My Thoughts: Under the Udala Trees

Author: Chinelo Okparanta

23719408I 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.

-Akotowaa

Onyesonwu made me very happy!

Even though it doesn’t feel like it for me, I can see quantitatively that I’ve read a lot in 2016. There have been years of more intense reading, I’ve felt. But despite all the books I’ve read, there have only been a few that really energized me, made me think “Yes, this is what I’ve been looking for!” Perhaps The Summer of Chasing Mermaids did that for me because you know how I love remixed fairytales and mystic things in general. But Who Fears Death, oh man! Reading it was like ingesting an extra-strong dose of a drug after you’ve been desensitized to the dose you usually take. You finally get that kick again!

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Since I read my first Nnedi Okorafor book five or so years ago, I have been awestruck, thinking she is (nearly literally) working magic within the publishing industry. I did not know that African sci-fi was a thing until I read her. The first thing of hers I read was probably Akata Witch, and when I was done, I thought, “I have never read anything like this before.” This is how I feel about Who Fears Death. I have never read anything like it before. It’s also the first novel of hers I’ve read that isn’t explicitly a children’s book. But categorization is a weird thing (and so perhaps we should avoid it when we can, but I don’t know) and so I can’t exactly say which age group it was written for or whether it matters at all.

The title of this book, by the way, is the meaning of the name “Onyesonwu”, which is now one of my favorite names in the world.

There is a whole lot about this book that revolves around carnal and biological things, but this wasn’t a deterrent for me; it added to the appeal. What I’m used to is seeing issues like sexism, genital mutilation, cultural and religious norms of gender, intercourse et cetera woven into a narrative; I’m not used to it actually being the narrative. There are stories that include these themes, which could still be told without the themes included. This isn’t one of those stories. If you take a part of it out, you’ve destroyed the story.

Admittedly, most people might not be as smitten as I am by the book just because of the differences in our background and preferences as readers. Perhaps the effective blurring of setting such that the era seems archaic, modern and undecipherable all at once will not impress people. Perhaps the merging of known culture and gap-filler imagination will not impress people. Perhaps others have not been as starved as I have been to read a story as hybrid as this one because they don’t come from a similar world.

I suppose one of the reasons I relate so strongly to the book’s hybridity is because that is what I am and also what I aspire to create. If you have the identity complex of an African raised in Africa in a Western setting or something as confusing as that, you might understand. If nearly every story is either too traditionally monotonous or too Westernized for you to relate to, then you may understand why this book ignited me.

Onyesonwu is such a brilliant, brilliant character. So is Mwita. I don’t understand why people complain about them in their reviews. Of course, they’re annoying. Which human being is not annoying? If you were looking for fairytale perfection, you picked up the wrong book. Their relationship was complex, sometimes impossible to understand, and both of them made ridiculously stupid moves almost incessantly. But you can’t lie and tell me that real life relationships aren’t complex beyond belief.

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This art that Greg Ruth made of Onyesonwu is just so, so beautiful!

 

I like how Nnedi can show elements of real life through fiction but never tell you that it’s a representative for something you’re familiar with, even if it’s obvious. I like how sassy and independent a lot of her characters are. I like how she doesn’t exempt anyone from the flaws of the human condition. I like how she manages to be spiritual without necessarily being religious. I like how her narrative is a mirror to reflect upon ourselves and over our society. And perhaps best of all, I like how she assets here authoritative god power in making and ending a story how she wants to.

Maybe I should explain the last point. Although I may be entirely wrong, I saw lots of evidence to make me assume that I was seeing the Jesus story being retold. If this was her intention, then everything deliberately bent about it was intentional too.

  • A man prophesied to save the world? Bent to woman.
  • Born out of divine orchestration? Bent to born out of rape.
  • Sexually holy until death? Bent to sexually active until death.
  • John the Baptist going before the hero to tell of the hero’s coming? Bent to hero’s abandoned mother going forth anonymously to spread the story of forthcoming liberation through her daughter.
  • Destined to die as a sacrifice for the cause? Bent to destined to die, but exerts power to re-write the story. (I like this because it’s very lexivist! 😀 )

I think while I was reading it, I found a lot of theological conflict in the story – but this was based on knowledge of the real world and not entirely in the story’s world. Even so, there were parts of the fictional world’s theology that I found logically lacking. The problem is that, I didn’t write them down where I found them and now I can’t remember what or where they are. One day, I’ll read this book again and place particular emphasis on finding those and starting a discussion on them. But until then, READ THIS BOOK, OMG IT’S LIT!

-Akotowaa

My Literary Story (A really long summary)

I was thinking of writing this and posting it yesterday (yesterday, 3rd March, was World Book Day 2016), but circumstances got in the way, and I also got lazy, so I didn’t. But then @EDWVN started this long Twitter thread about how he got into reading, and I loved his story! I told him so, and he said he was looking forward to hearing others’ stories, including mine, so I said, why not, it’s not too late. (I mean, it kind of is, but you understand what I mean.) So, here’s my story.

Before I was six years old, I was a relatively boring child with nothing remotely interesting about my personality. All I did was go to school and come back. LOL. Also, apparently, I was really bossy. But that’s not the point. I wanted to be a smart kid. And all these Ghanaian adults around me kept telling me that smart kids read a lot. So I wanted to read a lot, but I never could get into it myself.

