Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 22nd 2015
In Under the Udala Trees Ijeoma is only twelve years old when the civil war in Nigeria begins and her mother must leave her behind while she tries to establish a life for them in the north, a safer part of the country. It is 1968 and they live in Biafra, a southern state that has seceded from the nation. The war has already claimed her father and now her mother asks a teacher and his wife to take her in as a housegirl until she returns. For Ijeoma this decision is one she cannot understand.
No matter how much she tried to convince me of this, I knew the truth all the same: that she was doing it for her own good. At least that it was more for her own good than it was for mine. That she was doing it because she was overwhelmed: by life, by the war, by the thought of having to try and make it without Papa. And she was overwhelmed even by me. Didn’t matter that I myself was overwhelmed.
After several months in her new life, Ijemoa meets a homeless refugee girl her age from another ethnic group—a faction they are fighting against. The couple agrees to take her in despite the girl’s background. Days spent together turn into a deep friendship and as over a year goes by, becomes something more—a first love for both girls. After almost two years this love is discovered and Ijeoma’s angry mother returns and takes her away to their new home.
For readers in modern day America it is difficult to imagine the danger of a same sex relationship in 1970s Nigeria, a country that was (and still is) deeply religious. Ijeoma’s mother views her actions as an abomination and believes with fervent prayer and Bible study Satan can be driven out of her daughter. As Ijeoma gets older and secretly falls in love with another woman, it is not only her mother’s judgment she fears but also Nigerian society as the consequences of being with another woman are dire. When a friend is burned alive and a man from her childhood reappears in her life, Ijeoma’s emotional and mental confusion and fear are so great that she agrees to marry him in hopes of saving herself.
A debut author, Chinelo Okparanta writes Under the Udala Trees with grace and power. She imbues Ijeoma with a vibrancy that wanes as she gets older and the pressure of her mother and her religion builds. After she is married the color seeps from Okparanta’s narrative voice to be replaced with a quiet dispassion. Ijeoma is only 22 years old but feels like a broken woman as she struggles to change this most intimate part of herself. This leaden feel could overwhelm the novel but even as Okparanta juggles the weighty issues of human sexuality, religion, war and famine she shares Nigeria’s rich tradition of folklore and song as harbingers of hope for Ijeoma and her future.