The Nigerian-born Chinelo Okparanta’s debut collection introduces the world to a defender of young women who are oppressed and silenced.
Scheming mothers and selfish husbands, fathers, and brothers domineer over the sensitive women of Happiness, Like Water, Nigerian-born Chinelo Okparanta’s debut short-story collection. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Okparanta was named one of Granta’s six New Voices in 2012. It’s a fitting honor: the unsparing stories of Happiness, Like Water show Okparanta to be a champion of young, frequently misunderstood female protagonists whose voices are too often stifled. In many of these tales, Okparanta’s women struggle to control their fate in the face of oppressive circumstances.
Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in “Wahala!” a story in which a young woman’s inability to conceive turns her husband and mother into co-conspirators. They bring Ezinne to a local dibia (healer) for a session with oils and elixirs and then goad her into hosting a big dinner to ward off any residual “negative energy.” It’s all a prelude to what Nneka and her son-in-law Chibuzo hope will be a swift impregnation. “What with all the safety measures having been taken—the healing and then precautionary dinner—he could see no reason why she wouldn’t be eager,” Chibuzo reasons before forcing himself upon his wife that very night. As he does so, his mother-in-law listens to Ezinne’s moans of pain outside their bedroom door with a smile. It’s a horrifying final image—one presaged by the story’s title, which summons a Nigerian pidgin expression meaning “trouble.”