Review: Under the Udala Trees

Author: Chinelo Okparanta

Original Publication:  9/22/2015

Rating: 4 STARS

Fiction | 323 pages | Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


I’ve always thought Nigeria to be one of the most interesting countries in Africa for many reasons: It has a rich, vibrant, and complex history, harbors the largest population of people (182 million) in the continent and is the 2nd most religious country in the world, after Pakistan.  The religious population is nearly equally divided between Islam and Christianity, two belief systems not known for being accepting of the LGBT community, which brings us to the reason this book was written–to give voice to Nigeria’s oppressed LGBT community.

Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel “Under the Udala Trees” moved me and certainly placed Ms. Okparanta on my radar as a new author to keep my eye on. We follow Ijeoma’s story, a young lesbian woman who comes of age after the bloody Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s (further explored in Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun). Very early in the novel, Ijeoma’s father becomes a casualty of war and her mother is forced to make the dreadful decision to leave her with a friend, a school teacher, who can provide a home for Ijeoma, but only if she becomes their servant. Ijeoma rightfully feels betrayed by her mother and is not consoled by her mother’s claims that leaving Ijeoma was for the best while she tries to rebuild a life from the ashes the war left in its wake.

It is during her time with the school teacher that she meets Amina, a young girl from a different tribe and religion who will become a significant figure in Ijeoma’s life. The novel as a whole is very accessible, an easy read with language that occasionally gives way to artistic flourishes but remains forthwith and honest in its narration.  It opens as a gripping historical fiction, but soon the political landscape fades to the background and the narrative shifts to Ijeoma’s life and the hardships she will endure as a lesbian woman in country that criminalizes homosexual relationships. Her life will be unnecessarily difficult and she will have to deny herself the life she truly deserves, for a time, but Ijeoma will ultimately have to learn to love herself in a world that sees her as an abomination.

“Under the Udala Trees” beautifully and boldly lends its voice to Nigeria’s LGBT community, which is critically important if the country is ever going to make progress in LGBT rights. My blog’s message is simple: representation matters. That is why I feel novels such as this one must be written and read widely. Marginalized voices must be loud and unafraid in their proclamation to be accepted. So please, pick up “Under the Udala Trees” and lend your ear to Ijeoma’s story.


P.S.

IMAG1065I met Chinelo Okparanta in October 2015, at Austin’s Texas Books Festival. I had my eye on this novel for a while because I wanted to read more about Nigeria during the Biafra-Nigeria civil war, but I couldn’t find it at my local Barnes and Nobel. Thankfully, there were plenty of copies at the festival and I got to have my copy signed. Ms. Okparanta is a lovely young woman and I wish her the best in her writing career!

 

7 thoughts on “Review: Under the Udala Trees

  1. Great review! 🙂 I have this on my bookshelf and I’ll def read it before the year ends. I really like Okparanta as well! Her short stories collection – ‘Happiness, Like Water’ was one of my top 5 faves for 2014. A good number of the stories in that collection featured same-sex relationships too.

    1. I’m eager to read more of her work so I’ll have to pick up her short story collection! And I especially welcome stories that feature same-sex relationships. I’m excited to follow Okparanta going forward.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read. Half of a Yellow Sun is on my TBR list – I’ve been wanting to read some of Adichie’s work for a while. There seems to be more and more great writing coming out of Africa these last few years…

    1. If you’re unsure what Adichie book you should read, go for “Americanah.” It’s fantastic and more accessible than “Half of a Yellow Sun.” I have a review I wrote last year, but I’m waiting a little while to post it because I want some variety in the blog for now. lol

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