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Happiness, Like Water

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A triumphant collection of stories centered on Nigerian women as they build lives out of love and longing, the struggle to stay and the mandate to leave, by an award-winning writer who “is a certainly a voice to watch, and clearly deserves a place on any bookshelf beside fellow Nigerian authors Achebe and Adichie" (Bustle). What does happiness look like for the women in this acclaimed debut collection? Here is a cast of characters, in their Nigerian homeland and abroad, who whose world is marked by lush landscapes, historical legend and lively folktales, and the search for identity at all costs. You’ll meet mothers who will go to the ends of the earth for their children and daughters who will love whomever they want—even if that means risking everything, even their own lives. Spanning generations, transcending social strata, and crossing the boundaries between duty and desire, the stories in this collection are rendered 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). ¶ “The work of a sure and gifted new writer."—Julie Otsuka

ISBN-13: 9780544003453

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication Date: 08-13-2013

Pages: 196

Product Dimensions: 5.44(w) x 7.86(h) x 0.56(d)

CHINELO OKPARANTA was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Her debut short story collection, Happiness, Like Water, was nominated for the Nigerian Writers Award, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, as well as the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Her first novel, Under the Udala Trees, was nominated for numerous awards, including the Kirkus Prize and Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. She has published work in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, the Kenyon Review, AGNI, and other venues, and was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is currently Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Swarthmore College.

Read an Excerpt

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 night. First, he flipped through the pages of his Watchtower, and then through the pages of his Awake! In between, Chinwe observed the fancy gold watch on his wrist. She observed his crisply ironed clothes, just as her mama had observed. She noticed that they were crisply tailored, too. They appeared expensive, not quickly stitched together – certainly not the handiwork of any of the travelling tailors who paraded the roads at the time.
It was only after the magazine and Bible study was complete that Eze accepted the dinner invitation. I imagine now that he must have been enthusiastic in his acceptance. Sometimes I imagine also that he must have had an impish smile on his face.

Well, he continued to come back, the little rascal. And Chinwe actually grew accustomed to him. Sometimes she even laughed at his jokes.
He was bright – had completed an engineering programme at the university. Civil engineering. This was why he did his evangelizing in the evenings, because during the day he worked in some division of Shell.
He had grown up a Jehovah’s Witness and saw no reason to change now. There was something to be said for routines, he said. And something to be said for the fact that, just by virtue of the parents that God gave him, he had been automatically given access to this good news of God’s Kingdom, which, as he said, would lead to everlasting life.
One evening, Chinwe’s mother asked him what his plans were for the future. He chuckled nervously then said, ‘Marriage and a family.’ And then he added that he wanted the right woman, not just any woman.
‘What would make her the right woman?’ Chinwe’s mother asked.
‘Well, for one thing,’ he said, ‘she would have to be a Witness.’
‘A witness?’ she asked. ‘A witness to what?’
‘A Witness,’ he said, stretching the word out, for emphasis. ‘You know, a Jehovah’s Witness.’
‘Ah,’ her mama said, very thoughtfully. And she went on to tell a story about Chinwe. She told the story in great detail. It went something like this: when Chinwe’s papa was still living, and Chinwe was around three or four years old, Chinwe stumbled upon her mama’s old wedding gown in the old chest where her mama stored it. She became obsessed with the gown, and with the idea of marriage, and so, starting that day, she would beg her papa to play what she called a wedding game with her. The game would usually take place in the evenings, just after dinner, when the chirping of the crickets was the loudest and could be heard clearly inside of the house. This last fact, Chinwe told me herself.
Sometimes, Chinwe tells me, she can still remember the smell of the gown: something clean and fragrant, like the scent of a freshly mopped floor. The mothballs were what caused it to smell that way. The camphor in them gave off that aroma, a mix between peppermint and cinnamon.
She’d breathe in the scent as her mama put the gown over her tiny body. I imagine it now: the way the sleeves must have extended far beyond Chinwe’s fingertips, so that her mama would have to roll them up for her. The neckline was certainly more like a shoulder line on Chinwe, because Chinwe has told me that it often fell past her shoulders and all the way to the floor, and that she’d tug and tug as the ceremony was taking place, just to try to keep the dress from falling once more to the ground.
The train was the only part of the dress that was just as she liked, sprawling – more than a little like it must have been back when it trailed behind her mama. Just perfect, Chinwe would say, back then. As if the length of the train had an impact on the success of the fantasy.
It was her mama who played the part of the minister, reciting the marriage speech. The step which you are about to take is the most important into which human beings can come . . . Do you take this girl to be your wedded wife, as long as you both shall live? I’ve heard the story and imagined it enough times now to be able to describe it as if it were my own experience: her papa would nod. He’d be on his knees, so that he was only slightly taller than Chinwe. He’d be wearing a black blazer, but underneath the blazer was just the white singlet that he always wore at night, and his blue-and-white-striped pyjama pants, which came with a matching top, but whose top they hardly ever saw him wear.
‘I do,’ he’d say to Chinwe’s mama.
Do you take this man to be your wedded husband, as long as you both shall live?
‘I do,’ Chinwe would say.
I now declare you husband and wife.
Her papa would lean towards her and plant a kiss on each side of her face. And then it would be time for Chinwe to go to bed.
That was the game they played, and her mama told Eze as much.
Then one evening, just before they were to play the game, Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking on their door, and Chinwe’s papa was inviting them in, but she, Chinwe’s mother, scolded him, in front of them, for even thinking to invite them in. Did he know that they were a cult? she asked.
He politely withdrew his invitation and sent them away. It was the first time that Jehovah’s Witnesses had ever come to their door, and that was the treatment they received, thanks to her. So, she reasoned, perhaps this was that old story coming full circle. Perhaps this was God allowing her to make amends for that former discourtesy. And given that the discourtesy took place during one of the wedding-game nights, maybe all of that was a sign, a harbinger of things to come.
She smiled widely as she said all this, and Eze smiled with her.

