Granta, Allen & Unwin
24 February 2016
As a woman who likes women*, I can’t tell you how often I’ve set myself up for disappointment in novels. So many times I’ve read protagonists meeting other girls who they immediately like because of their spunk, their beauty, their grace or whatever else. I think, “Ooh, maybe they fall in love!” And they never, never do. Imagine my delight when, in Under the Udala Trees, which has not been marketed at all as a lesbian novel in Australia, our protagonist Ijeoma meets and falls in love with another girl, Amina. My worries about the book, mainly inflicted by the cover marketing, were instantly erased.
It’s hard to describe exactly what my worries were about Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel. The blurb describes it as set against a “backdrop of war”. While the Nigeria-Biafra war does cast a long shadow, most of the novel’s events happen after it is over. I suppose this was an attempt to show that this is a book about Serious things for Serious People. Not a story about a woman’s struggle against societal and internalised hatred to live true to herself. What Australian reader wants to read about a mostly peaceful, mostly metropolitan, mostly middle class life in Nigeria, after all? We want violence and hardship to make African stories worthwhile. It makes us feel superior or something. It gives us an excuse to think that since life is not so bad as it Over There, then we needn’t change anything Here. But that is a rant for another time. I think what I’m trying to say is, I feared this would be a novel about Darkest Africa for white consumption, because that seemed where the marketing was headed. It is not.
Anyway, how the book is marketed in Australia is not Okparanta’s fault. Okparanta has created a beautiful, powerful story. I’ve been dealing with some tragic things at work of late, and this novel sparked tears. I do not cry easily at books. Ijeoma is a remarkable character. Her story is not a standard progression from fear to courage, but more representative of actual human feelings; sometimes she is brave and sometimes she isn’t. She makes poor decisions, but perhaps they are the only decisions open to her. She maintains a deep Christian faith even though religion is such an oppressive force in her life. She is not bitter against those who commit homophobic violence, but rather hopeful for change.
As the novel notes, in 2014 homosexual relationships were criminalised in Nigeria. Okparanta, who is Nigerian-American, has stated in interviews that people questioned why she should write about lesbians when the US has same sex marriage. While Okparanta is clearly writing for a white audience, there has to be a hope that perhaps Nigerian readers will read Under the Udala Trees as well. It’s a small possibility, but just maybe this novel can help change Ijeoma’s world.
Under the Udala trees is a short novel, but just as long as it needs to be. It is moving, though not especially challenging. Much could probably be said about colonial influences on violent homophobia in Nigeria–there’s room in the circumstances for a lot of anger–but that’s not what Okparanta wanted to write about. There are some small instances of overwriting towards the start which might be the result of exhaustive drafts. Otherwise the language is elegant, understated and evocative. This is one of those novels I will be recommending to people until they’re sick of hearing about it. Just a heads up.
Note: I will be on hiatus until April 2016. Don’t miss me too much now.