Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, Reviewed by Sonya C. Brown
Under the Udala Trees is an impressive first novel that tackles one of the most today’s pressing social issues. Its author is Chinelo Okparanta, already the acclaimed author of short stories, including the collection, Happiness, Like Water (Granta Books). According to the “Author’s Note,” the novel hopes to “attempt to give Nigeria’s marginalized LGBTQ citizens a more powerful voice, and a place in our nation’s history” (315). Ijeoma, the novel’s narrator, indeed has a compelling voice, imbued by Okparanta with metaphorical flourishes that evoke people, scenery, and feelings with grace and often with humor.
The story follows Ijeoma from 1968-2014. The novels opens with the natural beauty of the household young Ijeoma shares with her parents in 1968 opens the novel:
Vendors lined the road…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. (6)
When the Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War) begins, and their home is under bomb threat, Ijeoma and her mother Adaora flee for safety, but her father Uzo refuses to leave and is killed. Ijeoma’s assessment of his funeral suits her young age and seems especially apt to any who have witnessed the undertaker’s art: “When they returned with hi[s body] and laid him back down in our parlor, he was clean and perfect-looking, as if he had gotten all dressed up for a big occasion only to suddenly fall asleep” (21). Chapters often begin with Ijeoma providing a kind of metaphorical assessment of the time period about to be detailed:
Uzo. It was the kind of name I’d have liked to fold up and hold in the palm of my hand, if names could be folded and held that way. So that if I were ever lost, all I’d have to do would be to open up my palm and allow the name, like a torchlight, to show me the way.
In the weeks following Papa’s death, it seemed that we had lost our way, Mama and I. (22)
Scenes full of dialogue bolster these synopses. The ample dialogue allows characters with disparate views from Ijeoma to have their say, as it were. This dialogue is written primarily in English but also in Igbo and pidgin. Despite the challenge this may pose for many American readers, the result is generally clear, and the recording of what feels like realistic language practices adds nuance to the characters’ interactions.
Okrapanta’s descriptions lend depth to supporting characters with Dickensian dexterity and speed, humorous but profound insight that often convey the horror of the situation:
In a field right next to the road, a policeman was moving through a row of corpses, using a long cane to prod them or mark them as he went. He was a stone-faced officer, with a crinkly sort of nose and a mouth that appeared permanently upturned so that his lips seemed to cover his nostrils. Perhaps he carried his face this way deliberately, owing to the odor that the job required him to endure. (91)
After her father’s death, Ijeoma’s mother sends her to live with acquaintances, who give Ijeoma room and board in exchange for housework, and frequently threaten her with violence for failing to do so well or quickly enough. The novel jumps forward in time to when Ijeoma has returned to her mother, having had an as-yet-undescribed sexual relationship with an orphan, Amina. Mother and daughter read scripture together, somewhat copiously reprinted in the text, and argue over its meaning. This section slows down a plot that had been briskly paced, but such discussion of scripture is plausible in a relationship where love and disagreement co-exist. Their debates end with Ijeoma ambivalent, and the novel doubles back in time to present the girls’ relationship. This narrative strategy may encourage a reader to judge whether the relationship is sinful or otherwise.
Ijeoma and Amina later attend an all-girls’ school together. Women and young girls are viewed as “nothing without a man,” as Ijeoma’s mother repeats bitterly, herself being, of course, a widow. Women in the text defend patriarchy hotly yet suffer from its strictures—according to Adaora, a male-female relationship is like a bicycle: the man must be the front wheel, so the woman must follow, never lead. Readers are likely to recall how bitterly grief-stricken and critical Adaora was when her husband chose not to seek shelter, and in some ways, by so doing, abandoned his family. But Adaora remains frustrated that her beautiful child is unmarried, despite the obvious inequity of any such relationship.
Amina is plagued with nightmare visions, and eventually rejoins the Hausa community by marrying a man of that ethnicity. Though nineteen-year-old Ijeoma soon begins a secret sexual relationship with Ndidi, Ijeoma continues to question herself spiritually:
If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.
When you find her, she will be dressed like any other person. But to you, her skin will glow in stripes of white and black. You will see her broom, and you will hear her witch-cry, and you will feel the effects of her spells on you.
No matter how unlike a witch she is, there she will be, a witch, before your eyes.
The period of time after the church visit with Ndidi was the beginning of my witch-hunt against myself. (191)
After a lesbian friend is beaten to death, Adaora persuades her to date Chibundu, a childhood friend, who soon proposes. When a soul-searching Ijeoma attempts to expose her past “abominations” to Chibundu, his reaction is deeply rational (“The Church is the oldest and most successful business known to man, because it knows not only how to recruit customers but also how to control them with…words like ‘abomination’” ) and empathetic (“I know you well enough to know that you are a good person, and that’s enough for me” ). But when Chibundu discovers her correspondence with Ndidi, and after the birth of a female rather than the hoped-for male child, their relationship sours, and Chibundu’s treatment forces Ijeoma to consider how she might model a life of agency and dignity for her daughter Chidinma, who is caught in the couple’s crossfire. The novel concludes with an epilogue, set in 2014, that records Ijeoma’s subsequent choices and details the continued persecution of LGBTQ community members at the university where Chidinma teaches.
I wished that the relationships with Amina and Ndidi were more developed to counterbalance the attention paid to the agonized relationships between Ijeoma and her mother and husband. As a result of rather disparate quantities of text devoted to these, the characters of the two love interests are less thoroughly developed, especially Ndidi. Much more attention was paid to Amina and Ijeoma in conflict than in unity. Despite this flaw, I recommend this novel for the strength of its narrator’s voice, the keenness of her soul-searching, and the elegance of the prose. I found myself haunted by some of Ijeoma’s comparisons weeks after reading them, as my experiences resonated with the rightness of her words.
Okparanta, Chinelo. Under the Udala Trees. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Web.