For Chinelo Okparanta: Review of her debut collection of short stories, “Happiness, Like Water” by Nkiacha Atemnkeng.
In the beginning of this year, I did not even know who Chinelo Okparanta was. It was only a few months ago, that I saw a link of her interview on Facebook. I clicked and read the whole lengthy seven page conversation with Rae Winkelstein. The interview was a real literary boon for me especially because I’m an ambitious up-and-coming writer still in his mid twenties. I learnt so many things not only about her writing but also about generalities from her witty responses and the way she candidly expressed her opinions. I immediately became her fan even though I had not read any of her fiction. So some remarkable communication with the gold complexioned gorgeous lady from Port Harcourt, Nigeria spurred her to send me her debut collection of short stories titled, “Happiness, Like Water.” It was named among the top ten most anticipated fiction books of 2013 according to the Huffington Post. So that tells you something already. I was so happy the day I received my first signed copy with new crispy smelling pages from the author herself! I’m pretty sure I was never going to find it in our Sahara-like Cameroonian bookshops since I’m a good book buyer and avid reader myself. I immediately jumped on it and devoured it in a very short time with a ravenous reading appetite. Gosh! It’s a helluva book! I think reading Chinelo’s interview before reading her work helped me to understand it better too.
HLW has got ten amazing well crafted short stories on diverse subjects and themes. It’s a new compelling original work of art. And No, for those readers who always contrast a new female Nigerian writer with biggy Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, (whether consciously or unconsciously) No, she’s so unlike Chimamanda. Chinelo is different, she’s fierce, she’s brave, she’s unsentimental and her prose is grim with very little humour and a lot of Religion and communal life embedded in it. Let me not leave out her usage of children especially girls and women as major characters in all her stories. To begin my review, I’ll first go to the queue of her ten short stories waiting to check-in for the literary flight, pluck out the book’s sixth story from the line, the same way a dentist skillfully yanks out a tooth and lead it to the check-in agent at the literary counter for some VIP treatment. And when the other nine short stories start hurling insults at me, accusing me of discrimination, just like inserting Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and going straight for that “Thriller” hit song, I’ll turn half round and tell them politely, “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but this short story is titled “America” and it is flying in First Class because it was nominated for the African Booker, the 2013 Caine Prize for African writing. Yes, it deserves a good degree of first class gallantry.”
America: For all those who’ve already read it online, don’t get fooled to label it “another lesbianism short story.” It is far bigger than that. Monica Arac de Nyeko’s 2007 Caine prize winning story, “The Jambula Tree” is a lesbianism story. Stanley Kenani’s 2012 nominated story, “Love on Trial” is a homosexual story. But the lesbianism issue in “America” is just an intelligent link to the real issue of the story; running away to the diaspora, in this case America, (thus the title of the story), the oil spills/pollution problem of the Niger Delta and the failure to fix it by the Nigerian government and even the Nigerian people. The lesbianism issue is just a rabbit hole. Whether you follow it, see how deep the hole goes and arrive in wonderland (America) like Alice, (abandoning your motherland with its myriad of problems) or remain in the rabbit hole decrying how bad, dark and ‘tabooish’ it is remains your decision entirely.
The story is set in Nigeria and written in the first person narrative. Chinelo has a voice that always seems to be drawing on a collective memory. She plays with time a lot, often starting her stories from somewhere around the middle and then rewinds the tape, swinging the narrative between past and present constantly like a clock’s pendulum. So I’ll generally embark on my review of her work from my own ‘beginning.’ The story starts with the protagonist, Nnenna Etoniru describing her immediate environment in Port Harcourt as she travels by bus and we get the impression that the place is pollution ravaged from this sentence, “Except that their skin, and even the cloth around their waist, gleams an almost solid black, that oily blackness of crude.” Nnenna mentions the reason for her bus trip -she’s going for an interview. Then she throws more light that during her two previous interviews, her application was declined. But she hopes that this one would be successful so she’ll be on her way to Gloria. Chinelo cleverly keeps us hanging with suspense. Is it a job interview? Why was she previously turned down twice? Who’s Gloria to Nnenna? Why is she going to meet her? The writer then uses the flashback technique to break it down for us by narrating the story through Nnenna’s recollections and thoughts (most of the story too.) “It was on a dry and hot day in November that Gloria and I met.” Nnenna is a science teacher and is told by the Headmistress that she will be the escort of a visitor called Gloria Ike. Nnenna has to show her around campus for the week. She expects Gloria to come in a “big madam” manner but the visitor arrives in a down to earth fashion, so she already seems likeable to Nnenna. Chinelo already bridges the status gap between them. The numerous visits and conversations ensure a building chemistry between the girls and before they know it, they become “an item” as Papa says (Nnenna’s father.) The writer explains how it happened. Gloria has to make the move, so she comes during one of the visits with a cake. “Then she dipped her finger into the icing again and held the clump out to me. ‘Take,’ she said, almost in a whisper, smiling her shyest sort of smile. Just then, the phone began to ring…We heard the ring but neither of us turned to answer, because even as it was ringing, I was kissing the icing off Gloria’s finger. By the time the ringing was done, I was kissing it off her lips.”
