Book review - Under the Udala Trees

Chinelo Okparanta’s remarkable debut novel tackles big issues. It begins with a powerful indictment of Nigeria’s ethnic tensions and the violence of the Biafran war, and continues as a compelling meditation on a patriarchal, God-fearing society and the brutal suppression of same-sex relationships.

Under the Udala Trees is also timely. In January 2014, Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s then president, approved legislation criminalising gay groups and public shows of same-sex affection. It was already illegal to have gay sex in Nigeria but now same-sex couples face up to 14 years in prison. In the northern states, the punishment is death by stoning.
The novel follows the fortunes of Ijeoma, an Igbo girl from south-east Nigeria. After her father is killed during the Biafran war, 11-year-old Ijeoma is sent by her grieving mother to live with a family friend, a grammar-school teacher and his wife. Ijeoma becomes their house girl. In return, the couple promise to fund her education once the war is over. There Ijeoma meets Amina, an orphaned Hausa girl, whom she persuades to share the “hovel” that is her bedroom and to work alongside her.

The two girls fall in love. When their relationship is discovered, they are forced to part and, on returning to her mother’s new home in Aba, Ijeoma has to endure interminable Bible sessions aimed at proving that their act of love was an “abomination”. Her mother has her own interpretation of Lot’s story from the Book of Genesis, in which he offers his two virgin daughters to the men of Sodom to protect his guests, two (male) angels. “Everybody knows what lesson we should take from that story,” claims Ijeoma’s mother. “Man must not lie with man, and if man does, man will be destroyed.” Ijeoma protests: “It couldn’t have been because they were selfish and inhospitable and violent?”

Okparanta’s novel is a denunciation of intransigent religiosity. A narrow reading of the Bible, she suggests, is partly to blame for Nigeria’s vicious treatment of the gay community. In an endnote, she refers to the 2012 WIN-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, in which Nigeria ranks as the second most religious country after Ghana.

In Aba Ijeoma encounters Ndidi, a confident young schoolteacher, who rekindles her desire. Ndidi introduces her to a group of fellow lesbians who meet clandestinely in a nightclub — ironically housed in a church. But after she witnesses a terrible act of violence, Ijeoma is also torn between following her heart and tradition.Okparanta also underlines how superstition can determine the course of ordinary lives. When Ijeoma and Amina are later sent to the same boarding school they attempt to revive their relationship; after experiencing a vivid nightmare, Amina deserts Ijeoma and, following convention, marries a fellow Hausa. Years later it is an equally potent dream that causes Ijeoma to leave her husband and risk public opprobrium. Describing a mother’s reaction to a baby born with a harelip, Ijeoma reflects: “More than likely he would be left to perish, unwanted and unloved. Because this was the nature of such things, of anything that was outside the norm. They were labelled with such words as ‘curse’ and wasn’t it wise to keep curses at bay?”

Nigerian-born, Okparanta emigrated to the US with her family at the age of 10. Her experiences informed the short stories in her first book, Happiness Like Water; one of the stories, “America”, was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. Under the Udala Trees confirms her talent, recalling the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in its powerful interweaving of the personal and the political. Okparanta’s simple, direct prose is interspersed with the language of allegory and folklore and is scattered with biblical references. The dizzying scope of her storytelling keeps you gripped to the end.

Originally published by the Financial Times