Ijeoma is a plant that was forced to grow a certain way. Growing up in conservative Nigeria after the Biafran War, there is only one correct way for a female to live her life: she must grow up, get married, and have children. Anything else is wrong. Anything else is an abomination, as Ijeoma is told over and over again by her mother. Chinelo Okparant’s Under the Udala Trees is a novel that wears its message firmly on its sleeve. It asks readers to consider what’s it like to spend years living by everyone else’s dictates about how to live, who to love, when one has already found love…with someone of the same sex.
During the Nigerian Civil War’s (Biafran War) last years, it was impossible to get food through the blockade around Biafra. For many, staying in Biafran territory meant a slow death from starvation or a fast death from aerial bombardment. Ijeoma’s father was killed by bombs. Ijeoma and her mother survived the bombing, but almost didn’t live through the hunger. For fear that another location might be worse than what they already faced, Ijeoma’s mother left her in the care of a trusted friend and his wife while she found them a safe place to live. In the grammar teacher and his wife’s care, Ijeoma learns to be a quiet, polite servant. Things might have continued if Ijeoma hadn’t found Amina on the way back from an errand one day. Worse (in everyone else’s eyes, anyway), Ijeoma and Amina fall in love.
Under the Udala Trees is full of rapid cuts and unchronological organization. We don’t learn much of Ijeoma and Amina’s relationship until after seeing Ijeoma’s mother using the bible to try and get Ijeoma to see that homosexuality is a sin. Even this isn’t clear at first. Ijeoma’s mother picks verses from Leviticus and other books from the Old Testament, reads them, and asks her daughter—over and over again—what they are trying to say. Because we don’t know what Ijeoma did and because Ijeoma has never been told that homosexuality is wrong, it takes some time for the lesson to sink through. In spite of months of this treatment, Ijeoma resists. She cannot see her love as wrong.
After this, Ijeoma’s life seems to be one long heartbreak. It’s not enough for her to live her love life clandestinely. She can only make her mother happy by marrying a man and having a child. Through Ijeoma’s relationship with Ndidi, another lesbian in hiding, we are shown just how dangerous it is for gays and lesbians in Nigeria. They risk being beaten, if caught—sometimes beaten to death. They might face a worse death, depending on the mood of the people who catch them. One can sympathize with Ijeoma’s choice to try to live the way her family wants her to live.
Throughout Ijeoma’s unhappy life, I kept hoping that she would find a way to live without everyone’s expectations and pressures pushing her to conform. Not only that, but I kept hoping that Ijeoma and Ndidi would emigrate to a country were they could live and love openly. No one should have to risk a painful death just for loving someone. It may bother some readers that Okparanta’s message keeps poking through the narrative to make a point. I didn’t mind so much. In the first place, Under the Udala Trees is an engrossing and beautiful read. In the second, Okparanta’s message is one that needs to be heard.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley and Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 22 September 2015.
Notes on bibliotherapeutic use: Give to readers who are struggling to meet other people’s expectations for how they ought to live. Also give to readers who think that the struggle for gay rights is over.