The following is a quasi-review of Chinelo Okparanta’s novel, Under the Udala Trees. This is not meant to be a full analysis or synopsis of the book, but rather a glimpse into its character, voice, and my impressions upon reading it.
This is one of those books that unfolds slowly, carefully, so that the contents do not rush at you and spill over bursting with shiny ideas. Instead, the themes and viewpoints sit and brew with a ponderous, patient weight. The story centers around love, but it is filled with characters and a history that delves deeper than a love story.
“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.”
Okparanta does a lovely job of constructing a world that is constantly on the edge of change—the end of a war, the beginning of adulthood, the struggle against tradition. There is one character in particular, Ijeoma’s mother, who intrigues me. She spends much of her time fussing over what she believes to be best for her daughter, and this includes two main efforts: finding a suitable husband for Ijeoma, along with hammering the idea that same-sex relationships are abominations and should be condemned.
“I suppose it’s the way we are, humans that we are. Always finding it easier to make ourselves the victim in someone else’s tragedy.
Though it is true, too, that sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.”
It strikes me as thus: a mother trapped in the bonds of tradition and past, and for her, the future is a terrifying burden to behold. She loses her husband in the war, and she is thrown out of balance, so she eventually directs that instability towards her daughter. It’s not that she is trying to make a carbon copy of herself out of Ijeoma. It’s that she can’t imagine anything else outside of what has been, and she would rather find solace in the familiar rather than embrace what will be. The war has had such a profound effect on her that accepting anything outside of tradition would be nothing short of an unsettling sacrifice.
There is a series of exchanges between Ijeoma and her mother where they discuss the Bible. Naturally, her mother lays out a list of quotes that highlight the Old and New Testaments,¹ and she takes each of those passages as a literal argument against “abominable actions.” Ijeoma, however, interprets these Bible stories as allegories. While her mother sees Judges 19 as a lesson against “man laying with man,” Ijeoma sees it as a story of cowardice and violence. Why focus on the issue of abomination when the story is much more complex than man sleeping with man, when there are horrors such as rape and murder and mutilation?
“Yes, there are the ways of God that have already been made known to us, but maybe there are also those ways in the process of being made known. Maybe we have only to open our ears and hearts and minds to hear.”
It is through a slow unraveling of events that we see the tragic effect of people’s narrow and unforgiving visions. Amina and Ijeoma struggling to express their love in public. Ndidi watching two men being beaten to death at the market. Adanna burning in a midst of logs. Ijeoma falling into a marriage that she did not ask for. Chibundu praying for a son instead of a daughter.
Many of the characters find themselves struggling to build (or rebuild) their lives through a new era, but none more so than the young women and men who challenge the very core of tradition. Perhaps this book represents a gradual awakening that reflects our own modern-day era: embracing and moving forward. It is wise to study the past, but the past does not always define us. Change defines us, and often, it is in the intervening spaces between destinations where we find out what makes us who we are.
As a parting note, Ijeoma’s mother’s words in the epilogue: “‘God, who created you, must have known what He did. Enough is enough.’ […] ‘Ka udo di, ka ndu di.'”
Let peace be. Let life be.
¹ For those who are interested, the list of passages: Leviticus 18:22, 19:19, 20:13; Mark 10:6-9; Romans 1:26-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 7:2; 1 Timothy 1:10-11; Jude 1:7; Revelation 21:8.