its witch hunting, personal attacks, arrogance, lack of balance, etc. that made me quickly lose respect for it and fail to take it seriously. i came to this blog through a link that directed me here and now that i think back, it might as well have said, “we’re fleecing a sheep at The Mookse and the Gripes, bring your knives.” people just wanted to cook a plagiarism scandal and Okparanta was the proper victim, and that the discussion took all this time doesn’t at all speak to its substance. Okparanta is an amazing writer too, by the way Roger, and Happiness, Like Water is an amazing collection, and maybe you should say she “refused to acknowledge” to your y’all’s arrogant satisfaction because otherwise some of us are perfectly happy and understand what Benji is trying to do even with the strong similarities.

  4. Trevor says:

    some of us are perfectly happy and understand what Benji is trying to do even with the strong similarities.

    Artsy, leaving aside everything else you claim here, what is Benji trying to do? I think the answer to this is missing in this thread and would make a lot of people shut up who are otherwise critical of Okparanta.

  5. Mark says:

    Artsy,

    This long thread has distinguished itself for containing analyses that are exactly the opposite of what you are saying. Betsy’s long, deep, considered line-by-line analysis alone is a master work of investigation that – along with Ethan and many many others here – gives this discussion much needed attention to a writer who has pulled a fast one on any number of people.

    I’m afraid that all you are doing at this point is sounding awfully sour-grapesy and providing a fairly ineffective stomping-foot defense that simply does not parallel the seriousness of what we are all discussing here. Okparanta has done something that (if not outright criminal – I’m sure an attorney would have a field day with this one while he lines his pockets) most certainly smacks of robust obfuscation and post-incident justification when repeatedly handed evidence of a transgression.

    This needs to be discussed. This needs to be addressed by TNY (their revisionism already speaks volumes about an early attempt at covering a shallow grave). This needs to not fall into the crevasse of history. This kind of theft is odious and utterly unfair to the originator – Munro. How in the world can anyone say it is okay to steal another person’s work? It isn’t. Never has been, never will be.

    Arrogant? The only individual who is arrogant here is Okparanta for assuming that because of her place in the society of letters that she can say whatever she damn well pleases and it will be accepted. That’s arrogance.

    I think it’s really wonderful that you’re a fan of Okparanta, but doesn’t add much to the critical discussion that’s been going on here. You can still be a fan of hers while acknowledging some sketchy behavior. Any fan of any number of writers or artists work must also be willing to accept that the artist is also human and can transgress – from Hemingway to Polanski, plenty of people who create art have troubling behavior. But in this case, when analysis is proving out a near copy of artist’s work, what are fans to do? Reassess the piece in question, I suspect.

  6. Archer says:

    I agree with avataram that “Good Boy, Emerald Girl” is a much more successful example of “homage”. Now that she mentions it, one can see how the William Trevor story served as inspiration, but Li’s work is distinct enough to stand on its own. I find “Benji” a different case. As has been noted, it’s evident Okparanta closely modelled her story on Munro’s, replicating plot points and specific details down to the letter. I think this goes beyond having a “conversation” with “Corrie”. It is essentially a retelling, with certain variations. Some may find this acceptable. Others clearly do not, especially since, without the updated Q&A, it appeared that Okparanta was trying to pass this off as her own creation.

    I find it curious and ironic that defenders of “Benji” have largely refused to engage with the text. I’ve seen critics of the story accused of having a grudge against the author and not understanding the concept of appropriation. I’ve seen it suggested that Munro’s story is not all that original itself. We’ve been called “bullies” and told to “get over it”. But I haven’t seen the kind of line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence analysis of both stories that Betsy and Ethan have gone to the trouble of doing. (I don’t mean to lump all defenders of “Benji” together — Paul Epstein, for one, has kept a civil and measured tone — but this has been the gist of it.)

    This isn’t a witch hunt, and I don’t think anyone has come to these conclusions lightly. If this was all just a giant misunderstanding and we’re completely off-base, it wouldn’t take much for TNY to clarify things. Their silence speaks volumes.

