Chinelo Okparanta came to my attention after her story, ‘America‘, was chosen as a finalist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. It tells the moving story of a very special friendship between two young women, Ada and Grace, that challenges in particular Nigerian traditions and social conventions. Okparanta’s writing here is both gentle and confident, a characterization that applies to all ten stories, ‘America’ among them, in her first published collection, Happiness, like Water. Okparanta is without a doubt a promising representative of the new generation of Nigerian and African authors, who are giving growing prominence to the expanding field of African short fiction writing. Not surprisingly, Granta has named her one of ‘six New Voices for 2012’.
In Happiness, like Water we find a balance between stories set in Nigeria and those focusing on Nigerian immigrants in the US, with ‘America’ taking the middle ground, bringing together experiences in both countries. Whatever locale the author chose, in all the stories she explores important and topical subjects and, especially concerns confronting young Nigerian women.
While her stories are rooted in her Nigerian background (she moved with her parents from Nigeria to the US at the age of ten) she addresses such issues as love, longing and betrayal, faith and doubt, and inner-family and inter-generational tensions and violence in such a way that they move beyond the specific and become stories of human struggle and survival in general. For example, we meet the young wife whose inability to conceive, pushed her husband to return to traditional medicine, or another woman whose desperate need for a child pushes her to extreme methods. Mostly told through the eyes of a first person protagonist, Okparanta writes with confidence and sensitivity, her language is subtle, yet also lucid and authoritative.
Despite the seriousness, sadness, struggles depicted so believably in the stories, they are not depressing to read, on the contrary. Yes, and there is happiness too – fleeting moments that need to be savoured, hope for a future where it can establish itself… Yet, as one protagonist so poignantly defines it: “Happiness is like water…We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.”
Despite of the short fiction format, Chinelo Okparanta shows great confidence in her depiction of events and scenarios and in the portraying of her characters. They come to life in a way that we can empathize and comprehend the emotional and physical challenges they are facing. Do I have favourites among the stories? Maybe I do, but each reader will find those that they feel more closely connected to, that affect us individually more deeply than others. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose. But we can wait with eagerness for more.