Mama (Nnenna’s mother) walks in, catches them so engrossed in the love making act red-handed and unleashes her opinion and proverb on them at once, “A woman and a woman cannot bear children…The wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.” She later reminds her daughter that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. Nnenna feels like she wants Mama to explain what she means by “that sort of thing” as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name like “love.” Chinelo immediately introduces tense conflict between Mama and Nnenna on the issue and we get the feeling that, things are going to get a helluva lot contentious between them as the story unfolds. The focus returns to Nnenna in the bus as she’s thinking of the interview, having a conversation with a passenger and then to Papa who quotes this proverb when he hears about Nnenna’s gay relationship, “When a goat and yam are kept together, either the goat takes a bite of the yam, bit by bit, or salivates for it. That is why when two adults are always seen together, it is no surprise when the seed is planted.” Papa doesn’t confront Nnenna as Mama expected, he’s not part of the story’s conflict. That triggers Mama to intensify her damning of the gay relationship and encouraging Nnenna to marry and bear her a grandchild -so much conflict.
When daughter breaks the news to mother that her gay partner will be travelling to America, Mama uses it as an opportunity to strongly convince her that Gloria would get lost there and forget about her. Gloria slowly works her way into academic fame while Nnenna talks about the nonchalant attitude the parents of the couple have towards Religion. Gloria returns for a visit and just by her looks and pictures of America, Nnenna concludes at once that it is Wonderland. “It was the general consensus in Port Harcourt (and I imagine in most of Nigeria) that things were better in America. I was convinced of it.” So it is arranged that Nnenna would travel to live with her lover in America.
The focal point returns once again to Nnenna in the bus who through her thinking, Chinelo explains how she attended two interviews to obtain an American VISA and was harshly rejected in both therefore clearly making us understand the two interviews she had earlier mentioned but not explained. It’s a good literary display from a writer who has mastered her craft. Nnenna cries all the way home and tells her parents about it and her travel plans for the first time. Papa is encouraging and suggests that she applies to American schools to get an American degree but Mama, this time in tears is still debating. Nnenna gains admission into a small American college and books for a third appointment at the embassy. Then a month later, Gloria calls her and tells her that an oil rig has exploded and thousands of barrels of crude were leaking out into the Gulf of Mexico per day. This tells us the year the story is set; 2010. Nnenna cannot imagine such an enormous spill occurring in wonderland! She considers America to be Utopia and Nigeria to be trivia, from her thoughts, “Here, roads were strewn with thrash and it was rare that anyone cared to clean them up. Here, spills were expected. Because we were just Africans. What did Shell care? Here, the spills were happening on a weekly basis. But a spill like that in America? I could not honestly imagine.” Personally, my mind goes to that great environmental martyr and writer from Ogoniland, Ken Saro Wiwa who once made this statement during his fight with the Oil companies, “The flames of Shell are the flares of hell.” What’s more? The Gulf waters have already been cleaned up thoroughly. To prove the point, Barack Obama swam in it after the cleaning was done. But if Goodluck Jonathan dives into the waters of Niger Delta’s Gio creek! Hmmm, then it would be that old classic Nollywood movie called “Suicide Mission.”
Humour aside, back to the story. Gloria has a plan and tells Nnenna that something good can be made out of the unfortunate event. But Chinelo doesn’t tell us anything. Again, she keeps us hanging with suspense. The protagonist arrives for her interview and is thinking of polluted waters when someone calls her name and leads her to the interviewer. The questions are answered. Job? Science teacher. Gloria to you? Friend and former co-worker. Proof of funding? Gloria. The big question. Why not just study in Nigeria? Nnenna tells him of the US oil spill but the American man is unaware of it. That’s situational irony. (An American is being informed of a major problem in his country by a Nigerian.) Nnenna continues that it has drawn some attention for the plight with the Niger Delta. Going to America will allow her to learn first-hand the measures the US government is taking in their attempt to deal with the aftermath of their spill. Because it’s about time Nigerians handled theirs. The American does not question her. She thinks he too after being in Nigeria for some time, now regards the US the way Nigerians do, “A place where you go for answers, a place that always has those answers waiting for you.” Nnenna heartily explains all the extreme ecological damage the oil spills have caused. The oil spill in the US was infinitesimal compared to the ones in the Niger Delta. The man agrees and says that it is a shame that the Nigerian government can’t get rid of all the corruption, that government officials are corrupt. In the writer’s words, “Giving foreigners power over their own oil, pocketing for themselves the money that these foreigners pay for the oil.” Through that statement, Chinelo unveils the concept of reversal of fortunes. Those who own the land full of black gold remain poor and their land polluted meanwhile foreigners/Non Niger Delta politicians loot the oil money and become African Warren Buffetts. The interviewer asks if she will come back home and Nnenna makes an emphatic vow thinking of Mama but with a sentience for Gloria, “I don’t intend to get lost in America.” The interviewer tells her congratulations –VISA mission accomplished.
But as Nnenna leaves, her vision of the good, the bad and the ugly around her makes her not to feel happy but bittersweet instead. And Chinelo complicates the plot by contemplating the meaning of all the VISA trouble and departure. This statement puts the story right into perspective, “And here I am running away from one disaster only to find myself in a place that might soon also begin to fall apart.” Nnenna recalls a folktale that Mama once told her about an imprudent little boy called Nnamdi. She likens the folktale to Nigeria’s current situation. “I think of the crude as gold. I imagine Nigeria –the land and its people –as the hens, producers of the gold. And I think that even when all the gold is gone, there will always be the hens to produce more gold. But what happens when all the hens are gone, when they have either runaway or have been destroyed? Then what?” I absolutely love this Chinelo’s phrase, “Then what?” Then what, uh? Running away from your homeland is not the answer! When we have all run away from the country, then what? That’s the message she is trying to pass across in the story.You can go to study abroad but come back and make your country a better place. Let’s deal with the oil pollution problem so that Goodluck Jonathan and even you can swim in the waters of Gio creek.
