Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta, a young Nigerian graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop named one of Granta's six New Voices for 2012, confirms her place as a writer to watch with the remarkable debut collection Happiness, Like Water.

Okparanta combines tight narrative control with lyrical language in stories that explore such complicated themes as the ties and restrictions of family and religion, domestic abuse, sexuality and the legacies of colonialism. Her stories are usually narrated by mothers and daughters in Nigeria or transplanted to the U.S., often helpless at resisting the despotism of tradition or family. In "Runs Girl," a student tries to decide if she can justify prostitution to raise money to provide for her dying mother; the protagonist of "Story, Story!" battles her conscience in an effort to create a family of her own.

In the struggle with personal happiness, duty might win, but it can sometimes usher in an almost spiritual acceptance without diminishing the cost. Occasionally, as in "On Ohaeto Street," it is contentment's catalyst. And Okparanta stops short of making her characters victims. She's more interested in exploring their confused motives and hopes; the stories startle with their compassion and acceptance of human weakness. In Okparanta's hands, the larger-than-life choices her characters face become the size of the human heart.

Okparanta's Nigeria is visceral and specific, but her themes are not. Like Jhumpa Lahiri or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she writes about human relationships from her own cultural background, where the exotic settings remind us of what binds us all together. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

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