  7. Paul Epsten says:

    I’m glad that it’s acknowledged that I have an appropriate tone. I’d like to answer two (perhaps implicit) questions, one of which I may have answered before.

    Why don’t I engage more with the actual text? I don’t have anything to add to Betsy’s analysis which I do find interesting.

    Why don’t I consider the story at issue to be plagiarism? I think this may be largely a cultural stance. I know far more about chess than I do about literature, and indeed am hoping to qualify for the upcoming British Chess Problem Solving Championships. Using as an example, the cultural milieu of chess, with which I am far more familiar, let me cite a typical (and actual) example of plagiarism in chess writing (leaving the names of the authors out of it).

    In commenting on a chess game, one GM writes: “At the most appropriate moment! By driving the knight from f6 the pawn spreads confusion in the black ranks.” Several years later, commenting on the same game, another GM writes: “At the most appropriate moment! By driving the knight from f6 the pawn spreads confusion in the black ranks.”

    As you can see, the latter sentence is copied exactly. We have nothing remotely close to this in the two stories at issue. At worst, we have repeated themes or similar phrases. I would doubt that there is a sequence of more than three words in “Corrie” that is reproduced verbatim in “Benji”, let alone a complete sentence.

    As I’ve said, I’m outside the literary scene, so I wouldn’t challenge any writer who wants to opine about what is or is not acceptable in the short story context.

    I hope I’ve nevertheless said something about my background as someone who’s been involved with competitive chess for almost forty years, and who is familiar with the writings from that culture, which leads me to my own conceptions about what is and what is not plagiarism.

    So, from a personal standpoint, this doesn’t seem like plagiarism to me.

    Paul Epstein

  8. Roger says:

    Paul E., I don’t think the framework you describe is really what is going on when we read and engage with fiction. It suggests that each of us is a prisoner to the particular “culture” or “background” in which we are grounded, that we are limited to a “personal standpoint” that arises from that culture or background. It also suggests that every such “standpoint” is as valid as another. In other words, there is no generally shared understanding of the meaning of concepts like plagiarism and the kind of behavior it represents, only perspectives that are different and equally valid. I don’t actually think you mean this – after all, you’ve posted many times that Okparanta didn’t engage in plagiarism, without qualifying your opinion as one that is valid from your standpoint only.

    I’d contend that readers come from varying backgrounds and cultures but that when we read and engage with one another as readers, we do so on the basis of some shared general understandings, such as the meaning of individual words and the existence of certain ethical norms, like plagiarism and its dishonesty. The very acts of reading and discussion presuppose a common language. And one of the virtues of reading and discussing fiction is to stretch one’s limits so as not to dwell only in our own respective cultures and backgrounds.

    As for Okparanta, surely she doesn’t avoid responsibility for plagiarism merely by making the cosmetic changes to Munro’s story that have been documented in this thread.

    P.S. – I’m assuming Paul “Epsten” is really Paul Epstein, not an impostor, and that “Epsten” was a typo – not that someone is mimicking the real Paul Epstein!

  9. Roger says:

    Also, to clarify – I’m not suggesting that we don’t each bring something unique with us when we read and discuss, or that our backgrounds and cultures are irrelevant to those unique perspectives. To the contrary, it’s great to have a variety of points of view on a work of fiction or any other work of art. That’s the whole point of discussion.

    What I am doing is arguing against anarchic relativism on basic terms and principles, including broad ethical principles.

  10. Paul Epstein says:

    Thanks for your reply, Roger. This is just a note to confirm that “Paul Epsten” is indeed a typo for myself. The “i” on my keyboard sticks. If the moderator is able to correct the typo, I’d be very grateful.

    Paul Epstein

  11. Betsy says:

    Paul,

    I also want to recognize your consistently even tone.

    One of my concerns is what students will take away from this discussion regarding best practices when making use of another writer’s work.

    I particularly want to emphasize to students and parents that regardless of artists pushiing the envelope, either purposely or foolishly, it is still common practice to expect writers to observe widely accepted guidelines that give “reasonable and appropriate credit” for any kind of idea or form that is appropriated from another person’s work.

    (words quoted are from the Stanford University policy below.)

