“Many days I reason to myself that change is the point of it all…. Maybe God is still speaking and will continue to do so for always. Maybe He is still creating new covenants, only we were too deaf, too headstrong, too set in old ways to hear…. Maybe we have only to open our ears and hearts and minds to hear.”
-Epilogue, Under the Udala Trees
Released earlier this week, Under the Udala Trees tells the story of Ijeoma, a young woman growing up in Nigeria, at first during the Biafran War, and then in the aftermath, as she falls in love for the first time, and then again. Her mother tells her this love is an abomination because it is for another young woman, and Ijeoma struggles to balance her mother’s teachings with her own feelings. In Nigeria, Ijeoma could be stoned to death for loving another woman, a warning that echoes in her mind over the years as she deals with the pressure from a society (and a widowed mother) that tells her she must marry a man in order to be complete.
Okparanta’s debut novel is beautifully written, carrying the voice of Ijeoma seamlessly from adolescence to adulthood. Scattered throughout the narrative are proverbs and folktales, and even many Biblical verses, all of which Ijeoma absorbs and finds herself guided by in different ways. These help bring to life and contextualize the world in which Ijeoma is coming of age, and add a depth to the story that goes beyond just the characters. Ijeoma’s father, killed during the war in the early pages of the book, remains a ghostly presence as well, as Ijeoma’s memories of him come back to her and ultimately help her make the decision between love and expectations.
There is a note at the end of the book, mentioning the 2014 Nigerian law that criminalized same-sex relationships, and the fact that in parts of the country it is punishable by stoning. Okparanta is clear that part of what she is trying to do with this novel – give a voice to Nigeria’s voiceless LGBTQ citizens. I think she succeeds. Under the Udala Trees is a powerful story, and I would highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, because stories like this need to be shared.