Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta


source: free copy via AmazonVine
title: Under the Udala Trees
author: Chinelo Okparanta
published: September 22, 2015
pages: 328
rated: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Inspired by Nigeria’s folktales and its war, Under the Udala Trees is a deeply searching, powerful debut about the dangers of living and loving openly.

Ijeoma comes of age as her nation does; born before independence, she is eleven when civil war breaks out in the young republic of Nigeria. Sent away to safety, she meets another displaced child and they, star-crossed, fall in love. They are from different ethnic communities. They are also both girls.

When their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself. But there is a cost to living inside a lie.

As Edwidge Danticat has made personal the legacy of Haiti’s political coming of age, Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees uses one woman’s lifetime to examine the ways in which Nigerians continue to struggle toward selfhood. Even as their nation contends with and recovers from the effects of war and division, Nigerian lives are also wrecked and lost from taboo and prejudice. This story offers a glimmer of hope — a future where a woman might just be able to shape her life around truth and love.

my thoughts:
Narrated by Ijeoma, Under the Udala Trees starts off when she is just eleven years old and living in the war ridden republic of Nigeria in the late 1960’s.
When Ijeoma’s father is killed in an air bombing, her mother is left grief ridden and depressed, barely able to care for herself let alone her daughter. She sends Ijeoma off to live with a couple in another village. Ijeoma lives there almost two years before her mother comes back to get her. What she finds in this village is a friendship and eventually romantic feelings for a girl named Amina.

Ijeoma is living in a time and place where she is not accepted for who she truly is. It is a dangerous time to be discovered as being gay. Even into her adulthood her mother still continues to try and make sure Ijeoma finds a man to marry and have children with, according to her, as God intended.

There’s a way in which distance represses one’s sense of obligation, or rather, a way in which closeness intensifies one’s sense of duty. Now that I was living with Mama, I felt-in a way I never felt while I was away at Obodoanuli Academy-a strong obligation to meet her expectations of me.

Author Chinelo Okparanta pens an interesting novel and I enjoyed the way Nigeria comes to life within these pages. I was curious as to where Ijeoma’s story would go as the book spans her young years into adulthood. Her mom was against her love affair with any woman, calling it an abomination. She would read bible passages to her daughter in hopes of Ijeoma’s repenting for her sins.

I found this the saddest part of the story, that Ijeoma’s mother did not support or accept her for who she really was. All her life she knew she was gay and but her mom fought against it. The mom’s denial was a very strong aspect of her personality. Religion is a central part of the story as Ijeoma quotes the same bible passages her mother does, and knows they apply to her as well.

But we were in love, or at least I believed myself completely to be. I craved Amina’s presence for no other reason than to have it. It was certainly friendship too, this intimate companionship with someone who knew me in a way that no one else did; it was a heightened state of friendship.
p.150, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

This was the story of a young woman who struggles with the pressure to conform to her mother’s and to societies expectations but all the while  knows her true self. While I didn’t fall in love with any of these characters,  I breezed right through  Under the Udala Trees and found it to be an interesting read.

about the author:
Chinelo Okparanta was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. A University of Iowa Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in Fiction as well as a Colgate University Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction, Okparanta received her BS from Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was one of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012 and is a Lambda Award winner for Lesbian Fiction, an O. Henry Short Story Prize winner, a finalist for the Rolex Mentors and Proteges Arts Initiative, a finalist for the Etisalat Prize for Literature, and a finalist for the Caine Prize, among others. Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere.

Disclaimer: This review is my honest opinion. I did not receive any kind of compensation for reading and reviewing this book. I am under no obligation to write a positive review. I obtained my free review copy of Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta via AmazonVine.

10 thoughts on “Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

  1. Most of my encounters with African authors have been through short stories, but I’ve also started getting into novels (like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie). I’d like to read this one too, and I appreciate your thoughtful review. I’m interested in themes of parental acceptance or rejection – they’re so powerful and can be explored in many different contexts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi HKatz, this one was interesting and not a genre I tend to pick up so it was a nice change. Like you mention, the theme of parental acceptance or rejection can be such a powerful one and something most can relate to.


  2. This sounds very good. It sounds as if it grapples very serious issues in an intelligent and meaningful way.

    Another reason that I would like to read this is that I want to read more fiction from African authors.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Naida,

    I haven’t read an awful lot of work by African authors, although I have read a few mixed genre novels by South African writers.

    I did read a book about a young man being gay in Zimbabwe ‘The Hairdresser Of Harare’ by Tendai Huchu. You were kind enough to comment on my review of the book, but I can’t believe that was back in 2012!

    It kind of tracks the comments you make about your featured book, which I am thinking of adding to my list.


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I hope that all is well with you 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

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