A moving debut story collection centered on Nigerian women, as they build lives out of longing and hope, faith and doubt, the struggle to stay and the mandate to leave, and the burden and strength of love.
"Astonishing. Okparanta’s narrators render their stories with such strength and intimacy, such lucidity and composure, that in each and every case the truths of their lives detonate deep inside the reader’s heart, with the power and force of revelation."—Paul Harding
Here are Nigerian women at home and transplanted to the United States, building lives out of longing and hope, faith and doubt, the struggle to stay and the mandate to leave, the burden and strength of love. Here are characters faced with dangerous decisions, children slick with oil from the river, a woman in love with another despite the penalties. Here is a world marked by electricity outages, lush landscapes, folktales, buses that break down and never start up again. Here is a portrait of Nigerians that is surprising, shocking, heartrending, loving, and across social strata, dealing in every kind of change. Here are stories filled with language to make your eyes pause and your throat catch. Happiness, Like Water introduces a true talent, a young writer with a beautiful heart and a capacious imagination.
"Intricate, graceful prose propels Okparanta’s profoundly moving and illuminating book. I devoured these stories and immediately wanted more. This is an arrival."—NoViolet Bulawayo
"Okparanta's prose is tender, beautiful and evocative. These powerful stories of contemporary Nigeria are told with compassion and a certain sense of humor. What a remarkable new talent."—Chika Unigwe
"A haunting and startlingly original collection of short stories about the lives of Nigerians both at home and in America. Happiness, Like Water is a deeply affecting literary debut, the work of a sure and gifted new writer."—Julie Otsuka
On Ohaeto Street
At the time of the robbery, Eze and Chinwe were living in the town of Elelenwo in Port Harcourt. They lived in Maewood Estates, which some of the neighbours called Ehoro’s Estate, because Ehoro was the surname of the owner.
Ehoro’s was a fairly large estate with about a dozen bungalows in it. The bungalows stood in clusters, separated only by gravel and grass, by the road connecting them, and by trees: orange trees, guava trees and plantain trees. There was a driveway in front of each bungalow, and each bungalow had a garage.
A cement wall rose high along the perimeter of the estate, and with it, two oversized metal gates, one at the entrance, the other at the exit. The top of the cement wall (and the tops of the adjoining gates) were lined with shards of glass – green glass, and clear glass, and brown glass – the way walls and gates in Port Harcourt are still lined today.
Outside the estate, along the main road leading up to its entrance, were small shops whose owners sold Nabisco wafers and Ribena juices, tinned tomatoes and sardines in a can.
In the evenings, vendors put up makeshift stands in the spaces between the shops. There, they sold roasted corn on the cob along with native pears, and roasted plantains sprinkled with palm oil, pepper and salt.
There was a police station not too far down the road. Sometimes officers paraded back and forth in uniform. Sometimes it was hard to tell if they were real police officers or crooks in uniform – at least, so Chinwe tells me. But it must have been true, because even as far back as then, Port Harcourt was known for its crooks.
It was her mama who encouraged them to live there, in Ehoro’s estate. The same way she had encouraged Chinwe to marry Eze.
Chinwe had been living with her then, on Ohaeto Street, in the D/Line area of Port Harcourt. They lived in a small flat with yellow walls, inside and out. Chinwe was a teacher those days, home economics in St Catherine’s secondary school, right there on Ohaeto Street.
The first time Eze came to them, Chinwe had just returned from work at the school. She and her mama were sitting outside on the steps to the flat, and Chinwe was telling her mama how the students wore her out, with their not being able to follow simple instructions – the way they cut the wrong sewing patterns or mixed the wrong ingredients into something as easy as the crust of a meat pie. She was saying all this when Eze walked up to them, carrying a black briefcase and a couple of magazines in his hand.
He smiled brightly and told them that his name was Eze. That he came offering the good news of God’s Kingdom. Would they please invite him to tell them more?
