Elegant prose, multifaceted characters, and a riveting plot are often markers of a great novel. Chinelo Okparanta does this and more in her first novel, Under the Udala Trees. Set during the onset of the Biafran War in the late 1960s, the novel focuses on the coming of age story of Ijeoma, as she grapples with the violence and trauma the war brings to her life.
Everything changes after her father is killed in an air raid—he stubbornly refuses to take shelter in their bunker with Ijeoma and her mother. Left with a dire economic situation, Ijeoma’s mother sends her off to work as a housegirl for a schoolteacher while she tries to carve out a new life for them at home. It is while she is away that Ijeoma meets Anima, it is here that Ijeoma realizes she can love another girl.
When Ijeoma and Amina are found out, they are forcibly separated, shamed, and told that their acts are ‘abominable.’ Upon returning home, Ijeoma’s mother resorts to reading Bible scriptures and terrifying her daughter with promises of hell if she continues acting on desires she claims, are unnatural. However, Ijeoma is not easily convinced by her mother’s proselytizing and continues to question society’s assumptions about homosexuality. Through all of this, Ijeoma remains true to herself through a combination of positive self-talk and denouncing her mother’s beliefs.
Still, Ijeoma longs for Amina, and finds an outlet for her sexuality by discovering a small but welcoming underground queer community in her town. Yet, she quickly realizes the reality of her queer existence in Nigera as the club is met with a surprise raid, and Ijeoma sees its violent consequences. Okparanta’s novel not only tackles the difficulties of youth existing in the midst of war, but grapples with the ways a young girl comes to terms with with her queerness in a society that demonizes it.
Okparanta’s story is not fantastical, Ijeoma ends up pushed into an undesired marriage with a man from her childhood. She continues to struggle with her sexuality throughout the marriage, and her dissatisfaction is palpable with Okparanta’s imaginative and direct prose. Yet, the ending offers a variety of surprises.
Under the Udala Trees, is a necessary read for lovers of diasporic fiction. Through Ijeoma, Okparanta humanizes an often shunned community within black spaces. Ijeoma also represents the dilemma many young queer youth face while navigating their existence in homophobic spaces. Along with this, Ijeoma is unafraid of contradicting herself, she sees herself as an ever-changing individual, it is this mindset that aids her survival. Realizing that one can both break away from, and rely on tradition in order to love and find acceptance within themselves, Under the Udala Trees is a nuanced story that is one example of the diverse experiences of blacks within the queer community.