Under the Udala Trees is a coming of age story like no other, one that shocks us, scares us, tugs at our heart strings and lifts the veil on a lot of the issues we pretend to forget. In this brilliant novel, Chinelo Okparanta manages to take on the horror of the Nigerian civil war and like Adichie in Half of a yellow sun she focuses on people whose lives were changed by the war rather than on the war itself. It’s a story of a shy young girl coming into her own, a story of humans becoming unfeeling to death and destruction and how grief can turn people into unrecognizable versions of themselves.
Chinelo is bold and not afraid to poke at the things we would pretend don’t exist and want to shy away from. Chinelo the veil on homosexuality with her story telling and opened a new perspective to religion while still describing sexual intimacy with such graphic detail that it will make you blush, expertly straddling the line between spirituality and sexuality. Never have I seen a book that challenged religious dogma like Under the Udala Trees particularly the practice of sitting and concurring with everything as long as our religion demands them. She writes…
“I had now begun to accompany mama to church on Sundays. Why was it that these questions never came up at church? Why was it that people never asked any questions at church? Instead everyone nodded and cried amen after everything Father Godfrey said and clapped, no one asking him to explain anything. I wished that Papa were here so that I could have asked him what he thought. I wondered what Father Godfrey would say if I confronted him with these questions. Would he even know the answers? How much did pastors pretend to know?….
Never have I seen a book written by a Nigerian that tackled the subject of same sex relationships like Under the Udala Trees, at least not since Jude Dibia did so in his brilliant novel Walking with shadows. Ms Okparanta chronicled the struggles of the LGBT in Nigeria with such emotional accuracy that it tugged at our heartstrings. She explored how people often think of homosexuality as a sexual aberration that could be “cured” with prayers through deliverance and shines the light on how religious people make it almost impossible for gay people to want to love God. She expertly mirrors the struggles of LGBT Nigerians even to the point of how they have come to expect (or normalized) beatings and mob action, as if that is part of the deal with being different. I had to fight back tears at some point, when a lesbian woman was burned alive for simple being gay. This might be fiction but things like this happen every day in Nigeria.
Typically when I argue LGBT rights with people I ask them to give me non religious arguments against homosexuality (since religious morality is not universal) sometimes people say since gay unions cannot be fruitful they are invalid and by extension an abomination. However in this book that question was answered;
“I knew enough to know that the grammar school teacher and his wife could not have children. I knew enough to know that there were other men and women, husbands and wives like them, who could also not have children. “But even with a man and a woman, procreation is not always possible. Is that an abomination too? I asked. “What if there’s nothing they can do about it”
I also find it fascinating that this story was about gay women because typically we forget that G is not the only letter in LGBT and the conversations about equality is often centered around gay men only and their struggles. I also used to think that gay women somewhat had a free pass in Nigeria; because I thought that Nigerians typically hate them less that they hate gay men, however this book has offered fresh insight into how gay women also have a hard time as gay men.
In all Under the Udala Trees is a gut wrenching story that shows us how very quickly we can lose our humanity in the face of difference and how intolerant our society can be. Chinelo Okparanta’s voice is strong and passionate, like that of a wise teacher, one who doesn’t tell you what should be but one who shows you the facts and allows you draw your own conclusions. She straddles the fence with grace, not offending Christians with her rhetoric but making them to think critically and helping some maybe find their humanity. When I finished this book I had to take a few hours to think about my life and how easily we can all wallow in ignorance and entitlement without knowing and understanding the struggles of others.
This is a brilliant coming of age story that captures most of the nuances in our society today, leaving you very depressed yet wanting more of it and I give it a 4.5/5 rating.