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Under the Udala Trees [Book Review]

Wanting to expand the diversity of books I read to include titles from across the diaspora, I was looking for more books that take place in and/or were written by authors from Africa, the Carribean, and Europe. I get a lot of my book recommendations from Goodreads and Amazon and take full advantage of their “You Might Also Like” features. After checking out a few titles, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta was recommended.

Full disclosure, based on the description, I thought Under the Udala Trees seemed interesting but had second thoughts about reading it. I was drawn in by the book’s description of taking place during and after the Biafran War in Nigeria. But, I was apprehensive when I realized that the book is also about the life and experiences of a young woman coming of age during this time as a lesbian. My initial thought was that I wasn’t very interested in reading about a lesbian relationship.

I had to ask myself, “Why?” I’m not really a romance novel person and that could have been part of it. But, could it have also been that I was put off by the thought of reading about lesbians? I watch movies and tv shows that feature lesbian relationships with no issue so I don’t really know. I couldn’t identify any real reason for being put off by the topic so I decided that I was being ridiculous and read Under the Udala Trees anyway. I’m glad that I did.

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This is the first book that I’ve read by Okparanta and I found that I really enjoy her writing style. Her descriptions are detailed without being overboard and allowed me to visualize the scenes and people she was describing. Some of the characters in the book aren’t as well developed as I usually like but served their purpose for getting the author’s point across.

Under the Udala Trees starts off during the Biafra conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960’s. Ijeoma is a middle-class girl living with her mother and father while trying to survive air raids and food shortages. Unable to cope with the circumstances of the war and what it means for their lives, Ijeoma’s father gives up on life. The loss of her father greatly affects Ijeoma and her mother, Adaora. Adaora doesn’t give up but finds it difficult to simultaneously cope with her grief and care for Ijeoma.

Given the war, there are food shortages and local schools in Ijeoma’s village are closed. Needing a break, Adaora sends Ijeoma off to live in another village with a school teacher and his wife (their names are never given) who are family friends. In exchange for going back to school in the future and staying with the school teacher and his wife, Ijeoma earns her keep as a house-girl, running errands and performing chores.

Before leaving home, Adaora is visited by the parents of a neighborhood boy, Chibundu. Ijeoma has known Chibundu for years and he tries to express himself and his feelings in these last moments of what might be their last time seeing each other. Hoping for a moment of youthful passion, Chibundu leans in for a kiss and is momentarily left hanging by Ijeoma who is somewhat caught off guard. She has no interest in Chibundu but kisses him because she knows it’s expected of her at this moment.

This interaction, while they’re still adolescents, foreshadows aspects of their future adult relationship. Ijeoma having no romantic interest in Chibundu. Chibundu being deeply attracted to Ijeoma and dreaming of a happy life with her but misconstruing her lack of interest as being shy and inexperienced. Ijeoma feeling obligated to do what is expected of her and giving Chibundu what he wants regardless of if it aligns with her needs. One could argue that if he were older, Chibundu might have been more perceptive and realized that he should cut his losses and focus his attention on another woman.

I picked up Under the Udala Trees because I thought it would be about the history of the Biafran War as told through the lives of these fictional characters. Based on what I got from the book, the predominantly Igbo Christian region in the East seceded from the rest of the country which was ruled by the Hausa-Fulani Muslims and became Biafra. But, to be quite honest, I don’t think I learned much about the war aside from that it happened. The war proved to be a backdrop, really just a catalyst for bringing characters together and moving them apart.

As explained in the epilogue, Okparanta’s goal is to give voice to Nigeria’s LGBT community which is commendable. But, Under the Udala Trees also provides broader commentary via the major theme of identity and how it is shaped by cultural norms and expectations.

Ijeoma spends about one year living with the school teacher and his wife during which time she meets another girl of the same age, Amina, who also comes to live in the school teacher’s home. Like Ijeoma, Amina has also experienced loss and separation from her family due to the war. But, Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo girl while Amina comes from a Muslim Hausa family.

