by Chinelo Okparanta
196 pages, Granta
Review By Pat Black
Whenever we go back home, there are reminders all around that we’re not quite the same person who left in the first place. This short story collection is a fine examination of that chilly feeling.
Chinelo Okparanta’s debut short story collection, Happiness, Like Water, takes a look at Nigeria and the United States from the point of view of expatriates, or those who wish they were. The narrators in the Nigeria-based stories are often looking far afield for better ways of living. Those who have crossed the Atlantic to the United States often find that their families and social structures have followed them, whether they’re welcome or not.
"On Ohaeto Street" looks at a marriage proposal in Port Harcourt, where a nice boy from a religious background makes a play for the narrator, with her mother’s keen encouragement. The husband’s status is predicated on his house and his possessions, and in Port Harcourt, these are perhaps more easily taken away than they would be in a major American city. The narrator is forced to confront what she really values in life one dark night when envious eyes covet what’s theirs.
"Wahala!" looks at another marriage, this time threatened by the difficulties one woman has in conceiving. The pressure is all on her shoulders; a mixture of raw sexism and ignorance apportions exclusive blame on her reproductive system, and not her husband’s. In lieu of a reasoned, scientific explanation, superstition blunders in.
I’ve been through more horror story anthologies in the past year than is good for me, and "Fairness" would stand tall in any one of those. This was an almost unbearable look at caste systems, focusing on people who see lighter skin as more desirable. The conclusion to this story is obvious from the first page, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take.
"Story! Story!" was another piece of horror, again looking at unfulfilled lives and the wickedness and superstition many people will employ in order to remedy this. "Runs Girl" is hard-hitting, if miserable. A narrator is drawn into prostitution as a means of finding funds to care for her sick mother. This story’s great power is in how obvious it seems that the girl will do what she does; naivety aside, she seems to have no other choice. Her final disgrace makes for tough reading – but what else could she have done? If this tale was intended as a dig at healthcare provision anywhere in the world, it is beautifully aimed.
"America" finally transplants the stories to the United States, but this story was a softer look at a collision of cultures than I had been expecting. The female narrator is not the marrying kind, but her family do their best to adapt to the idea of their daughter being gay in a society where it is unacceptable. Just moving to another part of the world doesn’t necessarily remove all barriers, of course. As one character says: "America is an abstraction…A place you go for answers, a place that always has those answers waiting for you." Not necessarily, as the narrator discovers.
"Grace" has similar things on its mind, looking at forbidden love between a student and an academic, where the student is betrothed to be married but struggles with her feelings for her female supervisor. "Shelter" and "Tumours and Butterflies" also shared a theme, looking at abusive fathers, and how we feel a tragic streak of loyalty to even the very worst monsters within our own families.
Happiness, Like Water, is a bold, confident debut that evokes Nigeria brilliantly, from the scent of millipedes in the walls in the summer to the egusi soup and jollof rice made in the kitchens, as well as the black oil that invades the very water in many parts of the country. Vivid as well as haunting.