As you put together your summer reading list this year, be sure to leave a slot open for Chinelo Okparanta.
This young author was named one of six New Voices for 2012 by Granta, and after reading her debut short-story collection, Happiness, Like Water, I can see why.
From Port Harcourt to America, Okparanta thrusts readers deep into the ever-complex lives of Nigerian women — their struggles and aspirations, their pain and love. The collection can be at times both graphic and tender as it explores everything from abuse to unrequited love. The narrators take readers on an intimate and emotional journey that lingers long after the last page.
The story “Fairness” is one of my favorites from Okparanta’s collection. It follows an impressionable young schoolgirl who sees herself, her friends and her family fall victim to disturbing beauty standards. In the opening scene, our young narrator describes significant cosmetic changes in her friends – changes that seem to enhance their social standing:
“We stand on the concrete steps, chewing groundnuts and meat pies, all of us with the same dark skin, matching, like the uniforms we wear. All of us, excepting Onyechi of course, because her skin has now turned colour, and we are eager to know how. It is the reason she stands with us, but no longer belongs. She is now one of the others, one of the girls with fair skin.”
All if this she sees and craves for herself and her friends. But it’s not the type of fairness they should desire nor the fairness they deserve. Even the girl’s mother gives her clothes and skin cream to “lighten [her] up.”
None of the creams seem to work quite right and our narrator eventually attempts more extreme skin-lightening methods – methods that leave scars both figuratively and literally. “Fairness,” a recent recipient of the O. Henry Prize, delivers a perfect example of the sort of heartbreaking social commentary that weaves itself throughout the collection.
I had the opportunity to learn more about Okparanta and her collection at her recent reading in D.C. I asked this brave young author if there was a particular story or character to which she related. “I relate to all of them very much,” she said.
Okparanta was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was ten. She attended Penn State and Rutgers, and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She continues to visit Nigeria, which she said provides her with constant inspiration for storytelling.
While Okparanta admits that her stories are sad, she believes that they are “actually quite empowering, too.” “Sometimes,” she said, “we have to have something not so happy so we can see the ways we can empower ourselves and others.”
In the end, I couldn’t help but consider the legacy we as women leave for one another and the impact that our treatment of both others and ourselves will have on future generations.
Needless to say, I’m excited to hear more from Chinelo Okparanta and the other amazing authors coming out of West Africa.