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Okechukwu Nzelu: Great Hall, Girton

The award-winning writer Okechukwu Nzelu meets Aiseosa Eweka-Okera to celebrate Girton’s splendid isolation and the joy of bringing people together.

- 4 minute read
Dining hall

“The Hall feels like one of the only parts of Girton which hasn’t changed,” says Okechukwu Nzelu (Girton 2007), looking around at the exquisite wood panelling and a table beautifully set for the evening’s Annual Students and Parents Dinner, where he’ll be speaking. He’s right, of course: it’s the beating heart of this outlying college, where people matter far more than place. But the catering staff are politely hovering, so a decision is made to continue the conversation between him and Aiseosa Eweka-Okera (Human, Social and Political Sciences, Third Year) in the café.

“Which has also changed!” says Nzelu. “It wasn’t here when I was here. When I left, Ash Court was just being finished. Eddington wasn’t here. The Mistress is also new, so I’m looking forward to meeting her, too.” But, of course, one thing is still the same. “It’s so beautiful here, particularly in autumn. The only open day I went to was Girton. It just felt lovely, warm, human, personal, and I thought: ‘Yeah, I can see myself here.’”

That was the easy part: then came the train journey at the start of my first term. “My mum couldn’t drive and I just have memories of dragging loads of luggage through King’s Cross. So I didn’t bring much – just the essential stuff. That’s a habit I’ve always had, whenever I’ve moved house. I didn’t even bring that many books. I mean, the libraries are so good here. Of course, these days, I have far too many books…”

The train? I don’t know how my family and I would have managed that. I had so much stuff. In my first year, I even brought a small fridge

Eweka-Okera looks surprised. “The train? Oh, I don’t know how my family and I would have managed that. We had a carful. There was just enough space for us to sit because I had so much stuff. In my first year, I even brought a small fridge.”

But of course, Girtonites are no strangers to public transport. As a keen actor and member of the chapel choir (until his second year, when “something had to give”), Nzelu spent a lot of time on the bus – and it was worth it. “I loved having friends in town. And it’s those relationships and experiences which have stayed with me. I still get invited to the weddings of people I was in the choir with. We went on tour to Slovakia, where I’d never been before: it was an incredible experience. And we had a little poetry group called Not Averse – I’m so sorry – which was such a friendly, warm and welcoming place.”

Eweka-Okera agrees that while rooms bring back memories, it’s the people you meet that stay with you for life. “I think the relationships with my directors will stay with me. I didn’t expect the pastoral support to be that good. I’m really privileged to have that professional relationship with great people who really care about me beyond the essays that I write. They care about you as an individual. That’s something I will always treasure.” Girton’s relative isolation doesn’t bother her either. “Because you’re a bit further out, you do tend to make strong friendships or relationships within college,” she says. “It’s easier if you have people around you that you get along with, because you’re far out from the rest of Cambridge. It can feel like a refuge.”

For Nzelu, Girton was a space to explore, to try new things, to read – and, of course, to write. “I’ve been writing fiction since I learned how to write words and sentences,” he says. “I thought that was just what you did. “When I came here, I knew I wanted to write, but I also knew that writing isn’t something you just fall into. And here, I read so much. The stuff I liked the most was what inspired me, even though it was very different from what I wanted to write – from Jane Austen to Piers Plowman. When I came here and read so much, I started to develop a sense about what writing can be and what it can do. And that’s still going on now – I am still thinking about what I want my writing to be in the world.”

Award-winning author Okechukwu Nzelu’s second novel, Here Again Now, is out now. Aiseosa Eweka-Okera is studying Human, Social and Political Sciences.

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