In her striking novel Under the Udala Trees, Chinelo Okparanta details the development of a young lesbian in 1960’s Nigeria. Ijeoma is a young girl when she begins to understand her sexuality, falling in love with a close friend. She’s barely older when she and Amina are caught embracing, after which she is sent to complete intensive bible study with her mother. “Nwoke na nwunye. Adam na Eve. Man and wife,” her mother repeats in their daily sessions. Ijeoma’s feelings remain unchanged, instead forcing her to learn how to adapt to her mother impassioned pleas. The expectation, Ijeoma knows, is for her to finish school, find a husband, and have children. Even the udala tree itself is a symbol of feminine fertility.
Under the Udala Trees is an exploratory look at how people live a forbidden truth under watchful eyes. It humanizes the millions of people around the world in Nigeria, Uganda, Jamaica, and beyond (Russia, South Africa– the list is far too long) who recognize that their identity earns them the likelihood of being served jail time, burned alive, or “correctively” raped.
Set against the backdrop of the Biafran war in the 1960s, Ijeoma’s romance is punctuated by air strikes, mass migration and other markers of political upending. Thus, Under the Udala Trees is a smartly written historical fiction blended with romance and social commentary.
There’s been much talk on social media these past few day about what it means to be a “fearless” writer. I posit that fearless writing involves doing so despite the knowledge that people in your country of origin will reject each and every word. That they rejected them before the pen ever met the paper. However, as Okparanta says, “maybe with time they will acknowledge to themselves that I am just doing something that is humanistic.”
Have you read Under the Udala Trees? What were your impressions of the book, and to what extent did it strike a chord within you? Do you have any other LGBTQIA+ recommendations that take place outside the USA? Drop them in the comments!