On Ohaeto Street: It’s the high voltage opening short story of HLW set in the town of Elelenwo in Port Harcourt. The narrator of the story is the current unnamed husband of the protagonist, Chinwe. I’ll start this review slightly from my own angle of the story like I earlier mentioned. Through Chinwe’s second husband, Chinelo first describes the vicinity of Elelenwo’s Ehoro’s estate and next we are introduced to a girl, Chinwe and her mother, Mama who are not Christians. Mama is even repulsive of Religion. Here comes a young man, Eze who is a Jehovah’s witness doing his evangelism work and he preaches to both of them but Mama makes fun of the whole thing in his absence. Eze had grown up a Jehovah’s witness. Just by virtue of the parents that God gave him, he felt he had been automatically given access to the good news of God’s kingdom. I get the impression he’s not a Jehovah’s witness to the depth of his heart. He is simply one because his parents want him to be one and not because he wants to be one. He’s forced into it therefore, he’s just a church goer. Chinelo already makes her character, Eze flawed. But Mama has plans of her own for Eze. Even though she makes fun of his evangelizing, she highly regards him as a potential suitor for Chinwe. So Mama wittily propels her conversation with him along the marital tangent to her daughter, wisely pecking away with inquisitive questions until she could finally work in the issue of their marriage somehow. She narrates a marriage story to draw Eze’s attention to the fact that, Chinwe is available for him; single and ready to mingle.
But Eze has one condition about his would be bride. She has to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Mama never becomes a Jehovah’s witness herself but she convinces Chinwe to become one. In the writer’s words, “so that Chinwe will 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.” Mama doesn’t care if Chinwe actually loves Eze or not. She later marries him anyway but I get the feeling she doesn’t actually love him from this statement, “Chinwe was very dutiful about the wedding. On the surface her dutifulness must have looked like excitement.” She’s forced into it. Mama again encourages the couple to live in the swanky Ehoro’s estate. Eze buys a Land Rover and the fancy 505 SRS car. Visitors including Mama only spend time admiring the house and the fancy car. Chinwe becomes a witness just to please Eze and fulfil the marital condition. But their upscale neighbourhood attract robbers who attack their home. Despite being at gunpoint, Eze refuses to open the safe and that is done by Chinwe so the robbers get their booty. They ask for the keys of the SRS but Eze is adamant and inwardly refuses despite his wife’s pleading eyes. Chinwe’s thoughts make us know that, Eze treasures the car more than even the life of his wife. “The more she looks at him. The more defeat she feels because she knows she’s no match for the car.” She even has a reverie of Eze marrying the car as he outsmarts the robbers by cleverly not starting it. Luckily, Mr. Ehoro intervenes with a gun that scares the thieves away.
Eze considers the incident a miracle and is only concerned about delivering the breaking news in church as a testimony. He doesn’t even check on his wife or hear when she says, “I’m leaving.” Chinwe folds her clothes and puts them into a suitcase. She halts and has a wide imagery of Eze, saying she has broken her mother’s heart (not his heart!) and reading from his New World Translation about God’s disapprobation of divorce (taking the Bible literally) and asking how she was going to survive without a job. But she musters the courage to leave, meets the narrator of the story “On Ohaeto Street” and they later marry, without her mother’s influence. The story’s message is clear; adoring money and property is folly. Parents forcing their child to marry somebody because they are rich, without considering their child’s happiness first is wrong. A marriage built on pre-condition to suit other people’s interest will never last.
Wahala!: I absolutely love the title of this one –Wahala. The word stems from Nigerian Pidgin English. Wahala is a Pidgin English word which means trouble. I was expecting some domestic violence fireworks in this one but oops, I was wrong. Turns out to be some mental procreative trouble of passing the family seed. Chibuzo is the husband of Ezinne and they live with Nneka, Ezinne’s mother. The couple have no child and it is indeed wahala. Nneka tells Chibuzo about a solution to the child wahala, a healing by the dibia, the native doctor. Chibuzo dreams about the healing (the writer uses the concept of coincidence here) but it is not clear to Chibuzo so he visits the dibia to get a better picture of the dream. Next, the story advances to the point where he’s bidding visitors goodbye after a dinner together with Nneka. Chinelo rolls back the clock’s pendulum again to explain the purpose of the dinner. “…to ensure that chibuzo’s wife, Ezinne, had the well-wishes, and sympathy, and even the gratitude of neighbours.” Nobody wanted her to become like Mbachu’s wife, who had difficulties conceiving and after she finally did, lost the baby. Rumours flew that it was because of jealous neighbours or indifference on the part of the townspeople. Surely, the rumours said, the apathy had created a negative energy which had reinforced her barrenness. But her second birth thwarted the rumour mongers only to reignite them again when she lost the second baby so she was bundled out. Chibuzo believed that such negative energy could be a potential cause of barrenness. He followed the crowd. He didn’t want any of that to affect him so he organized the dinner to avert any negativity that was being directed at Ezinne.
