About a third of the way through Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, her protagonist, Ijeoma, who at this time is a teenage girl attending a predominantly Igbo school in early 1970s Nigeria, goes to visit an onye ocha [white] minister. Ijeoma has a secret; she is in love with a classmate, Amina, who is not only female, but Hausa. Doubly divided from the person she loves, and having already been told by her mother that her desires are unnatural, Ijeoma knows precisely what she wants to pray for. When the schoolgirls line up to receive their own personal miracles from the minister, Ijeoma only tells him that her ailment ‘pertained to the heart.’ However, Amina is having doubts about their relationship, battling with the ostracism she has already faced due to her sexuality. She asks the minister for something quite different, as Ijeoma tells us:
[Amina’s] face was somber, and though at the time I did not have the slightest clue what miracle she was asking the onya ocha to perform for her, sometimes these days I think I know. Sometimes I speculate that she must have gotten exactly what she wished for. But at the time, it appeared that it was I who would get my wish. Maybe this is the way it goes when people approach God with contrary requests. How does God choose whose request to fulfill?
This incident encapsulated for me the power of Under the Udala Trees; the way it uses the language of folktale, both literally – Ijeoma encounters a number of Nigerian stories throughout her journey, and replays some of them in her dreams – and figuratively, suggesting that this is the sort of story that has been missing and now ought to be told. This use of traditional story structure is interwoven with the simple Biblical language that Ijeoma grew up hearing. When her mother discovers that she is in love with another girl, she tries to eradicate her desires by reading her passages from the Bible that ‘prove’ the wrongness of what she is doing. Okparanta’s depiction of Ijeoma’s state of mind during this period of her life is beautifully done, demonstrating how she desperately tries to make sense of the information that is being thrown at her, but is too intelligent to take what is said at face value. She genuinely grapples with these old-fashioned arguments, and when she feels she has found a solution, she takes it to her mother joyfully – only to realise that, at least at that time, her mother is unable to think beyond what she has been taught.
Happily, Ijeoma’s story does not end with Amina. After her graduation, she meets a new lover, Ndidi, a teacher who introduces her to the underground lesbian and gay communities near the town where they live. Through Ndidi, she discovers that there are other people like her but also, when a church where they are meeting is attacked, the prejudice and violence that they face. Ijeoma, however, is still caught between her mother’s teachings and her craving to be who she truly is.
The folkloric power of Under the Udala Trees also imposes strict limitations on this novel. Okparanta’s writing is beautiful and moving, and the tug-of-war between Ijeoma and Mama, as I’ve already suggested, is convincingly portrayed. But at times, the other characters fade into cipher, especially Ijeoma’s two lovers – who occasionally serve the sole purpose of representing two opposed sets of attitudes. It’s a familiar pattern from other lesbian coming-of-age stories; Ijeoma’s first partner is timid and fearful, requiring her to lead them into this new realm of experience, but when she has broken free of the bonds of convention herself, she can meet a more sexually experienced woman who will educate her in her turn. However, Under the Udala Trees is also strengthened by its simplicity. This story-form may be familiar, Okparanta seems to be saying, but it is a story that needs to be told here. As she notes in an afterword to the novel, the criminalisation of gay marriage and the membership of gay organisations in Nigeria in 2014 makes this an even more timely and important message. The ending of the novel itself also reiterates her overall goal; to tell stories like this until they become so internalised it is as if they were always there.
‘Some of those nights when we are together and in bed, Ndidi wraps her arms around me. She moulds her body around mine and whispers in my ear about a town where love is allowed to be love, between men and women, and men and men, and women and women, just as between Yoruba and Igbo and Hausa and Fulani…
“What is the name of the town?” I ask.
… One night, she mumbles that it is Aba. The next night it is Umuahia. With each passing night she names more towns… I have to laugh and say, “How is it that this town can be so many places at once?”
Her voice is soft like a hum, and the words come out quiet like a prayer… She says, “All of them are here in Nigeria. You see, this place will be all of Nigeria.”
Thanks to Granta Books for sending me a free copy of this novel.