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Okparanta’s Happiness, Like Water… Distilling Echoes Of Homeland

By Bayo Ogunmupe
15 March 2015   |   5:16 pm
HAPPINESS, Like Water, is an original and evocative book written by Chinelo Okparanta, one of Nigeria’s few women creative writers.

chinelo_okparantaHAPPINESS, Like Water, is an original and evocative book written by Chinelo Okparanta, one of Nigeria’s few women creative writers.

In these exquisite short stories, Chinelo introduces us to families burdened equally by the past and the future. Indeed, there is a childless couple with very different desires, a university professor comforting a troubled student; a mother seeking refuge from an abusive husband and a young woman waiting to join her lover abroad. High expectations consume them altogether. Nigeria defines all of them. This is a profoundly moving novel, lucid and elegant. In it, Chinelo has distilled her experience into something crystalline, solid and luminous.

This short novel was published in 2014 by Granta Paperback Publications of Addison Avenue, London, U.K. Happiness, like water has ten chapters, 202 pages and one page of Acknowledgements.

From the first chapter: On Ohaeto Street, you smell a simple, poetic literary discourse that is painstakingly entertaining and compulsive. It is about a couple living on a street in Port Harcourt. The protagonist of the story in the chapter is an itinerant Jehovah’s Witness. Through his importunate solicitation for the acceptance of his creed, Chinwe, the family’s child eventually became a witness, marrying the itinerant witness who usually visits them every week.

Thus, the chapter is a panegyric on Pentecostal religious activities. It is a source of education and enlightenment particularly on the varying differences in Christian religious theology. Chapter two subtitled Wahala, an Hausa word meaning trouble. Therein, the author delineated a dream focused on childlessness. This chapter is a repertoire of Nigerian folklore, old wives’ tales, myths and the like. It is a typical report of attitudes, thinking patterns and behavior of Nigerians. Here, Okparanta captures the essential thinking processes of our people, our attitudes towards our neighbours and our belief systems.

Through the mother of Chinwe, the author is able to show the domineering nature of the African woman. The African woman nearly always forces her daughters to marry irrespective of compatibility or love. However, it is noteworthy that when Chinwe could no longer cope with the demands of her husband, she had to abandon her marriage vows.

In the chapter, Okparanta went ahead to demonize barrenness in the usual African parlance by showing that Ezinne’s sins were the reason for her bad manners. She is encouraged to meet a native doctor in order to cure her of barrenness. But her complaint that she is usually in pains during intercourse suggests that she is probably a lesbian. As with most women, barrenness is often attributed to misdeeds in past lives. And at the shop of the native doctor, Ezinne is compelled to stand up for cleansing. The deployment of language by the author is commendable. She makes the reader eager to read on. She discusses issues with every sentence and phrase. Our tradition’s idiosyncracies are reflected in the book. Happiness, like water is replete with African culture and history. She reminds us of our colonial past with vain hopes which characterize everyday life in colonial Nigeria. The author has an evocative and endearing style.

Surprisingly, Okparanta is shoring up female ascendancy in Nigeria’s creative writing scene. She is correcting male portrayal of our women as demanding, nagging and insatiable. Chinelo pursues the genre of how she wants women to be perceived rather than accept the norm. This book presents the alternative to other novels where women have become symbols of a continent in transition. In such societies, women have been portrayed as strong, submissive and romantic. Alternatively, our women have been shown as symbols of urban decay, luscious prostitutes and grasping ghetto dwellers vying with glamorous daughters of the elite. To my chagrin, Okparanta provides no biographical data from where we can understand her background.