The story shifts back again to when Nneka told Chibuzo of the healing. Nneka herself had gone to see the dibia for the same reason that she couldn’t conceive. It was only thanks to the dibia that she was able to beget Ezinne. If not her husband would have chased her out for being a mgbaliga, empty barrel. Weeks later, Ezinne lay in bed physically exhausted from the dinner preparations and mentally weary because she had been the subject of the dinner, that some physical imperfection in her was the reason for all that wahala. Then she thought, “what if the imperfection was not really in her? What if it was in him? It was a thought that she could not dare voice. It was generally understood that such things were the fault of the woman.” Earlier that morning, all three of them had gone to the dibia for the healing. Chinelo delves into a detailed account of the dibia, her premise and fetish exploits until she could decipher that Ezinne had impurities of fish scale and sand in her. She performs the healing and collects her reward. That’s a prerequisite in African tradition, native doctors always get a reward after consultation.
As they head home, Nneka proposes at once that they should have the dinner. Ezinne is adamant obviously quite upset with the healing but she doesn’t object Chibuzo’s proposals. So the dinner is done successfully and the guests are ushered out impatiently. Ezinne goes to her bedroom and Chibuzo joins her for the sex that would lead to her conception since Dibia had now “cleared” the way. But Ezinne is resistive. Her husband tells her, “We need a child, not even a son. A girl is fine. We need a child, or this marriage is null.” She succumbs but as he thrusts into her, she feels a sharp piercing pain and begs him to stop. Chibuzo doesn’t hear and only thinks it is the sounds of the pleasure of lovemaking. A peeping Nneka at their room door also hears all the moaning but she hears it the same way that Chibuzo does; sounds of pleasure, rather than sounds of pain. This story suggests a rebooth in the thinking of our African tradition psyche about childlessness; it is not only the woman’s fault, it can also be the man’s fault; impotency, (even though the writer doesn’t attribute the fault to neither the husband or wife in her story.) The success of a marriage should not be judged only according to the barometer of childbearing. But sadly, in many African societies, this is the case. Thirdly, women deserve gallantry. (Ezinne is feeling sharp pain during sex and nobody cares about it, only children, children, children.) This African proverb best describes the story, “women are more than their breasts, even goats have two.”
Fairness: One of the few straight forward flowing stories with respect to time. It is written in the first person narrative, with Uzoamaka telling the tale. It is a story about skin colour, about “Fairness”, about the presence and absence of the skin pigment of blackness, melanin. A bevy of dark complexioned girls (including Uzoamaka) gather outside the classroom. Even though Onyechi is with them, she doesn’t belong because she now has fair skin, (someone who was once dark.) They think it’s a miracle but she assures them that it’s due to the influence of a bleach. The girls all thirst for fairness. Uzoamaka and Eno who are quite dark in complexion. They sit on a stool next to Ekaite who is a fair person by nature and picking up clothes from the cloth line. Mama is artificially fair. There’s no mention of the skin colour of Emmanuel the gate man and Papa. Uzoamaka exhumes the memory of Onyechi and urges Eno to go and try the bleach with her inside the bathroom, so that they shall also become fair. (They both have a low self esteem about the dark colour of their skin including the girls in the beginning.) But Eno is interrupted by Ekaite’s call and they both go to fix lunch. Ekaite and Eno are house maids. Papa and Mama try to convince Uzoamaka to study in the US and praise Ekaite for being a good girl. When Uzoamaka suggests that Eno is pretty too, Mama reproaches her. Uzoamaka feels Mama is praising Ekaite just because she’s fair. Chinelo provides detail about Mama’s skin creams which she brings home from the US, how she became fair by using them and how she’s tried in futility with the creams to make Uzoamaka fair. Mama too has an even lower self esteem about her dark skin. When Ekaite stumbles on both of them with the creams, she makes a statement about dark Uzoamaka that is very touching, “She’s fine the way she is.” After lunch, Eno and Uzoamaka return to the bathroom and return to their Michael Jackson’ing. But it’s much more cruder than the King of Pop’s high-tech surgical method. Eno goes first, dipping her face into the bleach solution. When it seems it’s not working she does it full force and as the chemicals begin to react on her face and scar it, she screams and screams and then screams some more drawing the attention of everybody. Scabs form on her face which Chinelo uses a creative way to illustrate, “reddish-yellow of the tamarind’s pulp, not quite the yellow of a ripe pawpaw peel.” What the story is trying to portray is, using body creams to go fair is not something to emulate. Look at what happened to Michael Jackson’s skin! Boyishly handsome to Frankenstein scary. Ekaite’s quote teaches a lot, “she’s fine the way she is.” Do not have a high self esteem for being fair. On the other hand, do not have a low self esteem for your dark skin because “black is beautiful” and in Chinelo’s beautiful proverb, “Our skin is the colour not of ripe pawpaw peels, but of it’s seeds.”
Story, Story! This short story has got the same title as the BBC’s long running radio drama series set in Nigeria which I used to listen to in High school a lot, “Story, Story! Voices from the market.” It’s a typical Chinelo story in which she rocks back and forth immensely with her time pendulum keeping us really hanging with suspense. The main character is Nneoma who is introduced as a storyteller who’d told a particular story three times in a church on Rumuola road. The church is described in detail. Nneoma tells the stories only to visiting women. She had told the story to two women who were not beautiful and again to a third woman who was really beautiful. Next, the writer mentions that after all, Nneoma was the one who found Ezioma on a certain day, eyes closed, sleeping as peacefully as ever, with the baby in her womb sleeping as peacefully as ever. A statement which leaves us with a dozen questions about the previously unnamed Ezioma. Chinelo goes ahead to a Sunday church setting, where a pregnant woman takes her seat beside Nneoma who doesn’t have a child. Chinelo winds back again to Nneoma’s youth when she thought she would marry. Obinna, the headmaster had his eyes on her despite the fact that, she was a bit socially awkward. The flashback ends and the focus is back in church where Nneoma tells the woman about her friend and colleague, Ezioma in the midst of the service but in hushed tones, how he had found her dead. She starts weeping and the pregnant woman consoles her.
