Coming of age — and out — story is relatable to all
By Katrina Young | Out on the Page
“Under the Udala Trees” is Chinelo Okparanta’s second book and her first full-length novel. Not unlike her first novel, “Happiness Like Water,” this is a book full of hope and the universal pursuit of happiness.
Although this story is of a Nigerian lesbian coming of age during civil war, I was surprised by how relatable the story was. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, problems within your family, struggled with your sexuality, or had to hide your sexuality for your own safety, then this book is for you.
The protagonist is Ijeoma and when the book begins she is a young girl, age 11, living amidst war. Not war like turning on the TV or radio and hearing about the latest casualties, but war like walking down the street and seeing the casualties lying in the road like trash. The war was as close as her front yard and eventually directly in her home.
One moment Ijeoma is in the parlor and her mother is in the kitchen and the next moment they have to take shelter in a bunker on their property while enemy fire hits their home. A short time later, Ijeoma’s mother sends her away to a place where she will be safer.
This is only the beginning of the trauma Ijeoma will go through.
While her country is fighting battles outside her front door, Ijeoma fights battle after battle within herself. She suffers through conversion attempts when her mother discovers that her affinity towards other girls is in a manner that is not acceptable culturally or religiously.
A few years later, she is heartbroken by her first love turned unrequited love. Ijeoma resolves to move on and in time finds love again. She is living in lovers’ oblivion until the gruesome murder of a local lesbian woman shatters her bubble.
With fear in her heart and no other solution seemingly plausible she enters into a marriage with a man that she does not love; at least not like a wife should love her husband. She finds solace when her daughter is born but that is short lived and she ultimately decides enough is enough.
Ijeoma is a tremendously brave soul wanting to simply live an authentic life.
Hope. Compassion. Love. Endurance. Survival. Courage. This outstanding novel has them all. Chinelo Okparanta wrote an undeniably beautiful story that forces the reader to feel every emotion along the way. She keeps you engaged until the very last word.
Okparanta is a graceful and honest writer and I applaud her for this honesty. She is just as brave as the character Ijeoma, for she wrote a critical story for the LGBT people of Nigeria, where people in same-sex relationships and their allies are criminalized and even murdered.
As long as one LGBT person in the world is in danger because of his or her sexuality, then every LGBT person is in danger. If for no other reason than that, you should read “Under the Udala Trees.”
—Katrina Young is the treasurer of the Multicultural LGBT Literary Foundation and a lover of LGBT literature. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @sapphicreader.