I thought it was a little bit weird that Ijeoma as a rather young girl was made to live in what seemed to be a shed out in the yard by herself rather than actually within the house. When Amina comes to live at the school teacher’s home she shares the shed with Ijeoma. It seemed a little bit cold to me because these are rather young girls who are away from their families during hard times. They’re not offered any real kind of comfort or hospitality. To be clear, the school teacher and his wife are not mean or abusive towards them but there’s a very clear line drawn in their relationship.

Being without parental supervision and quite possibly feeling lonely, and in Ijeoma’s case, abandoned, the two girls find solace in each other. When they are seen in the midst of an intimate moment, Adaora is called to retrieve Ijeoma and take her away. As Under the Udala Trees progresses we hear of instances where people discovered in homosexual relationships are assaulted and in some cases murdered. Because of Ijeoma’s and Amina’s age, their activities are not revealed to the community and they are allowed to move on with their lives but with warnings and conditions.

When Adaora comes to fully understand what exactly took place between Ijeoma and Amina she is caught off guard. Believing that her daughter is a good person she thinks the explanation for Ijeoma’s homosexuality is that she is possessed by an evil spirit. As a result, Adaora believes it is her duty to help Ijeoma rid herself of this spirit through an exorcism of sorts in the form of long sessions of daily Bible study.

I don’t want to give too much away but Under the Udala Trees goes on from there and is definitely worth reading. But, we’ll stop here to dive more deeply into the themes of the book which really become evident at this point.

Over the course of the Under the Udala Trees, there’s a trend for people to come into Ijeoma’s life have an impact, leave, and then later return. Excluding her father, this happens with the four characters that have the most impact on her life. Her mother Adaora, Amina her childhood love, Ndidi her adult love, and Chibundu her only male love interest.

As I mentioned earlier, Adaora is consumed with grief when Ijeoma’s father dies. She moves through different phases of denial, anger, depression, etc. and in the midst of this, she neglects not only herself but also Ijeoma. It hurt Ijeoma deeply when her mother sent her away. But, in its own way, it was also an act of kindness and sacrifice for Adaora to realize that she was not capable of being the parental figure that Ijeoma needed at that time.

We come to understand through her conversations with Ijeoma that Adaora places great value on marriage, being a wife, and being a mother. Adaora lost a large part of her identity and sense of being through the death of her husband. Finding herself incapable of caring for Ijeoma for a period of time, she overcompensates by going all out in her efforts to get Ijeoma back on what she sees as the right path to womanhood.

During the time that Adaora is separated from Ijeoma, she journeys back to her family home and with the help of the community gets the house back in order. She also starts a small business in the form of a local shop at which people can buy drinks, snacks, and other tidbits. She doesn’t seem to really have any friends or close relationships beyond the one she has rebuilt with Ijeoma. Adaora never dates and doesn’t remarry but through her small business, she’s able to remain independent and manages to change her identity though it doesn’t occur by choice.

When Ijeoma meets Amina around the age of 11 or 12, she’s at about the age when puberty begins for most girls. We don’t get much insight into Amina as she doesn’t speak much so I thought she was a boring character. But, Ijeoma’s relationship and experiences with Amina occur around the time at which she would be trying to figure out her identity and who she wants to be.

Unlike Adaora, Amina doesn’t place any pressure on Ijeoma to fit any kind of a prefabricated mold. Instead, Ijeoma is just allowed to be and there’s a lot of comfort in that kind of freedom in a relationship. The opportunity to just be yourself can be very attractive. And through that understanding, I came to see what Ijeoma saw in Amina and why the loss of the relationship was so devastating.

Ijeoma develops into a beautiful young woman who is noticed by the local men. But her life is dry and boring and seems to revolve around pining over the loss of Amina, Bible study sessions with Adaora, and questioning God about homosexuality. Around this time Ijeoma meets another young woman Ndidi, a local school teacher and there is an immediate spark of interest between the two women.

Ndidi felt a little more detailed and fleshed out than Amina though this might have just been a matter of her being an adult. Ndidi helps to guide Ijeoma rather than the two being in roughly the same place in life trying to figure things out. Like Amina, Ndidi also allows Ijeoma to be herself and feel comfortable about her sexuality. She introduces Ijeoma to the adult social aspects of being homosexuals within their community. Out of Ijeoma’s three love interests, Nididi was my favorite. She had a life and personality of her own, seemed equally into Ijeoma, and looked out for Ijeoma’s best interest even in instances where it would result in her own unhappiness.