Nneoma remembers that it was during such a moment during the service that she had invited Ezioma for lunch. But the fact that, her friend was married and with child made Nneoma very jealous, so she had visited the dibia before lunch to get some portions to do away with Ezioma. In church, the pastor preaches and some husband conversation between the two women made her think of how she had fumbled so badly with Obinna by trying to seduce him. The seduction hadn’t worked and she felt ashamed. The service goes on and Nneoma continues to murmur her story, (of course leaving out the dibia’s portion and her role in all of it.) How on Monday Ezioma didn’t show up in school and even the next day. The teachers agreed that someone close to Ezioma checks up on her, a task which naturally fell on Nneoma. She did, picked Ezioma’s lock, found her dead, shed crocodile tears and phoned Obinna to tell him the bad news. She intended to raise Ezioma’s child as hers but even the child too was dead. She feigns sorrow hoping that act will work on this woman just like with Ezioma as this woman invites her to her home. But the guilt of murder and the sin/confession preaching haunts her heavily. She had failed with Ezioma’s baby and the babies of the two women after Ezioma, they all died with their babies. Such good women, why waste their lives like this? More psychological torment of guilt makes her to begin yelling, “No more…Not this evening, not ever again,” but she still feels like killing the woman because it has now become a habbit. It’s a scene which is evocative of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The author ends the story with a cliffhanger. In this story, Chinelo unveils a paradox –hatching a murder plan in the house of God. She passes across the message that we shouldn’t just trust anybody especially strangers. There is evil lurking even in Church buildings.
Runs girl: It is a very poignant story told in the first person narrative with Ada as the main character. A black bird flies over her family’s compound and drops a mouse within a few steps of the front door. (It is widely believed in many African societies that such an occurrence is a sign of an impending ill omen, even a curse. Another one is the awkward mewing of a cat at night.) So the bird is thrown away in slightly an unusual manner. Next, Mama, (Ada’s mother) falls sick. While she’s praying with Ada, she shrieks and by evening, her situation worsens. Ada takes her to the teaching-hospital and thinks of the distance in their relationship. As Mama takes medical tests, (NEPA) Nigeria’s electricity company takes away the light. They return home and Ada takes care of her. After sometime, she returns to school, UNIPORT (University of Port Harcourt) and is admiring the affluence of some students when she’s joined by her friend, Njideka. Njideka notices that Ada is worried and asks her persistently until Ada tells her about Mama’s condition. Her friend proposes that she takes Mama to good private hospitals with high-tech equipment and generators, not the mundane teaching-hospitals with their NEPA problem. Ada thinks of the black bird’s curse and the fact that, there was even no money to pay for the private hospitals. She tells Njideka this who promises to help her and dashes off.
Ada visits her for the help issue but Njideka doesn’t give her money. She instead shows Ada how to catch fish rather than giving her the fish. Her river source were the Yahoo boys, internet scammers and the mugus, older men, oil executives –mostly foreigners. Sometimes they just wanted private dinners and an intelligent conversation with a pretty girl like Ada. They would give her money and she could use it to pay her mother’s bills. Ada being a girl of integrity refuses thus launching the story’s conflict. Njideka in an effort to convince, does an impromptu aesthetic make-up on Ada and hands her condoms, “Just in case.” Ada angrily goes away unconvinced, to her ailing mother. She has the temptation of accepting her friend’s proposal so as to cater to Mama. So she decides to do it just once, (have the conversation with a mugu, have the money and have her healthy Mama back.) The man arrives and instead of taking her to dinner as she imagined, he takes her to a dark place and rapes her. Ada returns home in shame despite being given one thousand dollars by the rapist. Her mother sees her, the blood stains, blotched lipstick, guesses what had happened, shakes her head and walks away despite Ada’s apology. Of course, that act widens the gap in the already distant relationship between Ada and Mama. She’s not taken to the private hospital either. Whether Mama rejected the idea or not, Chinelo doesn’t tell us. Two months later, she dies without forgiving Ada and Ada uses the money to pay for her funeral expense. Relatives regard Mama’s death as “the work of the devil” not illness especially when they hear about the black bird story. The story draws our attention to the fact that, when somebody does something wrong, he/she should be given the chance to ask for forgiveness and should be forgiven. He/she will still falter again because we are humans with a sinful nature. “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”
NB: A Runs girl is one who sleeps with internet scammers (Yahoo boys) or rich oil executives for money. It is common in some Nigerian Universities and even elsewhere in Africa. Runs girls are generally undergraduate university students.
