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Under the Udala Trees


Under the Udala Trees

Chinelo Okparanta’s UNDER THE UDALA TREES traces the life of young Ijeoma, born shortly before the Nigerian civil war. Ijeoma’s life is changed irrevocably by the violence and desolation of the war, but she herself must also navigate what it is to be a woman who loves women: in her own context, in the eyes of God and her family, and in a world in which no matter what, such love is still considered “other” at best. Positioning a non-straight character in war-torn Nigeria is brave and necessary in itself --- a crucial perspective that has been sorely missing --- yet choosing to write about a young woman, and one whose story is not limited to a single lover but rather encompasses the devastations and joys of loves throughout a life, is nothing short of a triumph.

Okparanta follows Ijeoma from the blossomings of her desire through to the choices that shape her adult life. Ijeoma’s sexual identity reveals itself to her like the color of her skin or the fact of the war: an irrevocable truth, and yet one with the capability of her total destruction. The difference with sexuality is that it is something one can hide, though not without great personal pain. Ijeoma suffers through Bible verse and beatings. She endures, as do many of us who do not love the gender we are taught to love, judgment and “advice” from the people closest to her as well as authority figures. She watches from too short a distance as people she knows, people who live in her hometown, brutalize and torture women who love the way she loves, for the sake of that love. She hears their screams and must experience what it is to know she shares their sin, to be overwhelmed not only with fear but with guilt, that she lives on with this love while it unintentionally fuels the hatred that murdered them.

"I ache for a canon of Okparanta's writing. She is sensitive, incisive and poignant. The fiction is well-paced, the narrative deft and engaging; she addresses her subject matter with solidarity gentle enough for those who are familiar with it and fierce clarity for those who have yet to learn."

Ijeoma lives through extraordinary pain, and Okparanta does not shy from that truth. She instead emphasizes --- reasonably, clearly and poignantly --- that such pain heals no one. That no one deserves to suffer such hate for the truth of love, and yet so many have done and so many still do.

There is a trope in LGBTQ+ literature: “sad gays.” Too often writers include queer characters for the sake of tragedy, capitalizing on the conveniently understood pain that exists when you are “other.” The queer characters are tormented for cheap emotional pull, and beyond cliché, it disservices the complexity of the LGBTQ+ lived experience. The story rarely allows the character in question to tell their own story. Conversely, some writers provide the saccharine, idealistic happily-ever-after to prove that their LGBTQ+ characters are “just like everyone else.” But they are not. The queer community ought to be treated equitably, but that is not our reality. LGBTQ+ people deserve opportunities for happiness, but do not exist in a world in which that is more than an exception. To imagine otherwise is to place the blame on LGBTQ+ people themselves, for being dissatisfied when the world is finally on their side. It is not. It is a fight every single day. “Love is love” except when it’s pain, when it’s considered, as in Ijeoma’s world and still in much of our own, an “abomination.” Then, love becomes something far more intrinsic to identity. Then, love becomes defiance. Each queer life lived is a victory.

How do you write LGBTQ+ characters without falling into these traps? How do you tell their stories in full, honestly, with all the intersections of beauty and agony that create a person, while also doing justice to the experience of being non-straight? It comes down to writing their character as carefully as a heterosexual one, considering their motivations, their cultural context, their trajectory as a person. It comes down to allowing the character to share their own story, to release them from the confines of “other,” and to grant them the agency to articulate their own experiences. Okparanta succeeds brilliantly, breathtakingly.

I found my eyes welling on the L train as I read my own most private thoughts back to me from a page about a woman whose entire life takes place in a country to which I have never been. I found myself marking every line in which the character asks the very questions of her mother, her society, her sexuality, that I ask of my own. Ijeoma’s setting is not my own, nor are the details of her story. Yet I find within it a resonance clearer than much of our literary canon. 

Okparanta’s words speak beyond the page. I hear them as if she speaks boomingly to a rapt auditorium. I hear them as if she speaks lazily to me on a late summer evening, in a comfortable space we’ve shared often. She is clear but familiar. As I sometimes do when I hear the most powerful speakers give presentations, I recognize myself murmuring “thank you” at her words.

This is what fiction should do. I ache for more. I ache for a canon of Okparanta's writing. She is sensitive, incisive and poignant. The fiction is well-paced, the narrative deft and engaging; she addresses her subject matter with solidarity gentle enough for those who are familiar with it and fierce clarity for those who have yet to learn. I closed the book and craved her voice. Within this story I found both a friend and a mentor, one who can articulate truths and defend them.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on September 25, 2015

Under the Udala Trees
by Chinelo Okparanta

  • Publication Date: September 20, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0544811798
  • ISBN-13: 9780544811799