Friday, 10 June 2016

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinelo Okparanta is an Igbo from the southern part of Nigeria, and like Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Under the Udala Trees takes us inside the Biafran War. This, however, is no a war story, but a love story and a plea for compassion and tolerance.

Ijeoma is a child when her father is killed by a bomb blast and her mother sinks into depression.

She shed us all like a bad habit. Or maybe, simply, the way one casts off a set of dirty, thorn-infested clothes.

Ijeoma is sent away to live with a teacher and his wife, to work as their house girl. There she meets Amina, a Hausa refugee, a Muslim girl, one of the ‘enemy.’ Ijeoma persuades the teacher to shelter Amina and, living together in a tiny hut in the grounds of the teacher’s house, the two fall in love.

But in a deeply religious country, their relationship is considered an ‘abomination’ and when they are discovered, Ijeoma is packed off back to her mother. The war is now over and her mother has become a small shopkeeper. Ijeoma is subjected to endless Bible reading sessions and exhortations to pray, each a twisted lesson designed to prove that same-sex relationships are a sin beyond any other, even rape and violence.

What in another setting could be a simple LGBT coming of age story takes on a different complexion here. We are left in no doubt what openly pursuing such a relationship could lead to when a friend is hacked to death for attending a clandestine lesbian nightclub held, ironically enough, in a church.

Ijeoma tries to comply with what society expects of her. She agrees to marry her childhood sweetheart. But the effect on her is devastating. She withdraws further and further from the world, until she is no longer capable even of caring for her own child. Her alienation, the drying up of her soul, echoes Okparanta’s description of wartime destruction of the countryside.

Before the war ... the hibiscus flowers painted the bushes red and it was barely a remarkable thing, that deep redness of theirs. But now almost all the plants had withered and the wind carried in it only traces of destruction.

The poetry and freshness of Okparanta’s language brings to life equally moments of ecstasy and depression, horror and beauty.

Under the Udala Trees is set fifty years ago, yet little has changed for lesbian and gay Nigerians. As Okparanta points out in her afterword, in January 2014, Nigeria’s then President, Goodluck Jonathan, signed a bill criminalising same-sex relationships. Violators face up to 14 years of prison and in the northern region, risk death by stoning.

Yet the story is not one of despair. Love is not extinguished and the book ends on a flicker of hope.

You’ll Enjoy it if You Loved: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Avoid if you dislike: Untranslated words and phrases in a foreign language

Perfect Accompaniment: Roasted yams with pepper sauce.

Genre: LGBTQ, Literary Fiction, African Fiction

Available on Amazon

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