Author’s Bio: Chinelo Okparanta is a Nigerian-American short story writer born in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. Her story “America” was short-listed for the Caine Prize in African Writing. Happiness, Like Water is her debut fictional collection.
Have you wondered about prose that smuggles in social commentary, sniffs philosophy, commands poetry to pass the salt? Prose that reads like hands reading a texture of oiled skin, threatening a sugar crash.
You haven’t? Oh well, let me give you my blessings. Hang on.
Happiness, Like Water, is a collection of short stories about different and differently flawed women for whom happiness hangs on the horizon, far from what the longest fishing line can reach. Nothing ends well in the life of these women burdened by religion, men, and cultural disposables, to pluck the low-hanging fruits. You might as well put on funeral clothes before reading as happiness is indeed like water for these troubled women – snaking away through multiple exit doors between fingers, pooling in a different place each time which makes no promises.
In this book, prose doesn’t quite behave like prose. Some of the stories taper into obscurity as they journey into the horizon; language is hallucinatory; every once so often, poetry branches out behind prose. Chinelo is quite the poet, and she had it coming for us right from the title.
In “Runs Girl”, Ada visits her parents’ grave in the manner of a sinner confessing sins to a secluded priest. Having mistakenly prostituted herself to foot her widowed mom’s surgery bills, she imagines Mother Eve as an ancestral bearer of a bad lot that trickles down to the particularities of her sin:
“And sometimes I think that if I were to be placed in a valley full of bones, I would create a new Eve, create her from a new set of bones. And I would lay sinews upon her dry bones, and flesh upon the sinews. And I would cause there to be a noise, a clicking noise, and everything would fall in place. And I would cause breath to enter in, and this new Eve would live.
And this new Eve would walk amongst the trees of the garden. And she would drink from the waters of the river of the garden. And again, she would eat the forbidden fruit. But she would not be cast away from the garden, because she would be given the opportunity, just once, to ask for forgiveness. And she would be forgiven.”
What is intriguing about this fantastical reimagining is a suspicious romanticism of Eve’s “original sin” as Eve, granted a do-over, yet pulls a rinse-and-repeat – a troubling fact when Ada’s remorse is considered. Can sinners be choosers? I’d leave you to answer in the comments below.
We know fiction to be that special type of literature that lays out the cards on the table, followed by a hooking silence imploring you to take a pick. And no less of this is what Happiness, Like Water has done. Inflammatory topics like the okay-ness of queerness, marital rape, the superiority of a male child over a female, barrenness as a woman’s problem, are splayed under the bleaching light of scrutiny, and almost equal cards are dealt the warring sides to play within the public conversation.
With her clinical deployment of language which picks occasionally from the gem box of symbolism, Chinelo Okparanta is able to bring to light systemic misogyny and general biases against minority groups who are denied a seat at the table, let alone a voice.
In “America”, she speaks for homoerotic affinity:
“Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. And of course, she’s right. I’ve read of them in the newspapers and have heard of them on the news. Still, sometimes I want to ask her to explain to me what she means by ‘that sort of thing’, as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name, as if it is so unclean that it cannot be termed ‘love’.”
This passage pokes out as a strong antipode to the long-held cultural understanding of the directionality of human affection, which was accorded legislative value when same-sex marriage was slapped with 14-year imprisonment in Nigeria. The father of the nameless lesbian ended his reproach with “love is love”, an enlightened response to the heterosexual narcissism that has refused to do the bare minimum of acknowledgement.
Understanding needn’t lead to acceptance but it goes a long way far more than ignorance.Sherif Ogundele
Elsewhere, we are schooled on that learner sign L-Word called love. When Bible exegete is seated with her way younger student/love interest, another strip is peeled off the love’s enigmatic face as Chinelo puts us out of our misery and into the promised land of demystifying it.
Excerpt from ‘Happiness, Like Water’
“Love is seeing someone the way God would see that person,’ she tells me. ‘Seeing in that person something pure and divinely beautiful, seeing in that person the true image of God.’
‘You couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to see someone from the eyes of God.’ As I say it, I look up at her, and I examine her, as if examining will give me some clue as to what she is trying to tell me. And it occurs to me that perhaps she is right. Because when I look at her, I see something all-beautiful in her, something all-perfect, if there ever was such a thing.”
Through its suspicious exploration of forbidden passions, much needed calling out of gender discrimination and female-directed sexism, one consolation seems to ring through: perhaps the verge of joy is its own form of happiness.
Chinelo! Chinelo!! Chinelo!!! How many times have I called her? She has done delightfully well with this one.
Reviewed by: Sherif Ogundele
Also by Chinelo Okparanta: Under the Udala Tree (2015)
If you enjoyed reading this review, find more here.
Have you read this collection? How would you rate it?