Shelter: This straight forward violent short story is set in America. (The next three stories are set in America too. I think it’s an intentional linear arrangement. The first five are set in Nigeria, the middle story which is the sixth story, “America” is based on a “travelling to America” theme; the perfect transition to the next four short stories which are all set in America.) I deciphered it. The main character of “Shelter” is an unnamed eleven or twelve year-old girl living with her mother (Mama) and Papa on Buswell street. As she watches television, Papa enters the house surprisingly, goes to the room and starts booming at Mama, grabs her hair and pulls it. The girl intervenes for him to stop. That evening Mama and her daughter go to get some ice cream and they meet a woman who notices their swollen lips. The woman enquires and Mama in tears explains what had happened. Even the girl’s teacher, Mrs Stephens used to ask about her bruises. The woman gives Mama her card and embarks on the bus. But Mama doesn’t call for a long time such that the girl forgets about the card. They both go to the ice cream shop again and return knowing that Papa was not at home. But he’s there, complains of returning home and there’s no dinner. He thinks it’s the influence of America on his wife and unleashes brutal physical bedlam on both of them. That’s the conflict already. The next morning, the little girl guesses she must have called the woman who had handed Mama the card when Mama tells her to hurry up and get dressed. They had an appointment to keep. They leave the house amidst the neighbour children and go along the street passing by many colleges. Mama celebrates that, they were blessed to be in a country where such a problem could be solved. Not like Nigeria where everyone insisted that she remained with Papa. She pulls out the card. They arrive at the building and after waiting a while knocked. They are ushered in and seated. In the girl’s mind, “It was a good place, I thought. Fancy television, nice furnishings, mostly quiet. No Papa to worry about.” It was “Shelter.” Mama fills a form and is hoping for the split with her husband. But the woman who had handed them the card, asks Mama some questions to determine the status of their residency. When she learns that Papa is in the US on a student Visa, she gets disappointed and tells Mama that their residency situation complicated matters. She proposes that they could go back to Nigeria leaving Papa behind on his own to finish studies. According to Mama, the suggestion was no solution. Mama and the girl both leave disappointed, knowing that they are now stranded, hanging on nothing but hopeful hope that things will get better with Papa. But why stick to a physically abusive partner? Why should a partner even engage in domestic violence?
Grace: This long short story is told by a University lecturer, an old white woman. She meets a young Nigerian girl on campus at the entrance of the third floor bathroom sobbing and her shoulders shaking slightly. Chinelo doesn’t say what the girl is crying about –suspense. The lecturer leads the girl to her office as she sobs even harder and offers to talk with the young girl. She leaves without telling the teacher anything. The lecturer continues her work. Sometime later, the Nigerian girl returns to the lecturer’s office and introduces herself as Grace, (probably where the title of the story comes from.) She is holding a King James Bible and says she has just a few questions about the Bible. She asks about Biblical contradictions, about rules, about divorce. The lecturer tells her not to take the Bible too literally and ponders about her divorce, ponders if Grace is considering divorce herself. The young girl looks very worried, like there’s something on her mind upsetting her. Two weeks later, Grace comes back to the lecturer’s office but this time the encounter is casual not like the Bible discussion packed previous conversation. In class the next week, the lecturer keeps from looking Grace’s way and she’s not sure why. The young girl keeps coming to her office repeatedly just to say hello. Then during one of the visits, the lecturer realizes that Grace is upset. She stands up and wraps her hands around Grace as they talk. Her hands drop to Grace’s waist and the young girl does the same. The woman thinks of John Rosenberg, how he had lost his job because of an affair with a female student of his. If someone walked into her office, things between Grace and herself would look inappropriate. But she left her hands on Grace’s waist thinking that they were both women and she was probably older than Grace’s mother, it wasn’t inappropriate. They talk and Grace tells her of her older brother, Arinze. She talks of an envelope of letters that were meant for her, precisely marriage proposals from men. Grace leans on the lecturer’s jaw. She talks of a rich suitor in Lagos named Nwafor whom Mama liked and wanted her to marry him. They had never met, Nwafor had only seen her from a picture. Then Nwafor made the official request to Mama who accepted. Grace didn’t want any of it. And it happened the day the lecturer met her crying in the bathroom. It was all because of the arranged marriage.
Of course, there was real conflict between Mama/Arinze and Grace over the issue as she tells Mama that she’s not getting married. Her mother mockingly teases, “You’ll marry your studies?...You’ll marry your degrees?” Grace feels dumb. Mama makes the decision, “you’ll get married. That’s final.” “I won’t,” and next second Mama is slapping her and Grace receives pounding from Arinze too. The lecturer tells her to try out the university’s counseling services but wishes Grace doesn’t go there. For if she found them more helpful, she could stop coming to her. This thought speaks a lot about her feelings for Grace. The young girl leaves and later the lecturer wonders if an arranged marriage could be successful. The only examples she knows are from the Bible, the marriage between Isaac and Rebekah which Rebekah accepts from the onset. After Christmas break, when school resumes the lecturer doesn’t see Grace and has a longing for her. Finally, she comes to her office, late into the semester. “Are you married now?” Grace says no but that soon she will be. She invites her lecturer for the wedding but she refuses to attend. Grace tells her of her eventful Nigeria visit and her cousin’s wedding. Again, she invites her lecturer. The woman asks Grace if her presence will make her happy. Grace replies, “Happiness is like water, we’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.” It is a very significant sentence because from it, stems the title of Chinelo’s book, “Happiness, Like Water.”
