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Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta

‘And so there were silences, as if we no longer valued spoken words, as if spoken words were gaudy finishes on a delicate piece of art, unnecessary distractions from the masterpiece, whose substance was more meaningfully experienced if left unornamented.’



I ran out of sticky flags while reading this collection of beautiful short stories by Chinelo Okparanta. There are ten stories in this collection which I can only describe as solid, no wavering from beginning to end. The stories did the job that they had to do and I was pleased! I was introduced to Chinelo Okparanta’s writing when I read ‘Under the Udala Trees’ which is a very important book. ‘Happiness, Like Water,’ is Chinelo Okparanta’s debut book and it holds its own ground in a special way. It cuts across, themes and countries, it also questions the structures in our society that aim to silence, to kill and destroy those considered undeserving.

This is one collection that I can say has no major theme as the themes are overarching in each story, stringing like a thread from the first to the last. Okparanta goes into families, relationships, work settings and the church to pull out and reveal the layers of life. Perhaps, the major theme is life; the lives we live openly and the lives we hide. In the family, the reader sees that the marriage relationship is not easy or made easy for women. In Ohaeto Street, Chinwe finally gets to decide to choose herself and not be part of Eze’s show leaving him because even if things appear to be fine she is not a priority in his life, coming second to material possessions, he is emotionally abusive. In Shelter, the reader meets a Nigerian woman and a child experiencing domestic violence in America. The opportunity to leave presents itself but the status of their stay in America becomes a major problem, tied to their abuser’s study permit. Regardless of how blatant the abuse is, the plan is doomed to fail from the beginning, ‘Still, a person did not go around with black eyes and swollen lips and as such without people suspecting. The woman had surely seen it before – a black eye on Mama, or a purple black bruise on my arm…’ As if that is not enough, the system is not set for them, the woman cannot work and doesn’t have money to run, so she stays. This story reminded me of Chasing Butterflies by Yejide Kilanko (you can check out my review here). The two women in these stories face the same situation, however one is powered by a career that she can go back to if she leaves. Chasing Butterflies begins with so much violence and ends in hope and survival. Here’s what Okparanta does, she gives the reader an alternative narrative (in a sea of many possible narratives) to the situation of immigrant women in America facing domestic violence. The juxtaposition of these stories left me asking, ‘Things could go wrong, things could go right in the pursuit of freedom.’ For many women out there, it is a matter of chance, a dangerous gamble to which the other player already knows their cards by design and has great control of the game!

Wahala! deals with the important issues of childlessness, which is often pinned on the woman, demanding that she does all sort of things to have a child. Women are sometimes subjected to marital rape and the harrowing scene in this book brings out the connection between perception and experience. And the question is ‘And what if the imperfection was not really even in her? What if it was in him? It was a thought that she could not dare voice. It was generally understood that such things were the fault of the woman.’ Is childlessness even something to be considered a problem? In Story, Story! one is confronted with Nneoma, a single woman who desperately wants a child going to the extremes of preying on a male work colleague, when this fails she preys on the women in her church. Poisoning three pregnant women in the hope of stealing their children. Could this also be due to the pressure placed on women to have children. Okparanta raises very important questions, how many times have single women been pressured into getting married? How many times have the dictators changed gears, after realizing that marriage will not happen, pressured women into having children. They say if you cannot get married (as if this could never be a choice -not to get married – becomes a you have failed situation- how about I don’t want – can we consider that) then at least just have one child. Childlessness is viewed like a stain, a reason for shame and for those whom it is by choice it is seen as deviance, how dare you have a choice, how dare you spit into the face of society? America is a story that also gives another colour to this issue, a family that seemingly accepts that their daughter is queer when she comes out to them. Her father fully understands his daughter. The mother’s acceptance which should be natural, is half baked, has a constant worry about how she will never have grandchildren. When the narrator’s lover leaves the country the mother is elated, because she sees it as an opportunity to push her agenda to her daughter (a she’s gone find a man, marry and have children). Her comments are aggressive, doing more harm to her daughter’s life which she has to live while on her toes because of her sexuality.

Sexuality is a theme that Okparanta goes into great detail about and the place of queer people in a highly heteronormative society. In the above mentioned story, America, the relationship between the narrator and her lover, Grace is explored. How the narrator’s mother calls it ‘that sort of thing’ while on the other hand the father fully acknowledges that they are partners. But Mama represents the majority and Papa represents the minority in society. Is that a way to live life, even when it becomes the way of living because of lack of power, is that right/fair? I liked how this particular story also brought out how queer people are safer to express their love, live their relationships out loud in countries other than their own, which is true but the life of an immigrant comes with other lashes of life too. The narrator caught between a rock and hard place about finally leaving to join Gloria, thinks about Nigeria and the work that she wants to do for its people, ‘A person wishes for something so long that when it finally happens, she should be nothing but grateful. What sympathy can we have for someone who, after wanting something so badly for three long years, realizes almost as she’s gotten it that perhaps she’s been wrong in wanting it all that time?’ She loves Gloria, wants to be with her, but does she really want to leave Nigeria? These are the sacrifices that queer people are asked to make, hard choices in antagonizing and dehumanizing circumstances. Grace is one of my favourite stories in this collection, a young woman Grace is forced by her mother to get married to a Nigerian man that she’s never met yet she is in love with her college professor. She is afraid to be with her, but knows she could be happy with her, “‘Happiness is like water,’ she says. ‘We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.’ She looks down at her hands. ‘And my fingers are thin,’ she says. ‘With lots of gaps in between.’” This story made me view happiness differently, perhaps it is what we can clasp in our knitted hands one moment at a time, what we can grasp when our hands cooperate which we need to let go of to behold the new happiness at any given time. ‘Grace is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is it’s own form of happiness.’

To be honest I could go on all day about this collection of short stories. The other themes that are tackled are desirability (in the form of complexion and body structures). There is a story about bleaching and another about sex work. I enjoyed the simplicity of the language and the descriptiveness of the text. When NEPA took light I felt like I knew what that is like (also shout out to ZESA for load shedding, so I definitely know the feeling) and when food was prepared I could to some extent smell and taste the egusi, okra soup, beans and yams. I highly recommend this collection of short stories!


Book Details

Title: Happiness, Like Water

Author: Chinelo Okparanta

Genre: Short Story Fiction

Pages: 208

Publisher: Granta (2013)

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