The pursuit of universal themes

By Katrina Young | Out on the Page

“Happiness is like water. We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.”

This line from the short story “Grace” in Chinelo Okparanta’s “Happiness, Like Water” is the theme laced throughout the book. “Happiness, Like Water” is a compilation of 10 stories of Nigerian women looking for answers on how to achieve happiness. Often the objects of their desire seem to be within close reach, but prove hard to obtain.

Happiness Like Water CoverOkparanta gives well-articulated accounts of the internal and external drivers that push these women to pursue their aspirations. Whether they are hoping for a better life in America, struggling with fertility issues, needing to escape from an abusive husband/father, or involved in a forbidden lesbian relationship, the stories show that the most intimate things in life are the ones everyone can relate to.

Everyone is trying to grab their own version of happiness. People want to feel loved, safe, secure and accepted. Even when I wanted to hate a character, their ache for a utopian life evoked unbidden compassion. That was definitely the case with “Story, Story!” in which a depraved woman preys on pregnant women because she herself does not have a husband or a child. She gains the women’s sympathy by telling them the story of her pregnant best friend’s death (leaving out the true cause of death) and then she murders them.

Likewise, in “Fairness,” the characters are not the most savory but their ploys to achieve fairer skin address a very prevalent issue among people of color. The lighter your skin, the closer you are to being white and therefore making you better than your darker counterparts. Unfortunately, parts of the story paint the goal for fairness as a superficial matter with only glimpses of the depth and meat of the overarching issues. Then there were times that I championed for the women throughout the tale.

“America” is a story of a woman longing for a life where she can be with her lesbian lover without fear of lawful punishment. Although the story does include some intimate moments between the two women, appreciatively, it is not an overly sexualized account of lesbian love. The substance of the story surrounds the need to live and love freely, and the sacrifices made in order to meet this need.

While the plots in “Happiness, Like Water” were lucid and stimulating, the prose was often lacking, though I won’t completely fault Okparanta for this. When it comes to short stories, authors often have to make sacrifices in order to keep the story length in check. Characters come alive and a short story can easily become a full-length novel.

Overall, “Happiness, Like Water” is a nicely assembled collection of original stories. Considering the diversity among them, the book flows well and the stories consistently reflect the central theme.

From the viewpoint of these Nigerian women, Okparanta sheds light on the universal pursuit of happiness.

—Katrina Young is the treasurer of the Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation, She is a lover of literature and a developing activist. Contact her at

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