Months pass. One day, the lecturer goes to sit on a bench in the park. Grace walks towards her and sits by her. “I think of Nwafor caressing those fingers, and there is resentment in me.” The lecturer is having deep emotions for Grace and her own divorce haunts her. They talk passionately trying to express their love for each other but do not have the courage to do so even though their body language reveals it. Grace tells her she’s in love and she’s been trying to fight it but she can’t fight it anymore. The lecturer has an imagery of an unemotional wedding between Grace and Nwafor but when she replaces Nwafor with herself in the imagery, it’s all perfect and she’s aching for it. Yet she keeps reminding Grace that she’s getting married, trying to mask her emotions. Grace finally lets go and tells her she’ll love her even as age wears her down, she’ll continue to love her. As Grace wraps her arms around her, she feels solace, something so special she hasn’t felt in a long time -happiness. And as she kisses Grace, she doesn’t think of the practical things like what it would mean for her job, the scandal, the shame it might bring to her daughter. She doesn’t think of the Bible, of its verses about unnatural affections and abominations because it is not intended to be a challenge to God. It is all as a result of a feeling which makes her happy. Grace gives her a “wedding favour” as they sit together. This is a short story that in my opinion, partly exhumes the message of “On Ohaeto Street” -forced marriages are folly and brings to mind the lesbianism theme already handled in “America.” It also portrays that, do not take the Bible too literally and finally do not mask your emotions. So many people cloak their feelings about too many things based on what society will think about them and miss out on their happiness. Whether you condemn or endorse the extreme inappropriateness of this situation, these two women feel happy about their relationship.
Designs: “The peeling linoleum on the countertop, near the sink, is the only sign that Celeste was here, that she is gone.” That’s how the writer begins this one. She doesn’t tell us who Celeste is but goes on to describe the linoleum and states that Celeste’s blood is the envelope’s seal. Next, she talks about a girl, Ifeinwa who is rinsing leaves. The author introduces the story’s narrator, Nonso, Ifeinwa’s fiancée. The story is written in the first person narrative. He joins Ifeinwa and they do the cooking together. It is Autumn and it is already getting cold. They chat while they work but the boy’s mind is only on Celeste. But who is this Celeste? Chinelo doesn’t tell us. She leaves us hanging like a fruit from a tree. Later, they both eat salad and yam, dipping the cubes into palm oil, the good old-fashioned way. After the meal, Ifeinwa phones her mother back in Nigeria and they talk of the wedding date and joke happily. Nonso reminisces of the moment when they were little children and playing together. It was assumed that they would marry one day. After the phone call, the couple chat cheerfully and exchange thoughts about their engagement. Nonso proposes a celebration that night and Ifeinwa’s eyes light up. She accepts. Her fiancée tells her that Celeste will be stopping by to drop off some designs. Ifeinwa is doubtful because it is late (past nine o’clock) for Celeste to stop by. But she sets three wine glasses on the table anyway. Celeste arrives (it’s a she) smiling with a tube, the designs rolled up inside. She goes and meets Ifeinwa. They examine the ring and smile and hop about it happily like little girls in a playground. They gather for the wine with Celeste making the toast, “A long and happy marriage.”
Nonso tells the story how he and Celeste met in University. He was taken by her from his description. Nonso and Celeste became an item and Nonso knew there was something else to her. Chinelo adjusts her time pendulum to the wine gathering again. Celeste says the next step will be deciding a date. Ifeinwa tells her that the traditional wedding has to be done in Nigeria first. The designs bringer decides its time for her to leave. About five minutes after her departure, Nonso opens the tube and slide the designs out but remembers that he should have returned the tube to Celeste. He was going to run downstairs with it. Maybe he could still catch her. “Well, hurry up,” Ifeinwa says. Outside the building, Celeste is waiting for Nonso in a hidden spot where they had arranged to meet. When he comes, she starts kissing him and says what Ifeinwa doesn’t know won’t hurt her. In the writer’s words, “My hands move against Celeste’s body willfully, as they have done all these years, all the mornings and afternoons at the firm, or in the apartment, while Ifeinwa is away at class.” So Nonso’s having a long time affair with Celeste and the tube thing had just been a decoy for Ifeinwa with the intention of sneaking out to Celeste. As the body fondling gets more intense, Nonso notices a shadow and on closer examination, realizes that, the shadow is that of Ifeinwa and she is watching him a little bewildered. But he pretends he hasn’t seen her and goes on Kissing Celeste and unbuttoning her blouse exposing the front part of her brassiere. “Nonso!” ifeinwa screams. She steps forward, continues towards me. Celeste tenses up. All movements cease. Ifeinwa exclaims…”sorry,” says Celeste…it is not sincere. She has the look of self satisfaction, of triumph while Nonso realizes his servant role in all of it. And Chinelo ends the story right there with a remarkable cliffhanger such that, I felt like pulling her by the collar and hurling her at the keyboard to finish the story. But her job is done; Be careful, the world is full of deceitful people. Jumping into an affair when you are engaged or married will not profit you anything, it will only bring you wahala!
Tumours and Butterflies: It is the last short story in HLW and narrated by the protagonist, a young girl called Uchenna Okoli. During summer, Papa (Uchenna’s father) finds out that he has thyroid cancer. Mama calls her and tells her he’ll need surgery and maybe radiation. That she needs all the help she can get. That Papa is a sick man and he knows better. Uchenna argues that he doesn’t know any better. Mama says she knows how things have been like in the past but this time it’s different, he’s knows better for sure. This suspenseful opening already makes us wonder what had happened in the past in the Okoli family. Such an opening only makes you want to read more. Uchenna is in her apartment in Pennsylvania thinking of Massachusetts and of two different memories; first of the day when they arrived in America, then the other, when Mama went on trip to Florida. Uchenna talks about Papa’s job and struggle to get working papers. She gets back to Mama leaving for Florida. Papa returns and makes something to eat. A couple of days later, Mama returns without the working papers and Papa is angrily complaining about it. Mama prepares an African dish for dinner. Papa scolds and smacks Mama in his room after wards and she starts developing a dark eye. That’s what Uchenna remembers about Massachusetts. The next day at school, Uchenna keeps thinking of the call. “I need all the help I can get.” Her parents now live in New Jersey not Boston anymore. Uchenna drives home, for the first time in ten years, the first time she’s allowed home. She thinks of the argument her parents had in high school and how she got in the middle of it. She was well smacked by Papa and someone called the police. But Mama pleads with her eyes to Uchenna not to report what had happened and Uchenna covers up the incident by lying that she fell. The incident is in the local newspaper and the next day in school, the guidance counselor questions Uchenna about it. She mentions that there are issues at home but doesn’t open up about it. Uchenna finds out that, the thyroid gland is butterfly shaped and imagines that removing it from his neck might result in the change they’ve always wanted.