    Currently, departments and teachers are expected to guide their students in the formats of proper acknowledgment. It is an ethical issue that is generally respected as requiring attention by any writer.

    I would direct parents, students and teachers to the Stanford University Honor Code adopted in 2003. (http://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/communitystandards/integrity/plagiarism)

    “In order to clarify what is regarded as plagiarism, the Board on Judicial Affairs adopted the following statement on May 22, 2003:

    “?For purposes of the Stanford University Honor Code, plagiarism is defined as the use, without giving reasonable and appropriate credit to or acknowledging the author or source, of another person’s original work, whether such work is made up of code, formulas, ideas, language, research, strategies, writing or other form(s).”

    My long analysis of Okparanta’s writing was not to prove she “plagiarized”.

    It was to establish the extent of her use of Munro’s story. I satisfied myself with a careful reading of both stories that many, many elements of Munro’s story had been used in the creation of Okparanta’s story.

    If the New Yorker had made clear from the outset that this story was based on Munro’s story, the ethics of the matter would be substantially different. But I would posit that ethics would also require that the New Yorker or the author use the word “extensive” to describe Okparanta’s use of Munro’s story.

    I feel that the situation calls for the kind of formal introspection by the New Yorker that the New York Times has recently installed – that of the position of an ombudsperson who writes regularly on ethical issues raised by the publiation of certain of their own articles.

    Using Stanford’s code, I do not think that the New Yorker gave Chinelo Okparanta the right advice. In my view, “reasonable or appropriate credit” was not given to Alice Munro.

  12. avataram says:

    As a Chess aficionado myself, I understand what Paul is saying. In the 4th game of the recent Anand Carlsen world Championship, the first 14 moves were the same as in the game played by Jakovenko-Almasi in 2007. Were the two Grandmasters plagiarizing the moves? Not at all. In the 15th move, Carlsen introduced a novelty and the entire game became different.

    The trouble with Okparanta’s “homage” is that nothing is different – the opening, middle game, end game are the same, even the commentary is the same. Only the players’ names are different.

    I introduced the Yiyun Li-William Trevor issue here only to show, how the content and the writing style is everything in the story, even if explicit mention of the original story is not made – Trevor (of the blog) made the same point. If one compares Yiyun Li as a Grandmaster playing William Trevor’s games, her opening moves maybe similar, but the middle game and endgame are completely different. It is a genuine homage (and Yiyun Li speaks of her debt to William Trevor in every interview).

    I was giving Okparanta points for an original excuse. Now it looks like she has copied the story from Alice Munro, and copied the excuse from Yiyun Li. Nothing original about her at all.

  13. Paul Epstein says:

    avataram,

    I don’t think you understand my chess reference. (I’ll blame myself as the poster, not you as the reader). Yes, chess players are allowed to copy moves that they’ve seen before.
    However, my point was the far less obvious one, that chess _writers_ seem to be given far more latitude to be unoriginal when they comment on games that have been commented on before.
    For a chess writer to be widely attacked as a plagiarist, the writer has to have copied several sentences verbatim, or nearly verbatim, as per the example I cited earlier.
    I don’t think “Benji” comes close to reproducing sentences or even large parts of sentences from “Corrie”.
    So I made the point (which I hope others found interesting) that the concept of “plagiarism” is regarded differently in different communities of writers.

    In reference to an earlier remark of yours, surely the Benji/Corrie similarities aren’t remotely close enough to anything that could be picked up by a plagiarism checker! Don’t plagiarism checkers look for matches on groups of words? Surely, a plagiarism checker doesn’t know that, for example, in both stories, a parent wrongly gives the child’s age and is corrected.

    I thought that, in context, the reference to mechanical plagiarism checkers was nonsensical.

    Paul Epstein

  14. Betsy says:

    Paul –

    I think your definition of plagiarism is too narrow. Consider what Stanford University defines it as:

    For purposes of the Stanford University Honor Code, plagiarism is defined as the use, without giving reasonable and appropriate credit to or acknowledging the author or source, of another person’s original work, whether such work is made up of code, formulas, ideas, language, research, strategies, writing or other form(s).”

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