Historical fiction novelist Chinelo Okparanta reflects on how she found escapism in quarantine.
Yemi Alade’s “Bounce” flows from my laptop, and I shake bodi, shake bodi, bounce, in step with my Afrobeats dance workout. I am in my gold-and-ivory-themed Washington, D.C.-area apartment, so celestial in my eyes that I call her Heaven. A couple of hours ago, I finished my dinner of goat stew and rice. Now, the scent of coconut-pecan cookies wafts into my nostrils. Last week’s treat was German chocolate cake, and the week before, banana bread. I am eager to bite into a cookie, but I must first complete my evening dance workout.
I do the zanku, crisscrossing my forearms before my chest, all of this amidst the foliage of my indoor garden—my lush dracaena, my crawling ivies. If 2020 is the year that disappeared, it will also be the year that I baked and cooked and danced to Afropop in Heaven.
It wasn’t always this way. I once had a life defined by travel, wherein I ate food and enjoyed music outside of Heaven. On the first major trip of my life, I traversed the Atlantic Ocean—a long, turbulent flight from Lagos, Nigeria, to Boston, where I ate my first tater tot, my first slice of pecan pie, and my first Twinkie. This was the early ’90s. I was not yet a teenager. I feasted my ears on the music of TLC, New Kids on the Block, Giggles, and Mariah Carey.
In the years that followed, I plucked the orange trees of Seville, Spain, and watched traditional flamenco dances in Granada. I took family trips to Bordeaux and Paris, Luxembourg, and Venice, and had my share of good wine, foie gras, and bigoli in salsa. I visited Chichen Itza and ate pico de gallo in Yucatán.
In Ghana, I trekked through the cacao fields of Mampong. In the Serengeti, I observed the Big Five in their natural habitat. Always, I found good food, and somewhere in these beautiful places, beautiful music played, and sometimes, I danced.
But 2020 arrived, and with it, the coronavirus. Nations closed borders. Weeks of quarantine passed with no reprieve. At first, the solitude plagued. I learned of the deaths of both strangers and loved ones. I became filled with anxiety about the state of our world. My mind played tricks on me. My breathing caught, my chest tightened. Going outside was often too much of a production: masking up, gloving up, stripping off clothes, and disinfecting properly upon return. Even writing, my usual escape, was difficult with so anxious a mind. I lost my appetite, and with it, pounds. I reduced to the lowest I’d weighed in all my adult life.
And yet, one day, as the orange sun melted away like a healing wound in the sky, an Afropop song began to play from my laptop. Seated within the cabin of Heaven, I heard the music—there was a levity and an urgency that reminded me, just as my travels once did, that I was still alive. I found myself swaying my body, working my way into another time and place. The more I danced, the more my appetite grew. Like a wild beast or a god, in the words of Aristotle, I began to delight in solitude. I began again to write.
“Like a wild beast or a god, in the words of Aristotle, I began to delight in solitude.”
Now, as dusk turns into night, I continue to dance. I recall with equal parts gratitude and bliss my goat stew dinner—the subtleness of the ginger and cilantro and parsley, the sweet and picante flavors of the bell peppers and habanero. The music, like a gentle breeze, carries my thoughts back to the cookies. But I keep dancing. Across the street, the neighbor’s lights shine brightly, her window blinds pulled up like mine. As I dance, I wonder: Is she, too, on the verge of enjoying a treat? What is it like for her to witness the solitary dancing of another quarantining woman whose body movements are the mark of a revival? She and I, even in isolation, are a community. And perhaps as a community, we share the same hope that one day soon we might be able to move freely about the world again.
If it is true that no serious work is possible without great solitude, then perhaps lockdown means that we’re both on the job, and very soon we’ll find our way out.
Chinelo Okparanta is the author of Happiness, Like Water, and most recently, Under the Udala Trees. Her honors include the O. Henry Prize, shortlisting for the International DUBLIN Literary Award, and for the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award. In 2017 she was named a Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists.