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The Next Big Thing: Under the Udala Trees, the Debut Novel from Nigerian Author Chinelo Okparanta

Happiness, Like WaterUnder the Udala TreesUnder the Udala Trees

Under the Udala Trees, the debut novel by award-winning Nigerian author Chinelo Okparanta, is making waves internationally, and comes recommended by Zakes Mda.

The novel will be available locally from Jonathan Ball Publishers in March 2016. Scroll to the end for an excerpt.

Okparanta’s short story “America” was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, and her first book, the collection short stories Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for the the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award. She was one of Granta’s New Voices for 2012, and was featured on the Guardian’s list of the best African fiction of 2013.

Zakes Mda says: “A searing, yet delicately nuanced, story of an age of innocence first shattered by the vulgarity of war and its aftermath, and then by forbidden desire and religious intolerance.

Under the Udala Trees is narrated in lyrical and lucid prose, in a wise and compassionate voice. It bowled me over.”

Okparanta was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and lives in New York. She received her BS from Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

In a recent interview with The Rumpus, Okparanta spoke about the status of LGTBQ rights in Nigeria, emphasising that while the United States has legalised gay marriage, the situation is very different in her home country. She also stresses that persecution of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is by no means a thing of the past in the US either: “If we say to ourselves that there is no more homophobia in the United States, that the LGBTQ community no longer faces discrimination here, we are simply deceiving ourselves.”

Rumpus: In the novel’s epilogue you mention a “new generation of Nigerians with a stronger bent towards love than fear.” But, also in the epilogue, you document a brutal beating of a lesbian couple and in your author’s note you write about the 2014 laws criminalizing same-sex relationships with punishments ranging from fourteen years in prison in some parts of the county to death by stoning in others. How do you see LGTBQ rights gaining traction in Nigeria? What is the role of story and narrative in that?

Okparanta: The situation in Nigeria is not all that different from many places around the world. After the publication of this book, I’ve been shocked by a handful of people here in the United States who have come up to me and said things along the lines of, “Well, we’ve moved on from that. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, so what’s the point writing that book?” I look at the people making the statement and I can just smell the privilege wafting out of them like perfume. And, I think to myself: this is the problem with privilege. When we live in our own privileged little bubble, it is convenient to pretend that all is well with the world, that everyone enjoys the same privileges that we do.

We conveniently forget that there are others, sometimes our very own next-door neighbors, who suffer in ways that we do not. I think the novel is a testament to this: a reminder that just because we perceive ourselves free does not mean that everyone is indeed free. [...]

Molly Rose Quinn, writing for Lithub, says Under the Udala Trees is “clearly in the tradition of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Edwidge Danticat, and others whom Okparanta calls in her acknowledgements ‘my predecessors, my guiding lights’,” but adds that Okparanta does something further: “Here we have a narrative of war, of LGBTQ Nigerians, and of Nigerians of faith.”

In a conversation with NPR, Okparanta speculates on what the reception of the novel will be in Nigeria: “Maybe they think, ‘What is this this girl doing, writing these homosexual things?’ But maybe with time they will acknowledge to themselves that I am just doing something that is humanistic.”

Listen to the podcast:

About the book

One day in 1968, at the height of the Biafran civil war, Ijeoma’s father is killed and her world is transformed forever. Separated from her grief-stricken mother, she meets another young lost girl, Amina, and the two become inseparable. Theirs is a relationship that will shake the foundations of Ijeoma’s faith, test her resolve and flood her heart.

In this masterful novel of faith, love and redemption, Okparanta takes us from Ijeoma’s childhood in war-torn Biafra, through the perils and pleasures of her blossoming sexuality, her wrong turns, and into the everyday sorrows and joys of marriage and motherhood. As we journey with Ijeoma we are drawn to the question: what is the value of love and what is the cost?

A triumphant love story written with beauty and delicacy, Under the Udala Trees is a hymn to those who’ve lost and a prayer for a more compassionate world. It is a work of extraordinary beauty that will enrich your heart.

About the author

Chinelo Okparanta was born in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. She was one of Granta’s New Voices for 2012 and her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her story “America” was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in African Writing. She is a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award for her debut short story collection, Happiness, Like Water.

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Read an excerpt from Under the Udala Trees:


Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.

Ours was a gated compound, guarded at the front by a thicket of rose and hibiscus bushes. Leading up to the bushes, a pair of parallel green hedges grew, dotted heavily in pink by tiny, star-like ixora flowers. Vendors lined the road adjacent to the hedges, as did trees thick with fruit: orange, guava, cashew, and mango trees. In the recesses of the roadsides, where the bushes rose high like a forest, even more trees stood: tall irokos, whistling pines, and a scattering of oil and coconut palms. We had to turn our eyes up toward the sky to see the tops of these trees. So high were the bushes and so tall were the trees.

In the harmattan, the Sahara winds arrived and stirred up the dust, and clouded the air, and rendered the trees and bushes wobbly like a mirage, and made the sun a blurry ball in the sky.

In the rainy season, the rains wheedled the wildness out of the dust, and everything took back its clarity and its shape.

This was the normal cycle of things: the rainy season followed by the dry season, and the harmattan folding itself within the dry. All the while, goats bleated. Dogs barked. Hens and roosters scuttled up and down the roads, staying close to the compounds to which they belonged. Striped swordtails and monarchs, grass yellows and redtops — all the butterflies — flitted leisurely from one flower to the next.

As for us, we moved about in that unhurried way of the butterflies, as if the breeze was sweet, as if the sun on our skin was a caress. As if slow paces allowed for the savoring of both. This was the way things were before the war: our lives, tamely moving forward.

But in 1967, the war barged in and installed itself all over the place. By 1968, the whole of Ojoto had begun pulsing with the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.

Book details

Author image courtesy of Ayiba magazine


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