When we’re young we can have a simplified vision of the future. If we’re lucky enough to live with a loving family what more is there to hope for? But, as we grow, change comes both from outside forces and internal changes – neither of which we can control. Eleven year old Ijeoma dreams of living in a castle with her adoring parents, but she’s awakened to brutal reality in 1968 when her home in Ojoto, Nigeria is ravaged by a civil war that splinters her family apart. What follows is a highly original and moving coming of age story about the way she must adjust to the new environment around her and reconcile her homosexual feelings with the conservative religious attitudes of her community. More than this, “Under the Udala Trees” shows how we inevitably make damaging compromises in our lives which at a certain point become untenable: “There’s a way in which life takes us along for a ride and we begin to think that our destinies are not in fact up to us.” However, the story shows that with strength of character we can assert what we really want in life and make a place for ourselves in the communities we were born into.
It’s refreshing and surprising how I initially thought this novel was going to be primarily about war, but it turns into a much more personal story about a woman’s struggle with her sexuality. The civil war has a huge effect on Ijeoma’s life, but this book is more about the conflict homosexuals face in a country where it is dangerous and criminal to be openly gay. When the bodies of gay men that have been beaten to death in a homophobic attack are discovered it’s stated: “We called the police. They couldn’t even be bothered to do anything, not even to take the bodies away. ‘Let them rot like the faggots they are,’ one of the officers said.” This is a society where expressions of same-sex desire are cornered into the shadows. Her ardently religious mother Adaora tries to teach Ijeoma interpretations of the bible which she believes support how God thinks homosexuals are an “abomination.” This is something Ijeoma can’t help question as well as objecting to how the bible shows only a singular point of view: “Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories?” There is a multiplicity of perspectives and stories which have been winnowed out from history and religious texts. Ijeoma creatively integrates aspects of stories and local fables passed down by her family to establish her own understanding of the world.
In addition to some devastating scenes, what makes this such a heartrending story is the way Ijeoma is forced to question her own nature because of the pressures from those around her. It’s a common feeling for any closeted person to at some point think like her: “I did want to be normal. I did want to lead a normal life. I did want to have a life where I didn’t have to constantly worry about being found out.” This inevitably leads to bitter compromises. But what’s surprising and uplifting about this novel are the opportunities Ijeoma does discover to meet people and have experiences which do allow her to explore her natural feelings. Even though “Sometimes we get confused about what happiness really means” the story offers a hopeful message about how we can better realize our desires in life from rare people that we meet. It also shows how others can surprisingly change with time, love and patience.
I know some details of the Biafran War that took place in the late 1960s from historical programs and films I’ve seen or novels I’ve read which focus on this conflict. Adichie’s tremendous novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” which deservedly won the recent Baileys Prize ‘Best of the Best’ is an obvious point of reference. However, before reading “Under the Udala Trees” I hadn’t come across any story of this war or Nigeria itself that comes from a homosexual perspective and bears witness to the ongoing conflict faced by LGBT citizens in this country. In an author’s note at the end of this book Okparanta records how a 2012 survey found Nigeria to be the second-most-religious country surveyed and a new law passed by the president in 2014 criminalizes same-sex relationships and support of such relationships. Narrow-minded interpretations of religious texts are often at the root and used to justify this discrimination. However, it’s very surprising and encouraging to read how Chinelo Okparanta’s offers a hopeful strategy for reconciliations between religion and LGBT communities. By encouraging a shift to less rigid readings of the bible, religion can better respect the changing social spectrum of individuals in our society. There is a way that religion can move with the times rather than the times trying to fit itself into dogmatic translations of religion. This novel offers a significant message that urges integration over separatism (which would inevitably lead to more conflict).
“Under the Udala Trees” is a novel that voices a forceful, inspiring and necessary perspective and reveals a country’s hidden stories.