Under the Udala Trees shares its main theme with the author’s short story “America,” shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 and also published in the author’s short story collection Happiness, Like Water.
Set against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil war, the novel tells the story of a young girl; Ijeoma, whose life is marred by war, death, and forbidden sexuality. When Ijeoma’s father, Uzo, is killed during a raid as a result of his decision to not escape with his family to their bunker, her family falls apart and Ijeoma is forced to move in with the Ejiofors in Nnewi where she would later meet Amina who had lost her entire family to war.
Ijeoma and Amina’s love affair is revealed and the narrative navigates towards the defensive for the protagonist, Ijeoma, whose quest for freedom is brilliantly shown by the author. Through Ijeoma’s mother’s teachings, the author inserts herself into the story. There, she argues the ontology of God and poses philosophical questions aimed at ascertaining the authenticity of indictments against gay people. For Ijeoma, love is redefined: “…Maybe love was some combination of friendship and infatuation. A deeply felt affection accompanied by a certain sort of awe”(p. 150). Amidst the exploration of dormitory life in a Christian school, the novel beams a searchlight on religion, especially contemporary Pentecostalism where people pay for miracles and experience all sorts of trickery as a result of their gullibility. The relationship between Ijeoma and Amina eventually falls apart and Amina proceeds to marry a young Hausa man. Afterwards, Ijeoma meets Ndidi, a school teacher who later becomes her lover. Ndidi takes her to a lesbian club where one of the lesbians is killed in a violent homophobic attack.
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The novel tactically explores indifference, opposition, and violence against gay people, using biblical narratives and tradition as testimony. While Ijeoma and Ndidi’s relationship falls apart as Ijeoma is lured into marrying Chibundu, her childhood friend, against her wish, implications for unnatural existentialities set in. From Ijeoma’s desperate pursuit of freedom from supposed sinfulness to Chibundu’s quest for a male child and indifference to his female child, the novel makes a vital case that resonates in some African, nay, Nigerian cultural institutions.
Okparanta’s strength lies in her vivid description of characters and scenes, so much so that a reader can recognize them on the street. In addition, the author’s use of folklores and folksongs gives the work a sense of identity augmented by the use of the story-within-a-story form. The udala tree is a symbol of encounter which gives rise to clear-cut distinctiveness as Ijeoma’s meeting with Amina and the questioning of Amina’s sincerity all take place under the same tree. In the end, Ijeoma abandons her marriage and returns to her mother in Aba where she is welcomed with love and empathy. In essence, there are some things that cannot be forced and the author critically makes a case for that. While the novel is partly set against the backdrop of war and its effects, the narrative is more about Ijeoma’s forbidden affection and the consequences than it is about the Nigerian Civil war.
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On the whole, Chinelo Okparanta’s offering is at best a brilliant narrative that follows Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows and the other few literary works that question the vulnerability, and, as is the case in some nations, the criminalization and brutalization of gay people.