At first Chinwe was quite annoyed by this – by the mere presence of Eze at their door, and by his request for an invitation. She frowned and shook her head, muttered to her mama to please send him away. But her mama saw some things in Eze that she liked: his crisply ironed trousers and shirt, his spotless shoes. His teeth were crooked, but in a way that her mama must have found endearing.
Her mama stood up, wiped her hands on the wrapper that was tied around her waist, stretched out her hand and shook his hand. She invited him in.
Chinwe thinks that he stayed for about an hour, but it’s hard for her to know exactly how long, because after fifteen minutes of his flipping through the pages of the Awake! magazine, and the pages of the Watchtower, and the pages of his Bible (the New World Translation), she excused herself. Assignments to grade, she said, and went to her room. She fell asleep there and did not wake up until her mama came knocking at her door, asking just how long she intended to stay in her room, scolding her for being so rude to the nice young man who came to bring the good news of God’s Kingdom to them.
They burst out laughing then. Because, of course, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were always coming around in those days. And it was funny that they had actually invited one of them in.
‘Mama, you had no business wasting his time like that!’ Chinwe said.
‘I know, I know,’ her mama replied. And they both laughed some more.
He came back, a week or so later. They were again outside on the steps. There was the scent of beans boiling on the stove. Black-eyed peas. Even outside, in the open air, he could smell it, and he told them as much. He asked if they would eat it with soaked garri or with akamu. Chinwe frowned, because she suspected he would soon invite himself for dinner. Her mama smiled and did the inviting for him.
Her papa had been a carpenter who made chairs and tables and shelves in Port Harcourt. Her mama had told her this. Chinwe had not yet been born at the time, so she had not witnessed this for herself. In any case, he was a carpenter, then for some reason or the other, he decided to become a cobbler – he needed a change of scenery perhaps. Or, maybe carpentry was wearing him out. Whatever the case, he sold all his furniture and took down the wooden CARPENTER sign on the front of his shop. He painted over the sign, and announced the place a cobbler’s shop instead. He worked that way for some time – years, in fact – as a cobbler, until just before Chinwe was born.
He decided he would become a grammar-school teacher then. He had no training, but he again cleared out his shop and painted over the old sign. He made himself some chairs and desks. He found a blackboard, some chalk. He walked around town announcing the school to all the people he met. A private school, he said, for the very brightest three- to eleven-year-olds. And if they were not bright to begin with, he said, his school would make them bright.
It worked. People actually inquired. And afterwards, they actually began sending their children. Teaching was the job he stayed with until he died.
Years later, when Chinwe was old enough to care, her mama would tell Chinwe how seriously he took his teaching job, how he would come home each day with stories about the children. She told Chinwe about the way he took care to iron his trousers and his shirt, to comb his hair and pat it down, things he’d never done with either of his former jobs.
These teaching stories were mostly what her mama told Chinwe when she told the girl of her papa, and so, perhaps it was during his time working that grammar-school job that her mama loved her papa best.
He died the year Chinwe turned four, so she could barely remember him, could barely remember that grammar-school- teacher persona of his. Or rather, she remembered all of it, but only as a result of her mother’s telling.
That evening with Eze standing out there, talking about beans and garri and akamu, her mama remarked on the way that Eze’s shirt and trousers were always so perfectly ironed. That was the way Chinwe’s papa’s shirt and trousers also used to be, she said, those days he worked as a grammar-school teacher. It had a lot to do with why she was fond of Eze, she admitted. Eze laughed. Chinwe shook her head, irritated that it was such a small reason for her mama’s toleration of such a large inconvenience. Little did Chinwe know that the inconvenience would grow even larger. For a while, anyway.
So, yes, her mama invited him to the beans and soaked garri dinner that nig...
2014 New York Public Library Young Lions Award Finalist
2014 Rolex Mentors and Protégés Arts Initiative Finalist in Literature
2014 Lambda Awards General Lesbian Fiction Finalist
2013 Society of Midland Authors Award Finalist
2013 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, Long-listed
2013 Caine Prize in African Writing Finalist
Editors' Choice, New York Times Book Review
The Guardian's Best African Fiction of 2013
2012 United States Artists Fellowship Nominated Author
“Full of movement…These tales will break your heart open. Okparanta guides you through her stories with lovely, surreal, haunting clarity.”
