'Happiness, Like Water' Based On Nigerian-American Writer's Reality

Chinelo Okparanta i i
Montreux Rotholtz/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Chinelo Okparanta
Montreux Rotholtz/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta was shortlisted for this year's prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. But she says that initially, writing short stories wasn't a style she thought she'd be good at.

"When I started, I thought I was a novelist, and I had written some short stories and I thought that they failed at being whatever short stories should be," Okparanta tells Tell Me More's guest host Celeste Headlee. "I'm not sure how it ended up that I somehow learned to write a short story."

She kept writing though, and the stories became Happiness, Like Water. Her debut collection which was published on the 13th August.

It draws on a number of her own personal influences. Born in Nigeria, Okparanta moved to the US when she was ten years old. Her parents raised her as a Jehovah's Witness. It's a faith that was at odds with her sexuality, and one that she no longer practices.


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Happiness, Like Water

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On why she likes to focus on the relationship between mothers and daughters

I am from a family of many, many women, and so, clearly that opens up my eyes to the issues that women have with their mothers.

I do have a very close relationship with my mother. And so it makes sense that some of the issues that come up in these stories will be things that are from my own personal experience. For example, I will say that my mother has pressured me very much about getting married. She doesn't pressure me that much any more, but you know, that's a topic that comes up very often in my family.

On writing about religion

I don't set out consciously to make any grand political statements about anything. You know, religion is a part of me, and I think that's why it comes out in my writing.

Somebody has asked me about On Ohaeto Street, and what I was trying to say about religious people. The truth is, I really wasn't thinking about any political statement — why the husband is the way he is, and why she leaves — she leaves because it's a bad situation. Not all Jehovah's Witnesses will act the way that he acts.

If I were to write a personal essay, I could have many many things to say about religion and being a Jehovah's Witness, but in that story, I was just portraying this marriage, and what happens, and how it falls apart.

On whether she worried about how she portrays Nigeria

No, I wasn't worried about that. The things you see, the images you see in these stories, this is reality. I am not making these things up. There are trash heaps, and there are littered roads. And, in as much as people would like to say 'Oh, you're portraying Nigeria in such negative light,' but they all know, deep inside that all I'm doing is saying the truth ... This is my experience of Nigeria and that's all I am doing is just writing.

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