I have a long and ever-growing list of books I want, but, like many readers, I must admit that I tend to be drawn to the same three or four genres. So sometimes, it’s nice – and important – to get a fresh perspective thrust into your TBR. For my birthday last May, my sister picked out three books for me. Two of them seemed right up my alley: The Sisterhood is set in Spain and South America during the Spanish Inquisition and has “sister” in the title, and The Music of the Deep is spooky, related to music, and set in my home, the Pacific Northwest. But the third book introduces new places and themes to my reading. Thank you, Rachel, for giving me Chinelo Okparanta‘s Under the Udala Trees!
Under the Udala Trees takes us to southeastern Nigeria in the late 1960s through the early 1980s. It begins with Nigeria’s civil war, a conflict that uproots young Ijeoma. After her father dies, her mother can’t see any way to care for her only child. So Ijeoma is sent to live with a couple farther south, where she’ll earn her keep by working as their maid. Soon, Ijeoma meets another teen girl, Amina, who’s been orphaned due to the war. Even though Amina is from the opposing side of the war, the couple lets her stay on as a maid, too.
Ijeoma and Amina, sharing a room in the home’s adjacent shed, grow close, and eventually develop romantic feelings for each other. But Nigeria is very religious and opposed to homosexuality, and their love for each other is considered sinful. They try to keep it a secret, but they can only hide it for so long.
Years pass, and we follow Ijeoma to an all-girls school, back to live with her mother in a new home, and into new relationships. Throughout her coming-of-age journey, Ijeoma is at odds with who she is and who she’s allowed to be. When her mother finds out about her relationship with Amina, Ijeoma is forced into daily Bible study, her mother pointing out all the passages implying that women belong with men. Later, we watch as Ijeoma hides her own identity, first from her mother and then from herself.
Readers feel a new low when Ijeoma ends up in a toxic relationship. She suffers abuse and hides her memories of the love she left behind, the one that got away.
Under the Udala Trees is a sweeping novel told in a rather matter-of-fact voice. We get a deeper look at Nigeria’s civil war and the havoc it wreaked on its people. We get inside the world of Nigerians of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, seeing the world through one young woman’s evolving perspective.
Moreover, Under the Udala Trees highlights lesbian relationships in a time and place where their love must be hidden and the consequences can be devastating. We see how religion can be interpreted to mean bigotry and hatred, and how it can be used to stifle people and love. We see how a young woman, devoutly Christian, is forced to wonder whether she’s a sinner or whether the Bible has been misinterpreted. Ijeoma is at war with herself and her sexuality, and we feel pained as intolerance breaks up her secret relationships – both from outside force and from within their own fear and uncertainty.
But as Ijeoma grows up and endures a toxic relationship – one she should never have gotten into and wouldn’t have if not for her country’s intolerance – we watch as she finally chooses to live on her own terms. Some people do come around to acceptance, and one love will finally prevail.
Chinelo Okparanta has written a beautiful and important novel, especially in response to Nigeria’s criminalization of same-sex relationships in 2014. As she writes in the author’s note at the end, “This novel attempts to give Nigeria’s marginalized LGBTQ citizens a more powerful voice, and a place in our nation’s history.”
Love should be free in every country. All religions should accept LGBTQ people and their romantic relationships. Under the Udala Trees is a book we would all benefit from reading.