—New York Daily News
"Okparanta is an unpretentious writer, but her ambition comes through in the lives she renders—young Nigerian women divided between home and a new world."
"The stories in Okparanta’s first collection are quiet, often unnervingly so, in the manner of a stifled shriek…One character notes the silences that fall between her and her mother, ‘as if we no longer valued spoken words, as if spoken words were gaudy finishes on a delicate piece of art, unnecessary distractions from the masterpiece, whose substance was more meaningfully experienced if left unornamented.’ If this is Okparanta’s goal – the distillation of experience into something crystalline, stark but lustrous – she is well on her way there."
—New York Times Book Review
"Chinelo Okparanta was chosen as one of Granta’s six new voices for 2012, and it’s easy to see why. Her short story collection, Happiness, Like Water (Mariner), is a triumph of a book. The ten stories are all short but powerful, tracing the lives of women from Okparanta’s native Nigeria…Ultimately Okparanta’s collection is not so much a statement about Nigerian women as it is a depiction of a few women who happen to be Nigerian going through universal issues in their own, unique social contexts. It’s a book about Nigeria, about America, and about women everywhere told in short sentences and simple, matter-of-fact language that manages to be incredibly emotionally evocative nonetheless. Okparanta is a certainly a voice to watch, and clearly deserves a place on any bookshelf beside fellow Nigerian authors Achebe and Adichie."
"The stories are quiet and understated and lucid and gather up their power almost without the reader realizing it, then they break your heart, just like that. Such subtle and open and strong writing."
"This promising young author delivers an affecting collection, revolving around African women, at home and abroad, contemplating religion and love."—Time Out New York
"Okparanta pays great attention to detail, making it easy to get caught up in the problems of these women who must fend for themselves. . . She writes with compassion and strength for these nameless, faceless women who are unable to defend their own actions."—Bust
"Bittersweet. . .[Happiness, Like Water] is an extremely promising debut: the handling of tone and perspective is assured; the prose lucid and elegant throughout."—Financial Times (UK)
"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."
"Okparanta skillfully introduces readers to a new world held back by old-world traditions"
"Nigeria, the vibrancy of its heart, the soul of its people, is captured in these stories."
"[Okparanta] confirms her place as a writer to watch with the remarkable debut collection Hapiness, Like Water... A clear-eyed, sensitive debut collection of stories by a talented young Nigerian writer exploring themes of family, religion, longing and duty."
"Chinelo Okparanta’s debut collection is astonishing. Her narrators render their stories with such strength and intimacy, such lucidity and composure, that in each and every case the truths of their lives detonate deep inside the reader’s heart, with the power and force of revelation."
—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers
"Okparanta's prose is tender, beautiful and evocative. These powerful stories of contemporary Nigeria are told with compassion and a certain sense of humour. What a remarkable new talent."
—Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street
"Intricate, graceful prose propels Okparanta’s profoundly moving and illuminating book. I devoured these stories and immediately wanted more. This is an arrival."
—NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing
"A haunting and startlingly original collection of short stories about the lives of Nigerians both at home and in America. Okparanta’s characters are forced to make difficult, often impossible choices—a university student decides to go to work as an escort to pay for her mother’s medical bills, a high school teacher is asked to come home to care for her dying, abusive father—and yet they manage to prevail through quiet and sometimes surprising acts of defiance. Okparanta’s prose is elegant and precise, fueled by a strong undercurrent of rage that surfaces at unexpected moments. Happiness, Like Water is a deeply affecting literary debut, the work of a sure and gifted new writer."
—Julie Otsuka, author of National Bestseller and National Book Award Finalist The Buddha in the Attic
"Without bluster, Chinelo Okparanta writes stories that are brave and devastating."
—Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist
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