Sunday, October 20, 2013

Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta

In her debut short story collection, Happiness, Like Water, Chinelo Okparanta writes tenderly about all kinds of Nigerian women. They are brave, humble and filled with longing, but true happiness seems beyond their reach.

"'Happiness is like water,' she says. 'We're always trying to grab onto it, but it's always slipping between our fingers.' She looks down at her hands. 'And my fingers are thin,' she says. 'With lots of gaps in between.'"

That excerpt is from 'Grace', one of two stories about lesbian relationships. The other is called 'America'  and it's my favourite in the collection. Okparanta deftly captures complex emotions. Two women fall in love in Nigeria, where "there are penalties for that sort of thing." But if one follows the other to the relative safety of being with each other in America, she risks the pain of leaving her beloved parents and homeland behind. 'America' also has the most political content: the issue of environmental pollution from the petroleum industry in both Nigeria and USA.

Readalikes set in Africa: Daughters Who Walk this Path (Yejide Kilanko); No Sweetness Here (Ama Ata Aidoo); and similar intimate short stories from other parts of the world: The Best Place on Earth (Ayelet Tsabari); Canary (Nancy Jo Cullen); Monstress (Lysley Tenorio); Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri); In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Daniyal Mueenuddin).

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