“It was turning out that all that studying was not actually doing any good; if anything, it was making it a case between what I felt in my heart and what Mama and the grammar school teacher felt. The Bible was beginning to feel negligible, as it was seeming to me more and more impossible to know exactly what God could really have meant.”
Ijeoma’s father dies during the Nigerian Civil War of 1968, one of the many casualties of Biafra’s struggle for independence from the politically and militarily dominant northern part of the country. Following his death, her mother sends her to live with a grammar school teacher and his wife, where she is to serve as their house girl while her mother seeks out a new home for them. There, she meets Amina and discovers love, as yet unburdened by words like “sin” and “abomination,” despite the heavy and pervasive Christian faith of southern Nigeria. That is, until the grammar school teacher discovers their romance, and forever changes the path of Ijeoma’s life as she struggles to understand what Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1:26-32 could possibly have to do with her love for Amina, or life in Nigeria. It seems that she must either deny herself, or reject many tenets of the faith in which she was raised.
Under the Udala Trees is a much more religious book than the publisher’s cover copy would lead you to believe, a fact I have tried to reflect better in my own summary of the story. Chinelo Okparanta gives two whole pages over the clobber passages, the verses from the Bible that are most commonly used to condemn homosexuality, and vilify LGBT people. Ijeoma has to spend much of her energy grappling with the faith she was raised in, and which informs her mother’s behaviour towards her after the forbidden relationship is discovered. In this respect, Under the Udala Trees is mostly a very personal narrative about what being a lesbian means for Ijeoma within the context of her family, particularly with her mother, and later with the man who wants to become her husband. She grapples with familial and religious expectations, but in a way that is largely divorced from the rest of the community, partly because her secrets isolate her from it. Their social conventions define her behaviour, yet aside from a brief but brutal portion of the story about the violence faced by the wider gay and lesbian community, Ijeoma’s struggle is either internal, or with her family. This conflict consumes her to the extent that we discover little else about her character or personality.
Although Ijeoma’s character is narrowly defined, Okparanta writes beautiful descriptive and emotional passages that make her seem fully realized and deeply sympathetic. However, Okparanta’s tale has been structured in such a way as to frequently disrupt and fragment the emotional effects of her well-crafted prose. She begins her story early in Ijeoma’s childhood, then abruptly jumps over the key event to explore its fall out, before returning to Amina and Ijeoma’s ill-fated relationship and enforced estrangement. Then it is back to the aftermath, where she settles in briefly, and the story flows more smoothly for a while. But soon enough the structure fragments again, moving along in fits and starts. The conclusion is a patchwork of myths and dreams, strung together with fragmentary bits of narrative. Okparanta’s writing is beautiful, and her tale is both timely and significant, but the structural short-comings frustrate its overall effect.
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