Some of my readers have asked my opinion about the current controversy over the story in the Nov. 11, 2013 issue of New Yorker by Chinelo Okparanta entitled “Benji.” In the first “Week in Fiction” interview about the story, there was no mention of the story’s similarity to Alice Munro’s story “Corrie,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2010. When several New Yorker readers noted the similarity, the magazine amended the “Week in Fiction” by adding the following question and response:
Several readers have noticed the parallels between your story and Alice Munro’s story “Corrie,” which was published in the magazine, in 2010. You’ve mentioned that “Benji” was modeled on “Corrie”; can you talk about what you hoped that modeling would do?
I have read Munro’s “Corrie “ several times and have written about it here in an essay that received a number of comments because of the ambiguity and complexity of the story. I have also read Okparanta’s “Benji.’I am a big fan of Alice Munro’s writing, which I was introduced to while at Iowa. At the time, I couldn’t help thinking how so many of her stories felt so “Nigerian”: quite a few of her characters recalled people I knew in Nigeria, and some of her conflicts mirrored conflicts that were in some ways trademarks of Nigerian culture. I was working on a story about a poor couple in Nigeria who created an illness plot in order to get money from a rich, unmarried, pale-skinned short man. 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. I think pieces of art can speak to each other where the craft is concerned, while also allowing the possibility for divergent discourses concerning the specifics of culture and society. That is, I hoped that this sort of modeling would help set up a discourse, particularly in terms of how space and culture can influence a story and how it is read. For me, it was key to ground my story in the culture of Nigeria. There was, for instance, the issue of a wealth divide, which is a topical issue in Nigeria, and is seen through the characters of Alare and her husband, versus Benji’s family. There was also the issue of religion. But, most of all, there was a focus on health care, because Nigeria is known for the way its élites and government officials (like Yar’Adua) have had to travel to foreign countries in order to get medical care, for lack of quality of care in our own country. This last bit formed the premise of my scheme and was a large part of my story.
I have no way of knowing if the fiction editors at The New Yorker were aware of the similarity of the plot line of the two stories before readers pointed it out to them, although it seems to me that if they did not recognize the similarity, they are surely guilty of careless editing. And it also seems to me that Okparanta’s failure to make clear that the story was intended as a “tribute” to Munro’s “Corrie” makes her guilty of careless writing, if not purloined writing.
I have no way of knowing if Okparanta was trying to get away with pawning off a Munro plot as her own. Only she knows that. I do feel, however, that the “explanation” above is, as my father used to say, “a day late and a dollar short. The hope that her “modeling would help set up a discourse, particularly in terms of how space and culture can influence a story and how it is read” sounds like hollow gobblygook to me. In fact, her whole long answer that The New Yorker has added to cover the butts of both the author and the magazine sounds like a lot of bs to me.
As a careful reader and admirer of Alice Munro, I think that if Okparanta meant “Benjii” as a tribute to Alice Munro, it is a weak tribute. Okparanta’s story is mere plot twist. Alice Munro’s story is a complex turn of the screw. The New Yorker should have made the so-called “tribute” intention clear up front.