The surgery is done and Papa returns home with no appetite. He seems nice at first when Uchenna hands him the glass of water he had asked for. Meanwhile she thinks of his cancerous butterfly and tumours extending out its lobe, out of its wings (this inspires the title of the short story.) The narrative proceeds to the second month of college when Mama calls Uchenna and tells her Papa felt she was disrespectful, interfering in their marriage and that he was disowning her. Uchenna doesn’t go home for Christmas break and doesn’t hear from Mama for the entire spring semester. Mama calls her again and they arrange that she can sneakily return home, which she does. Time passes. Then one day, Papa returns from the hospital in a bad mood. Mama announces that he’ll indeed need to go for radiation and he’ll need low-iodine diets which needed a lot of planning and preparation, so she needed Uchenna’s help. She needed to be home some more time so that Mama could handle her job and taking care of him more efficiently. Mama works on the day of the radiation treatment, so Uchenna drives Papa to his appointment. But it is arranged that he’ll take a taxi back. Uchenna returns home in the evening and sees a stay away sign that Papa has posted. Mama calls her with instructions about how to serve his meal but Uchenna asks how she’ll know he’s ready to eat. Mama tells her she’ll give him her phone number so he’ll send her a text message. Uchenna doesn’t like the idea as Mama hangs up.
Chinelo rewinds the narrative again through Uchenna’s reminiscence, to when Papa had lost his job and struggling with the disease when it began. Mama told her to write to him and show him sympathy in his moment of distress. Uchenna is adamant and the issue is debated with Mama insisting that he’s a changed man. Uchenna finally does it by sending Papa an email. Papa replies saying that, the path to a beneficial future is not the utter disrespect of parents. She should stop moving sneakily into and out of the house whenever she wanted to see her mother. Entering his house without permission was the sign of the disappointment that she was.” It pisses Uchenna off as she thinks normal fathers would not ban their children from entering their houses. Uchenna calls her mother and asks if that’s how he has changed. She doesn’t respond and Papa sends even angrier emails. All of that happened over six years ago. Chinelo returns to the present, the phone conversation with Mama as she’s telling Mama that she didn’t need to give him her number, it would be an invitation for attack. She could call him to find out when he’s ready and call her, Uchenna back to relay the information. Mama doesn’t make the promise and hangs up. Uchenna is compelled to use her intuition. She knows he eats at 6.30 pm, so at 6.00pm she sets the food ready into the microwave but doesn’t hit the start button, waiting for Mama to call. She doesn’t. At 6.30 pm, she hears a clicking sound, goes to the kitchen to hit the start button and realizes that Papa has taken away the food himself. Later at about nine o’clock, she calls to find out if she took the food to him. Uchenna tells her what happened. Mama tells her she disappoints and that she should have let her give Papa her number. They argue over the phone (conflict) with Mama saying he could contaminate them with his radiation by his entering of the kitchen. Uchenna points to the fact that she should have called Papa and relayed the information to her but she was only putting Papa first.
A few nights later, he calls Uchenna from the bedroom and asks for a glass of water. She’s just come out of the bathroom, so she tells him “I’m not dressed,” “I can’t come out right now” but he warns her not to snap at him, put on her clothes and get him the glass of water or else. Uchenna feels bad because she didn’t mean any of the response disrespectfully. Naked, she sits on the bed and feels her menstrual blood staining the sheets but she does nothing about it. She thinks of diseased butterflies which cannot be separated from the healthy ones. The next day, Uchenna packs and leaves telling her mother the bitter truth and probably the story’s punch lines, “You are an emotionally abusive mother whose greatest function in my life has been to perpetrate your husband’s abuse. It has always been and will always be about him. About not making him angry, about taking care of him, about giving him food this way and that. He will always be your number one priority. And so, you see, I have no business being here.” When Mama tells her to hush, she carries on, “I mean every word of it. Catering to an abusive person is one thing, but forcing others to do the same, whatever your reasons, is its own form of abuse.” The statements bring Mama to tears. Papa comes and says, “once you leave, don’t think you can come back. You’re not welcome here unless I say you are.” Uchenna walks off thinking that one day she’ll marry and have a child of her own. She’ll not always see eye to eye with her husband but she’ll find herself yielding to him because she’ll love him. But she’ll love him not quite as much as she’ll love her child. “Do you hear me?” Papa says, and Uchenna nods and she wonders if Papa knows why she’s even nodding. And as Uchenna leaves forever, that’s exactly where this story and the ten stories end their check-in, board the literary plane and also leave with this amazing new literary pilot in the cockpit called captain Chinelo Okparanta flying into higher literary heights and with her readers like me, wishing that she would fly to even higher heights with forthcoming publications.