First published in the Sunday Times
Under the Udala Trees
A month after Chinelo Okparanta completed Under the Udala Trees, a novel that deals delicately but boldly with lesbian love, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan criminalised same-sex relationships, making them punishable by up to 14 years in prison or, in the northern states, death by stoning.
Okparanta addresses the subject in an author’s note, to contextualise the story for readers who may not be familiar with the country. “With or without the bill, Nigeria is a very homophobic country,” she says. “With or without the bill, I had already written the novel. Under the Udala Trees is ultimately a story about people struggling to live out their lives the best way possible, even in the face of societal pressures, discrimination and abuse.”
Okparanta moved to the US with her family when she was 10, but her debut novel does not betray her physical distance from her home country. It is animated with Nigerian Pidgin and Igbo dialogue, as well as enigmatic folktales and proverbs understated in their insight: “If God dishes you rice in a basket, do not wish for soup.”
“I’m lucky to have a family that upholds traditions, but also one that allows room for change,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t feel that I ever left Nigeria, and sometimes I do. We continued to speak Igbo at home, we continued to eat fufu and soup, beans and yam, we continued to sing and dance to Nigerian music. I also go home as often as I can.”
Under the Udala Trees begins in 1968, a year into the Biafran War, when 11-year-old Ijeoma’s father is killed during a bombing raid. After his death, Ijeoma’s mother, Adaora, begins to suffer terrible nightmares. She stops eating, and alternates between blank silence and rage. The child begins to sense that she is a burden, something to be rid of, “Like an animal casting off old hair or skin”. Adaora concocts a story about the need to send Ijeoma away while she scouts out the safety of her parents’ old house in another town, and the betrayal is keenly felt.
In the midst of this, Okparanta startles us with a glimpse of the old Adaora, the caring mother who used to rouse her daughter from a sulk by taking her hands and joking, “Dance your sadness away.” In the context of a growing dislike of an unkind, neglectful parent, the vignette is almost unbearably touching.
This depth of character is Okparanta’s great strength, and she says: “It seems to me that the best books are often those in which the dignity of the characters are upheld. Also, those in which the characters are nuanced. I tried to keep this in mind while writing the novel.”
Ijeoma is sent away to work as a house-girl. One day she is followed home by Amina, another displaced girl. A childhood romance begins, which develops into a tender physical relationship. In the years that follow, Ijeoma attempts to reconcile her sexuality with her religious beliefs. But societal pressures intensify and when a childhood friend – now a handsome and successful man – proposes, she accepts, both out of loyalty to her mother’s wishes and out of longing for a life lived without fear of being “found out”. Sensing something unsound in his marriage, Chibundu is by turns caring and cruel, suffering as much from the disjunct between society’s expectations and his own actions as Ijeoma does.
“Chibundu is as much to be pitied as he is to be rebuked,” says Okparanta. “We would have a hard time completely condemning him. How does one balance out hope with unrequited love? Chibundu certainly tries.”
After a series of disturbing dreams, Ijeoma realises she has to leave Chibundu, describing the revelation as like hearing a murmur of sound in the distance, unnoticeable at first, but getting stronger, “and finally you look up and see a skein, a flock of geese, a perfect V up above in the sky”.
Ijeoma does not reject her heritage. Rather she proves that it is possible to discard some aspects of tradition without threatening the whole. “Tradition has its place,” Okparanta says. “But it is also the nature of tradition to evolve.”
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