Chinwe’s mother herself never did become a Witness. Instead she encouraged Chinwe to become one, so that Chinwe would indeed marry the nice young man who was obviously well-to-do, and who would obviously provide for her, who only wanted for himself a Witness wife. Was it too much to ask? No, said Chinwe’s mother, responding to her own question, earnestly shaking her head.
They did in fact marry, a year and a half after he first offered Chinwe and her mother the good news of God’s Kingdom. Chinwe was very dutiful about the wedding. On the surface her dutifulness must have looked like excitement. Perhaps it was.
It was a large celebration, held at the Kingdom Hall on Rumuola Road. His parents and family members attended, along with his Jehovah’s Witness friends, whom he also referred to as family – as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’.
Theirs was only a white wedding; no traditional one. Even the white wedding was relatively brief, and very sedate, a fact for which Chinwe might or might not have been grateful. It’s hard to know.

It was after their wedding that Chinwe’s mama encouraged them to live in Ehoro’s Estate. By this time, Chinwe had given up her teaching job ‘to take on more fully the role of a wife’, as her mama liked to explain it. Eze was the one who insisted on this to begin with (after all, they planned on having children soon and who would take care of the children if Chinwe kept up that job of hers?). Her mama had, of course, agreed.
In any case, her mama encouraged them to live in Ehoro’s Estate for two reasons. First, Elelenwo was not too far from D/Line. That is, it was far enough for Chinwe and Eze to feel separate, to feel independent from her, but it was close enough that she could hop on a bus and come visit whenever she wanted. (This ease of access would be a good thing when they decided to have a child, she said.) Secondly, she reasoned that Ehoro’s Estate was a swanky neighbourhood, just up Eze’s alley; and if they lived there, she could vicariously experience the good life through them.
It was true about the estate’s swankiness. Those days, the driveways and garages in Ehoro’s were filled with Volvos and Jeeps and BMWs. The yards were well manicured, and the families took turns hosting elegant dinner parties where people dressed in their finest traditional or European/American attire.
After they moved in, Eze got himself a Land Rover. But that must not have been enough, because he soon got himself a 505 SRS, which rivalled the BMW in many ways, or at least Eze said it did. Chinwe continued to drive her little beige Volkswagen Beetle, which was just fine by her.
After the car came (the 505 SRS), Eze joined the residents in hosting those dinner parties. His parties were attended mostly by neighbourhood people, but sometimes his work friends also came. Every once in a while, people from the Kingdom Hall attended too. In the months right after the 505 SRS came, Eze hosted those parties with greater frequency than ever, inviting as many people as he possibly could, as if he were on a mission to show off the car to them all in the shortest amount of time possible.
Chinwe and the housegirls would make trays of spicy suya – skewered beef, and chicken, and fish, all flavoured with groundnuts – and they would fry up large pans of sweet chin chin, and bake batches of meat pies and sausage rolls. Eze would set out crates of Guinness and soft drinks.
This was the way it worked: first, the people would enter the house. If Chinwe happened to be standing at the entrance, they’d walk right past her, straight to where Eze stood, and they’d tell Eze what a lovely home he had. At the onset, it certainly pleased Chinwe, the way they oohhed and aahhed – it was after all her home as well. It pleased her that they admired the entertainment centre, referring to the things in it as ‘state of the art electronics’. They’d stand, so many of them that there was barely enough space to move around. They’d eat the food that Chinwe and the housegirls had prepared. Then Chinwe would watch as Eze took out his keys, as he walked the men especially out to the front yard, as he opened up the 505 and showed them the interior. Sometimes, when Chinwe’s mama came, she joined the men in oohhing and aahhing over the house, over the car. As if she’d not seen it all before. Those sorts of things pleased her very much.

Table of Contents


On Ohaeto Street 1
Wahala! 21
Fairness 35
Story, Story! 47
Runs Girl 67
America 85
Shelter 109
Grace 123
Designs 153
Tumours and Butterflies 169
Acknowledgements 199