Review // Under the Udala Trees // Sexuality, Religion and Ethnicity in Wartime Nigeria

udalatreesbanner copyThe Author’s Note at the end of this book points out three things. Firstly, that same-sex relationships were made illegal in Nigeria in 2014, punishable by prison throughout the country and by death in the north; secondly, that Nigeria was surveyed the second religious country in the world.

Thirdly, that the novel sets out to provide both a voice and a place in history to LGBT Nigerians. It does it, through the perspective of a Nigerian lesbian, Ijeoma Okoli. It shows her life, the life of other lesbians, of others in the LGBT community in Nigeria. It shows how homophobia in Nigeria chokes people; LGBT people, the people in their lives with, as the protagonist says late in the book, ‘the weight of tradition and superstition and all of our legends‘.

 This, the cultural, national and religious context of Under the Udala Trees is the first thing that sets this novel apart from countless others that the interaction between young LGBT people, religion and culture. Ijeoma is a lesbian, an Igbo in Nigeria, a Christian. As a Western reader, I deeply appreciate these different types of narratives – being able to connect with a life so unfamiliar to my own, and at the same time become acutely aware of the differences in experiences between myself and other girls, other queer women, other humans.

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This novel is a historical fiction, covering the events of Nigeria in the 1960s to life in the 1980s.

Of all of Africa, I’ve had the most interaction with English language Nigerian literature – the giant of modern African literature, Chinua Achebe, as well as Chimamanda Adichie, Nnedi Okorafor and Helen Oyeyemi. Themes of post-colonialism, ethnicity, religion and relationships were all prominent in these authors’ works, but this is the first piece of Nigerian – hell, African – literature I’ve read that also included LGBT themes.

The entire book is heavy in subject matter

The events covered by this book are harsh. Honestly, it took me so long to read despite it’s short length because throughout all of July my post-op wisdom teeth surgery pain evolved into a chest infection and accompanying flu. When sent home sick from work, I didn’t want to read this book at all. Starting immediately in the middle of the Biafran War – a civil war in the 1960s between the secessionist state of Biafra and Nigeria.

Her childhood, the first half of the book, is tied to the experiences of Biafrans. She comes of age during this war, discovering her sexuality in the midst of constant destruction and slow starvation. Her adulthood, in the shadow of the war, is tied to the experiences of LGBT Nigerians; of compulsory heterosexuality, the insidious, casual homophobia that permeates all of her society, violent hate crimes, and the underground LGBT community that survives, surives, survives.

The writing gave strength to both the story and the themes of the novel.

There’s something soft in the tone of Okparanta’s prose, despite the weight of the story. It’s not overwhelmingly tragic, nor brutal in its writing. Ijeoma is quiet, but speaks to a purpose – the framing of the story is, in fact, Ijeoma’s own reflections from the present day. Her narration can be curt, weighed down with misery that comes from the retrospection, absolutely devastating in its sharpness. But her personality in the story, in her interactions with other characters, is playful, thoughtful and kind; emotional, which compounds both her inner torment and her love for others. It makes her development, the way her personality changes as she grows up and is affected by the way her country, her culture and her religion views people like her – beaten, worn down, choked by the weight.

I also appreciated the use of code switching within the text, from English to Igbo to pidgin. It gave me such a rich reading experience. The traditional Nigerian songs, stories and fables that Ijeoma passed onto the reader, learned from her father and her friends and her culture, was used to a fantastic effect within her own story and growth. There was also a fascinating transition from Ijeoma’s reflection on Christian stories to these Nigerian stories as the novel progressed, as she grew from youth to adult.

Themes of questioning Christianity, especially it’s stance on same-sex relations, certainly isn’t new to me, but was fascinating in this novel.

This novel provided nothing that I, a bisexual, formerly Christian girl haven’t thought or read before. My first date was to a Christian bookstore, and now I’m only tenuously agnostic – you fill in the gaps, lol. I doubt to many other Western readers it would be either. Yet, the cultural, ethnic and historical context of this novel rendered this exploration utterly unique to my own experience.

Ijeoma’s relationship with her lesbianism is tied to many things; other women and her culture’s religion. When focused relationships with other women, be they going well or poorly, there is more peace within Ijeoma. She can deal with the course of relationships as many others do. The torment and guilt over her orientation becomes pronounced when she relates this side of her to her religion. And Christianity is tied to many things in her life – her mother, who has been deeply traumatised by the war, most prominently, others in her community, and also her culture and her ethnicity.

I was left wanting with the characters, however.

I enjoyed Ijeoma, and thought her mother was wonderfully complex, especially by the end of the novel, but I felt most of the secondary characters were lacking in dimension. I failed to care for Amina, Ndidi or Chibundu as much as I liked. The bond between Amina and Ijeoma was touching, a solace for each other amidst the war, but I never quite saw what Ijeoma saw in her afterwards. She just wasn’t drawn well enough. I did see the attraction between Ijeoma and Ndidi but she didn’t feel as fleshed out either.

Also, spoilery spoilery thoughts: I wish a bit more time had been spent on why Ijeoma had married Chibundu. I do understand why – the rise in hate crimes, societal and familial pressure, what Ndidi said – but it happened so quickly. But her relationship with Ndidi was going really well, her life was functioning quite well – I understand her motivation to give it all up for marriage as presented, but I’m not sure I buy it. In the novel Ijeoma basically goes ‘okay, well, might as well!’, just about. It’s such a contemplative, introspective story throughout the rest of the novel, it felt like a bit of a glaring gap. I also am of two minds about Chibundu’s character overall – I thought I was going to see some more complexity to him, from the first chapters of their married life, but he turned into a genuinely unpleasant person. I had hoped he would continue to show this complexity with his relationship with Ijeoma, but… I’ve seen men I’ve respected and trusted turn into cruel and spiteful individuals, just because female partners turned out to be lesbians. It’s unnervingly realistic.

I am so so happy she and Ndidi got back together in the end, though. They were gorgeous. I could read another novella about their life together, with Chidinma. Gay parents, my weakness

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Overall, 4/5. A heavy, devastating story, but an important one, one that bring an important voice to LGBT narratives.