By Melinda Guerra
Set in the years following the 1967 start of the Biafran conflict in Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees follow its narrator, Ijemoa, as she comes of age amid national and personal tragedy, and learns to reclaim life on her own terms.
I was eleven years old, a couple of months shy of twelve, but I knew by then the ways in which worry dulled the appetite, the ways in which too much anxiety made it so that even the best-tasting food had the same appeal as a leaf of paper or a palmful of sand. But there were also those days when food was like consolation. And anyway, people had taken to saying all over Ojoto, ‘You better eat up now. You never know, one day there might be no food left to eat.’ Someone had said it again just the day before, and perhaps as a result, my hunger was full; my appetite must have been listening. I wished the same were true for Mama.” – page 29
After watching her husband die in the war, Ijeoma’s mother no longer can handle–practically or emotionally–caring for her eleven-year-old daughter. Ijeoma is sent to the home of a family friend to be their housegirl. She cooks and cleans for the grammar school teacher and his wife in exchange for food and shelter and the promise of education, all things her mother is incapable of providing at the moment. While there, she and another young girl become close, and their relationship affects Ijeoma’s welcome at the grammar school teacher’s home, her relationship with her mother, and her safety. It also sets off a series of events that take us to various cities in Southeastern Nigeria as we follow the path her life takes and the questions she raises as she seeks a world in which she can both be true to herself and also remain alive.
Arranged in six parts, each section of the book focuses on an era in Ijeoma’s life: her later childhood during the beginning of the war, several months in which she and her mother were reunited and shared a home, the time between being sent away and being reunited with her mother, Ijeoma’s years in secondary school, and the years of her late teens and mid-twenties. As Ijeoma and other characters search for direction and meaning in their lives, they give varying weight to dreams and visions around events, Bible stories and verses, and Nigerian parables and songs. The importance each of these characters places in myth and story and oral tradition and mystical events defines their responses in significant and occasionally life-altering moments.
I attempted once more to string together the words to form a prayer, but nothing came. I remained mute. Not a single word to express myself, not a single one to explain or to defend myself, not one single word to apologize and beg forgiveness for my sins. All I felt within me was a trembling from this questionable sort of guilt. A sense of defeat washed over me. Tears spilled out, forming tiny dark spots on the gray cement floor of the church. I took in a deep breath and then exhaled. The exhalation came out as a long, tumbling sigh. – page 201
Among the topics the book brings up for its readers is that of LGBTQ relationships and rights. In 2014, Nigeria’s then-president Jonathan Goodluck famously signed a bill into law which declared stiff penalties for those in same-sex relationships (14 years imprisonment), those in gay-affirming organizations (10 years), and those who witness or aid in a same-sex marriage (10 years). While Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees is set some 40+ years earlier in an environment that was also hostile to LGBTQ+ citizens, the truth is the nation has not become kinder to its gay residents over that space of time. There are places in Nigeria where still today–as in the novel–individuals can be put to death for being in a consensual, loving relationship with someone of the same sex.
Under the Udala Trees is a lovely book. In it, characters wrestle with faith, cultural constraints, and the weight of guilt imposed both by themselves and by others; they explore questions about sexuality, about love, about the truths and the lies we tell, and about the things that bring us into relationships and the things that bring us out of them. Bookish will be reading Under the Udala Trees for our May meeting. If you’re interested in reading the book in the coming weeks and joining us for our discussion, please contact me for details at GPLbookclub[at]gmail[dot]com.