Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees opens with a vivid depiction of Nigeria’s civil war through the eyes of coming-of-age protagonist Ijeoma. A child at the war’s beginning in 1967, Ijeoma is sent by her mother to live with a grammar-school teacher and his wife under the assumption she will be safer with them. The circumstances of this foster care arrangement are fairly grim, and yet Ijeoma’s relative good fortune is thrown into sharp relief through the images of warfare around her: decapitated bodies flanking streets, starving children with swollen bellies, a still-live boy rising in shock from a pile of corpses.
It is while under the guardianship of the grammar-school teacher that Ijeoma befriends Amina, a girl her own age who has lost everything in the war. Amina is of a different tribe (Igbo where Ijeoma and her family are Hausa), setting the stage for a relationship that defies tradition in more ways than one.
Under the Udala Trees is thus about more than one kind of war. As the Republic of Biafra surrenders and the united country must come to terms with a million lives lost, Ijeoma returns to her mother and witnesses the clash between her faith and her love, between tradition and the holdout for a better future. In one memorable incident, the line separating these two great wars in Ijeoma’s life becomes blurred as she and a group of women take shelter in an old bunker, fleeing not enemy bombs but homophobic violence at the hands of an enraged mob. This powerful scene seemed to ask: How different is one form of hatred from another? Are human beings capable of meaningful change?
Okparanta’s answer to the latter question is undeniably: Yes. The novel is a greater testament to forgiveness and compassion than it is to hatred and fear. Much of this is a product of Ijeoma’s character. Self-acceptance comes to her quickly—a refreshing change from the denial and internalized homophobia often encountered in LGBT characters. “What if Adam and Eve were merely symbols of companionship?” she wonders after an intense Bible study session with her mother. “And Eve, different from him, woman instead of man, was simply a tool by which God noted that companionship was something you got from a person outside of yourself?” (83). Ijeoma is excited by these thoughts. The “joy of [her] discovery” washes over her, and it is moments of joyfulness that help to define Ijeoma, along with the intelligent first-person voice rendered possible by Okparanta’s graceful prose.
While Under the Udala Trees remains fused with the politics, religion, and folklore of its time and place, the trials faced by the protagonist—reconciling sexuality with faith, locating a supportive community, preserving herself and loved ones from homophobic violence—transcend any precise historical moment. Ijeoma’s story rings with a near-mythic relevance, a sense that its lessons can and should be applied far beyond its particular locale. As the author’s debut novel and the winner of a number of accolades, including the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for General Lesbian Fiction, Under the Udala Trees should have readers eager to see what Okparanta produces next.