“E’li, E’li, la’ma sab ach tha’ni? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the question Ijeoma asks in the novel UNDER THE UDALA TREES by Chinelo Okparanta. The year was 1968. Her father was killed in Nigeria’s violent assimilation of Biafra, her mother—at the end of her wits. Tears will fall from your eyes as Ijeoma prays, “Dear God, I want to be happy. Please help me to be happy.”
THE MOTHER, THE HUSBAND, THE CHILD
Not knowing what to do, Ijeoma’s mother sent her away, to be properly cared for and taught. During this separation, Ijeoma fell in love with another girl. This girl: a Hausa girl, someone Ijeoma’s Igbo people would never associate. This girl: a reader of the Koran. All things: an anathema.
We witness Ijeoma’s struggle in finding love, eventually succumbing to the heart-wrenching persuasion of man-woman marriage. The pages are near-impossible to read as the husband struggles to find his love; the pages even more difficult once Ijeoma’s child Chidinma is born.
LGBTQ IN 1970 NIGERIA
Punishable by death—stoning—still today in the northern states of Nigeria: loving someone of the same sex. “There’s nothing more important now than for us to begin working on cleansing your soul,” says Ijeoma’s mother. “Nwoke na nwunye. Adam na Eve. Man and wife.” Ijeoma feels of her mother: “In this moment, she felt more like another warden than my own mother, more like a husk—more an emblem of motherhood than motherhood itself.”
It’s not just about a love between two girls: it is about love. “Maybe love was some combination of friendship and infatuation. A deeply felt affection accompanied by a certain sort of awe. And by gratitude. And by a desire for a lifetime of togetherness.”
Two men found naked: beaten to death. A woman: burned alive. “If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.”
GOD IS WITH US
Author Chinelo Okparanta expertly mixes in her vast knowledge of the Bible, verses all included, as she tells the story of struggle and of love. The mother, Ijeoma, the people all around, each coming to a realization of who God is, where He abides, and the trueness of their hearts.
BACK TO NIGERIA
This is the third book I’ve read that is based in Nigeria. The latest being the multi-award-nominated THE FISHERMEN. I am honored and humbled to be back in Nigeria. Okparanta’s pictures are clear and beautiful. She has a way of relaying the old folk tales that make you a witness to the grandness and simplicity of Nigeria’s finest and scariest elements. It’s mesmerizing.
“The saying goes that wood already touched by fire isn’t hard to set alight.” Aside from the tales are the sayings, each with special, driven-deep meaning. One after another, they sink into your soul.
A GIFTED AUTHOR
Okparanta is another gifted author to arise out of the Iowa’s Writing Workshop. Her craftsmanship is evident in her spare and lyrical prose. The short chapters tempt you to flip from one page to the next. The story and the elements all play together, scratching your mind and tearing your heart.
“Sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.” UNDER THE UDALA TREES will cause me to ponder this question a long, long time.