Author: Chinelo Okparanta
I first came across this book when looking for another one in the library, and behold: they were right next to each other! (The book I had been looking for was Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death which was brilliant, by the way). And as you may or may not know, purple is my favorite color, and the hard cover (not the jacket, which was not present at the time) of Under the Udala Trees was purple, so naturally, I had to pick it up. I Googled it then and there and decided that it must make my reading list immediately.
In summary, it was underwhelming, and just…okay. For one thing, it was very easy to get through. Not because it was particularly engaging but more because it was simple and predictable, both in terms of language and storyline. I know that what I am about to say will sound like an insult, though I do not think I mean it that way: the book sounded like it was being written by a very proficient twelve-year-old. The language was easily understood but not sophisticated. At first, I let it be, because at the beginning of the story, its main character, Ijeoma, is 8 years old – even though the recounting of her life as more like a flashback from the point of view of an uncertain age in adulthood. But I allowed it. The issue was that as I journeyed with Ijeoma into adulthood, there was absolutely no change or maturation in her tone, and that left me uncomfortable. I admit, however, that this may not be a problem with the book but rather a problem of preference. E no be by force to use (my perception of) sophisticated tone. Some people write like Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Others write like Chinelo Okparanta. Maybe Akotowaa just likes books that sound like Zafon.
At the back of the book was a note about the then-president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan’s law that made engagement and aid in homosexual activities a punishable crime. That, and the fact that I do not know of any other LGBT+ African fiction book shows me the importance of a book like this breaking into the sphere and simply existing. (But also, I’m ignorant, so feel free to comment titles of African LGBT+ books for me!) Yet I still can’t help but feel that it didn’t make the impact I think a book like it should have made. And I’m not just talking about the literary media exploding over it or whatever. I’m talking about the story itself. It felt shallow and lacking.
Every single character felt flat and annoying at many points (if not for the whole book), including the main one. There was nothing about anyone that drew me in, made me love, want to be like, or even hate them. I was barely reacting to any characters at all, and when I did, with mild boredom. They were all predictable and not particularly interesting. The romance itself felt flat, which I suppose was my biggest issue. I couldn’t understand why Ijeoma fell in love with Amina or Ndidi. The former seemed very naive and unattractive to me – lacking in personality. The latter was only slightly better for being quietly daring, yet still not intriguing enough for me to fall in love with. And it wasn’t because of their genders that I couldn’t get into them; in any case, if I am reading a first-person narrative from a lesbian, I should be in a very good position to sympathize with her and love who and what she loves, shouldn’t I? Maybe I need a bisexual or homosexual girl to tell me if she could see the appeal in Amina or Ndidi because I just can’t do it myself. But well, the book’s existence alone is important for the culture, I guess.
As predictable and shallow as I think the characters were, I will still admit that the experiences of Ijeoma are almost realistically like what I would expect a young lesbian girl to have gone through, in terms of the attitudes of other people…for the most part. Again, where I think there is lack is in its mildness. I genuinely think there are deep, deep horror stories that a novel like this could have reflected. When the undercover-hideout-not-church burned, it should have been so painful that I cried. Ijeoma’s mother was surprisingly lenient, though disturbingly hard-headed. She didn’t resort to corporal correction or even to placing her daughter in the hands of someone else (priest? Witch doctor?) that she thought would correct her. But also, maybe I have a stereotyped imagination of a typical African parent’s reaction to a homosexual child. And I’m not trying to tell anyone how they should write their story, too. I think if I had wanted to write a book like this, I might have gone to interview a homosexual person just to have something to model my book authentically after. I don’t know how Chinelo came up with her own storyline, though. I’ll go and look for sources.
One particularly bothersome thing was problematic theology. There was absolutely no character that looked at theology from a perspective that wasn’t particularly suited for their own purposes. Every single character had problematic interpretations. Ijeoma’s mother had her sickening interpretations of sexuality related scripture that sent her as far as approval of rape; Ijeoma seemed to be trying to interpret scripture in a way that undermined the sovereignty of God; Chibundu was just lazy about all of it. But well, I’m not one of those people who believes the highest purpose of novel-writing is explicit moral education of the public so… Nevertheless, I wonder if any reader of this book who is only vaguely familiar with theological perspectives – as I suppose many of us are – would have gained anything new after reading this.
Let me just say though, that I enjoyed the inclusion of short folktales and songs as the story went on. Though I could not always see their legitimate relevance, I like stories within stories. It was just a bit reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in that way. Now that I’ve said that, to sum up all that I have said so far, this novel actually felt more like a large fable than a novel. It had that kind of texture of a plain and simple tale designed to just teach its audience something. As if it, in some way, lacked a certain complexity that I associate with novels. But yeah – I think it was an okay read.