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.
I 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!