I didn’t think much of Chibundu when he was a kid but initially liked him as an adult. It’s obvious that he is attracted to Ijeoma and wants to do what he thinks will result in a happy life for them. The problem is that he sees what he wants to see in Ijeoma and tries to ignore anything to the contrary when possible. When the two see each other again as adults it seems like their courtship is just another task to be checked off but there’s no real effort to get to know Ijeoma as a person.

It’s not as discussed as the expectations for Ijeoma as a woman but there are also cultural expectations placed on Chibundu. As a result, he has a vision of their future life and family in which Ijeoma’s participation is incredibly important. These are Chibundu’s dreams which he shares with Ijeoma but he never seems to ask about her dreams and visions for their marriage. Instead, he operates under the assumption that his dreams are also the key to her happiness. They both become increasingly unhappy as they try to achieve what their family expects of them which is at odds with what they want for themselves.

Chibundu is expected to provide for his family and produce children, especially sons. Things don’t go according to plan on their wedding night and he tries to comfort Ijeoma by telling her that he won’t use force but will instead be patient. I didn’t really pick up on this at first and thought it was kind of sweet that Chibundu was trying to be patient and understanding. But as the story progresses, Chibundu becomes disappointed with his job, their home, and his relationship with Ijeoma. It becomes clear that beneath the facade there is a lot of repressed anger and frustration within Chibundu and it doesn’t all stem from Ijeoma.

Because of the expectations that Chibundu’s family and their community have for him and his marriage, he places some responsibility for those expectations on Ijeoma. Like Ijeoma, Chibundu’s identity is based on him being a father and husband so it’s extremely important that things work out between them. It’s not enough that they have children but Chibundu wants a son to carry on his family’s name. How much did Chibundu really know Ijeoma? Did he actually love her as a person? Or did he love the idea of being married to a beautiful woman who would bear him children?

Ijeoma never seemed into Chibundu or the relationship but allowed herself to be moved along without ever speaking up. It was decided for Ijeoma that she should date Chibundu, be excited about marrying him, and be proud to become a mother. To be fair Ijeoma seems withdrawn and lives within herself. The people around her see themselves as doing her a favor by pushing her along. She’s apprehensive and makes weak protests along the way which the people around her regard as mere uncertainty and nervousness. On the rare occasions that she bites up the nerve to try to express her own desires, her mother or Chibundu butt in and downplay her feelings.

I found this back and forth to be a bit frustrating and couldn’t understand why Ijeoma didn’t just leave. But, it’s important to consider that Ijeoma is growing up in a different time and place. She finishes school roughly at about the equivalent of high school. But, there is no real plan in place for Ijeoma past school as the expectation is that she will become a wife and mother as soon as possible.

Deep down inside she knows that being married to Chibundu is not the life for her but she feels stuck. What else can she do with her life and how will she support herself if she’s not a wife and mother? And it can be dangerous for her to attempt to live out in the open as a lesbian. There is a good chance that her family and community will turn on her if she leaves Chibundu and they discover her reason for doing so.

There’s a lot to unpack here about identity and acceptance. Amina and Ndidi are great loves in Ijeoma’s life because while together, they see her for who she is and allow her to be who she wants to be. Adaora also sees Ijeoma for who is but thinks this is wrong and does everything she can to make Ijeoma into who she thinks she can be. Chibundu sees what he wants and tries to coerce Ijeoma into fitting the mold of what he dreams she could be.

Religion plays a key factor in Under the Udala Trees, at least with regards to Ijeoma’s relationship with her mother. Ijeoma is also conflicted about her feelings and attempts to seek solace in church and finds none there. Ijeoma is used as a tool to give voice to the author’s arguments about religion being weaponized against homosexuality and dividing rather than bringing people together. Some of the questions that were asked were really thought-provoking.

People can be fairly rigid when it comes to topics such as religion, sexual orientation, and identity. But, Under the Udala Trees can be a good book for young adults who are trying to navigate their sexual orientation or even just figuring out who they want to be and what they want out of life. It can also be a great book for parents who are trying to come to terms with their children becoming individuals and learning to love and accept them unconditionally.

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