“Happiness, Like Water” by Chinelo Okparanta, a debut of exceptional African talent
“Happiness is like water…We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.”
Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta was shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing with a collection of short stories published last week, Happiness, Like Water. Despite the dark material, the stories are beautiful and so deep. Chinelo Okparanta has a wonderful voice and power of description, and her portrait of Nigerian life shines through. In the past few months, I’ve read a mix of vibrant and impactful books by Nigerians Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A. Igoni Barrett, and now Chinelo Okparanta. The country is certainly rich with talent.
Born in Nigeria, Okparanta moved to the US when she was ten years old. Her parents raised her as a Jehovah’s Witness, which she describes as a faith that was at odds with her sexuality, and one that she no longer practices. The stories draw on a number of Okparanta’s other personal influences such tradition and the relationship between mothers and daughters.
Writing about religion
“I don’t set out consciously to make any grand political statements about anything. You know, religion is a part of me, and I think that’s why it comes out in my writing.
Somebody has asked me about On Ohaeto Street, and what I was trying to say about religious people. The truth is, I really wasn’t thinking about any political statement — why the husband is the way he is, and why she leaves — she leaves because it’s a bad situation. Not all Jehovah’s Witnesses will act the way that he acts.”
Did you ever worry about how you portrayed Nigeria?
“No, I wasn’t worried about that. The things you see, the images you see in these stories, this is reality. I am not making these things up. There are trash heaps, and there are littered roads. And, in as much as people would like to say ‘Oh, you’re portraying Nigeria in such negative light,’ but they all know, deep inside that all I’m doing is saying the truth … This is my experience of Nigeria and that’s all I am doing is just writing.”
“I want to be like water, I want to slip through fingers and hold up a ship”
Rightly so, Chinelo Okparanta has been described as an incredibly gifted new voice in American literature. Her stories contain deeply emotional subject matter, dealing with issues of sexuality, identity, abuse, and longing, but they always contain moments of relief, of true but softly stated insight into the human spirit. Her language is incredibly restrained and lyrical at once, both whimsical and frank, spare and insightful and unflinchingly matter-of-fact, creating an unusual and fascinating tension between the form and the content. So, if you’re looking for another pan-African author to sink into, you’ve found one.