Reading Chinelo Okparanta’s debut story collection Happiness, Like Water is the literary equivalent of taking apart a Matryoshka nesting doll: Stories are hidden within more stories. In “On Ohaeto Street,” the mysterious, unidentified narrator tells us a story he’s heard “and imagined enough times now to be able to describe it as if it were my own experience.” “Story, Story” introduces us to a lonely, troubled character called Nneoma, who claims to have told her particular tale only three times before, but all the women who’ve heard it are dead. “Fairness” begins innocently enough with a story from school, which our narrator decides to “toss about in my mind, like a pebble in the air, as if to get a feel for its texture, its potential, its capacity of success” before opening her mouth and setting off a series of horrific events.
“I grew up in an oral storytelling tradition,” says Okparanta, who spent the first 10 years of her life in Nigeria before moving to the United States. “We used to gather around a candle at night and my mother would tell us stories. My work is really influenced by that.”
Like Okparanta herself, the stories in this collection weave back and forth between Nigeria and the United States—in one piece she even uses the film character E.T. as a wonderful childhood metaphor for being an immigrant in America. But whatever you do, don’t assume any of these stories are necessarily autobiographical. “It’s as if a person who went to college wrote a story set in college. That doesn’t make it true to life,” she says when discussing the echoes between her own life and those of some of her characters.
That said, Okparanta admits that the initial spark of inspiration is often derived from her own experience. She explains that when an aunt in Nigeria fell ill, it inspired the story “Runs Girl,” about a daughter who becomes an informal type of prostitute to try and help her sick mother. “But I never became a runs girl and my cousin never became a runs girl. In my fiction I explore the different paths we could have taken.”
What I most admire about Happiness, Like Water is how it beautifully illuminates the adage that the personal is political. The women in these stories are pressured into marriages, blamed for fertility problems, shamed for loving other women, made to hate their skin color and even physically abused. “I don’t write with any political intention,” says Okparanta, whose stories also take on government corruption and oil pollution in the Niger Delta. “I write because a story matters to me. American writers have the luxury to write about the apolitical, but there’s an urgency in my country. It’s impossible to write about Nigeria right now without being political, and if we speak up, there’s always the possibility for change.”
We’re lucky to have these hard, insightful stories in the world, particularly considering Western publishing’s squeamishness about books set in Africa. When Okparanta, who also has a novel on the way, showed some pages to an industry professional, she was told, “Adichie has already written about Biafra,” referring to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize winning Half of a Yellow Sun. As if anyone would tell a Western writer that WWI had already been “done” by Ernest Hemingway.
Okparanta says that her story collection was originally titled Wahala, which means “trouble” in Nigerian pidgin, but she and her publisher decided to go with something that might be more welcoming to Western audiences. “I get the feeling that the quota for African writers has grown, but there’s still a quota,” says Okparanta, who believes that Americans are actually hungrier for global fiction than the publishing industry gives them credit for. If the stories coming out of Nigeria continue to be anything like the ones in this lovely, compelling collection, I agree.
A former Fulbright scholar to Nigeria, Mary Helen Specht's fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times. She teaches creative writing at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.