Title: Happiness, Like Water
Author: Chinelo Okparanta
Publisher: Granta Publications, London; 2013
Reviewer: Funke Osae-Brown
Women have been portrayed in different ways in African novels. Male African novelists have portrayed women in different light. Rural, ravaged or urban whores are very common ways women have been depicted in African writings. These are very common categories into which African women are slotted when described by their male counterparts.
In literature, Africa women are depicted as alluring and dangerous, an anarchic force in society to be disciplined by the assertion of male authority.
However, African female writers have shared their own perspectives on how they would rather love to be perceived. Not surprisingly the representation of women in the writing of African women is quite different from the works of Mariama Ba, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo to that of Bessie Head and other female African writers.
In most African novels, women have become symbols of societies in transition; they have been used to represent a romantic golden age of traditional order, strong, submissive and elemental, or alternatively they are seen as symbols of urban decay and decadence: the grasping ghetto prostitute vying with the sophisticated ‘been-to’ for the chief resource (money) available to them through men.
In her debut collection of 10 stories, ‘Happiness, Like Water,’ Nigerian author, Chinelo Okparanta, has lent her voice to the growing literature on female representation. In the novel, Okparanta creates the vivid pictures of different Nigerian women at home and those transplanted to the United States, who are building their lives out of longing and hope, faith and doubt, the struggle to stay and the mandate to leave, the burden and strength of love.
These women are faced with dangerous decisions, children slick with oil from the river, a woman in love with another despite the penalties. Their experiences are marked by electricity outages, lush landscapes, folktales, buses that break down and never start up again. She portrays how these women survive across social strata, dealing with different kinds of change that affect their lives. It is the hostility of expectations, more than hostility of cultures, which affects the characters in ‘Happiness, Like Water.’
‘Happiness, Like Water’ begins with the story, ‘On Ohaeto Street’ about Chinwe, a Home Economics teacher in St. Catherine’s Secondary School. Her mama stylishly lured her to marry Eze, the handsome looking Jehovah’s Witness faithful who preaches to them every evening about God’s Kingdom. Chinwe’s mother ridiculously believes Eze is the perfect partner for her daughter when she recalls how Chinwe used to play bride with her later father. On one of those evenings when she was playing bride and groom game with her father, a Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on their door. They are sent away by her father. For Chinwe’s mama, it is the same story coming a full circle hence she encourages her daughter to marry “the nice young man who was obviously well-to-do, and who would obviously provide for her, who wanted for himself a Witness wife.” (p.8)
But Chinwe and her mother are later proved wrong when Eze buys himself a 505 SRS, a statement symbol about his affluent status. He begins to hold big parties to show that he has arrived. His ostentatious lifestyle becomes visible as he ignores the biblical virtue, humility, as preached in Jehovah’s Kingdom. He values his car more than he values his wife, and later his life as shown when the night the armed robbers came calling.
Through Chinwe’s mother, Okparanta portrays the domineering nature of African women who forcefully encourage their daughters to marry rich men for financial security. However, when Chinwe can no longer cope with the excesses of her man, she walks out of the marriage.
In the story titled “Wahala!” Ezinne is barren. She is encouraged by her mother to visit a dibia with her her husband, Chibuzo. Ezinne says she feels pain when ever Chibuzo enters her. Her pain is misunderstood perhaps, misinterpreted. As with most barren women in Africa, the blame is thrown on her lap. She is the one with the problem and not her husband, Chibuzo. She is the one who needs the cleansing, the bad one that must be fixed.
Okparanta’s use of language is quite commendable. Her uses of language make the reader be on the edge and eager to know what happens next. She is a writer with a beautiful and capacious imagination.
Her stories discuss issues that bother on colonial values, power, greed, frustration and faint hope that characterise everyday life. The stories bother on traditional aspirations of couples, the passing on of the husband’s name through children, how mothers encourage their daughters to marry, and when married, to do what is expected.
Okparanta has an evocative writing style that endears you to her narrative. She ambitiously pens the world the way she sees it.