Publisher/Date: Mariner Books, Aug. 2013
Genre(s): Short Story, Love, Family, Religion, Women’s Issues
When I picked up HAPPINESS, LIKE WATER by Chinelo Okparanta, I saw it profound that I was drawn to this book about girls and women in Nigeria, the same country where almost 300 girls were stolen from their dormitory in April, only to be sold as chattel or hidden away. In Okparanta’s short story collection, her characters wrestle with their own issues of love, faith, and sorrow. Happiness grabbed me at the first couple of pages, and I couldn’t stop reading – and thinking – about a woman’s worth.
Set in a land with lush landscapes and sweltering days, the women’s plights – from coveting a lighter skin color, to falling in love with the same sex – are captured in heartbreaking detail. It deftly embodies what lengths women would go through to have what they believe is happiness.
Highlights include “Grace,” surrounding a religion professor with an inquisitive student posing questions about sexuality and the Bible, with both eventually discovering the tough answers lead to each other; “Runs Girl” featuring a young woman who learns there is a price to doing the right thing for the right reasons; and the unreliable narration of “Story, Story!” drew me in to a woman’s despiration to have a baby.
Yet by far, my favorite story from Happiness is “Tumours and Butterflies,” which drew me into the tumultuous relationship between a daughter and father so focused on his child’s missteps he fails to see his own. There’s a loss of innocence one has, even as an adult, when you realize your parents are toxic to your well-being. Okparanta portrays this feeling well.
What Okparanta also does well is convey the realities of Nigerian women and families in America. Okparanta, a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 10, allows us to see how the United States is treated as a promise land of sorts in her native country, where dreams can be fulfilled.
After reading Happiness, Like Water, I can see exactly why Okparanta won a 2014 Lambda Literary Award just a few nights ago because I was enamored with her writing. The way she turns a phrase, even when a story takes a sad turn, is comforting. The lesbian stories are handled with care, providing some of the happier moments. Happiness envelopes you into the life of the characters, who have experiences that could shared by any woman in any country, but are more sentimental to Black women in particular. But the sadness is truly palpable in Happiness. There were only couple of stories I felt had an abrupt ending, but it didn’t take away from the strength or authenticity of Okparanta’s voice.
Reviewed June 2014