I was happily reading along, not paying too much attention to what and who I was reading when I realized that I had inadvertently put together a streak of white male authors.
I’m not here to rag on white male authors. I’m just saying that if you don’t pay attention, it’s easy to forget to ensure that you are reading stories from different kinds of voices. And reading widely, reading stories that don’t look like yours, is important.
Once I realized that I had slipped, I actively picked out a new voice. I chose Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees.
Ijeoma is a young girl when the Biafran War takes her father from her. Her mother leaves her in the care of family friends shortly thereafter, to try and start a new life for them. While Ijeoma is with these family friends, she meets Amina. Amina is Hausi, Ijeoma is Igbo. They fall in love and start to explore their love physically. When they are caught, Ijeoma is sent back to her mother.
Ijeoma is subject to months of biblical teaching, her mother’s way of showing her that what she did was unnatural, that what she did was an abomination. Ijeoma is never totally convinced of this but she goes along with it.
Eventually, Ijeoma marries a man and tries to be “normal.” But every day that she cannot be herself is a struggle and ultimately, Ijeoma has to choose: will she live and love for herself or by the expectations of her world?
Through Ijeoma, we see what life is like for the voiceless LGBTQ people of Nigeria over the years. Ijeoma knows that she loves women, but it’s dangerous for her to be seen in relationships with women – men and women have been beaten to death for these “unnatural” relationships. Ijeoma’s mother wants her daughter to be happy and healthy but for her that means that she is married to a man and has children with him. Ijeoma’s mother, a deeply religious woman, can’t reconcile the way her daughter is with the faith that she holds so dear.
Okparanta’s story is incredibly brave. Her prose is deft and spare and so, so readable. This isn’t a book that is a tough slog – I was surprised at how quickly I was turning the pages. The whole time I felt like I was holding my breath, not because it was a stressful book but because I felt suffocated by how much Ijeoma had to hold back.
Under the Udala Trees is an important work. Even today, strict rules govern the lives and loves of people in Nigeria. LGBTQ people still have to hide who they really are – their country does not recognize any rights of theirs, and there is no legal protection against discrimination. Death by stoning is still a punishment for same-sex “activity.”
Read this book.