My mother used to read to me every night before bed. I basically memorized that illustrated book of nursery rhymes, and the multitude of Ladybird Disney fairytale books which were 3000% over-simplified transcripts of the movies. I’m telling you, I was such a fairytale addict, I could have eaten Disney for breakfast, lunch and supper. My dad had a subscription with Blockbuster, and every time he went to borrow movies, I’d tell him not to come back without Snow White – then he could pick for me whatever other irrelevant thing he thought I’d like. Just get me Snow White. (And Inspector Gadget.) These are the two movies I’ve watched most in my lifetime.

Anyway, back to the reading before bed. (My writing is really scattered right now because I’m typing directly rather than typing up what I’ve written down physically, and my typing speed is really fast so I’m putting my thoughts down nearly at the same rate of mayhem they occur in my head. Messy.) I think I memorized the words so I kind of thought I was reading, but I really wasn’t.

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I had a Judy Blume book called Double Fudge. It was the only real book that I had – by which I meant it wasn’t a transcribed Disney movie or a book of nursery rhymes. And I tried so many times to read it because I wanted to get smart but dangit, it just wasn’t working!

And then one day, my aunt came down from Ohio, and she brought me this storybook, by the person I would one day call my father. The book was called “The BFG”.

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Now I’m about to tell you about my family.

My dad: Roald Dahl

I’ve probably read 90% or above of all of Roald Dahl’s Children’s books. I kind of lived on Roald Dahl. I call him my father because he was the first writer whose imagination really blew me away. It was he that inspired my love for reading, and I might be an entirely different person if I hadn’t discovered him exactly at the time that I did.

“Double Fudge” was just tough and I could never get past the first few pages. But as soon as I started reading “The BFG” (which is a book about a girl who meets a Big Friendly Giant, who is actually really small for giant size), I was like, “This is MAGICAL! I want more, more, more!” And thus, the addiction began.

Dahl was British, Dahl was brilliant, Dahl died 8 years before I was born. Dahl was a lexivist; he made up so many words which have somehow stuck with me till today. Among them is the word “whizzpop”, which was used in The BFG to mean “fart”.

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Sometimes, other books I would read would start to bore me, and I’d think, “Ugh, why can’t you be as magical as Dahl?” and then I’d go right back to The BFG and then read it again. I’m very prone to go back to things I love, like an addict. I don’t get those people who say they can’t watch a movie plenty times or read a book more than once. I always remember how these things made me feel, and I so I know where to look when I want to feel that way. I started reading The BFG biannually (the type of biannually that means two timesi n one year), from the year I was 7 to like the year I was 12. I haven’t read it again since then. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that I will no longer be able to find that book in my house. But I’ll always remember Roald Dahl, and The BFG, for first making me love words.

Also, my mother had this friend who had this library somewhere near Spintex, and that became my favourite place on the planet. The maximum number of books you could borrow at a go was 3. I was so insistent and voracious that I was allowed to take 10 at a time. It was a usual thing for me to read seven books a week, during summer holidays. Antisocial? Yah, dazz meh!

Don’t even let me get into my Harry Potter craze. This post won’t end today! So we pause here…

We’ve talked about consuming books…Now let’s talk about making them.

My mother: Enid Blyton

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This woman got me writing. She gets all the credit for this one. My English teachers never did jack for me. Creative Writing was an utter bore; there was very little that was creative about the writing I had to do for classes.

But there was some time that I did really well in school and I asked my parents to buy me a book as a reward on Open Day. They bought me two or three. All by Enid Blyton, all in the same series. I stayed up and read the first one that night. Somehow, I was a way faster reader when I was ten years old than I am now and might ever be again.

I remember reading all her mystery stories (I’ve probably read more books by Enid Blyton than I have read of anyone else, ever, in my life.) and thinking, “This is super cool. What if this all happened in Ghana rather than England?”

And so I began re-imagining. Of course, this was at a time when the only Ghanaian/African stories I had ever read were those small, MacMillan publications about Kofi and Ama, and the moral of the story is don’t have premature sex and whatever. I was bored. I was tired of stories with morals that you could QUOTE, without metaphors. I was tired of being constantly told that the art of storytelling was not an art unless it was utilitarian in a very, very obvious way. I remember my performing arts and English teachers shooting all my stories down because they were meant to entertain rather than to give people moral advice, because evidently, “I couldn’t write like an African.” Wharreva. LOL.

But yeah, I was ten years old, I lived in Labone, and I recreated Enid Blyton mystery stories – right there in Labone, in the streets I knew best, with kids who were just like me – caught in a strange national identity crisis – even though I didn’t know it then. I have a copy of the first story I ever wrote right here with me now, in soft copy. It was a mystery story called “Search for the Voice,” about a ten-year-old girl who went all around the neighbourhood looking for her voice, because she’d “lost” it. Corny, I know. Leave me alone, I was ten. Haha, I wrote it when I stole (I mean borrowed) my father’s old laptop when he wasn’t home one time. (Eventually, I started “borrowing” it so much and so often he let me have it. Once I had a laptop I stopped sleeping, o! MSWord was my BFF.)

That same year, I started a whole mystery series of a group of Ghanaian pre-teens called “Mini-Police”, which I couldn’t be bothered to continue past Mini-Police 3. These were all modelled after Enid Blyton mystery stories! The “Famous Five” series and the “Secret Seven” series and the “Mystery Of” series and all of that jazz! I used to write feverishly, waking up at 2am to write and sleeping at 4, producing hundreds of pages, after which I would proofread, and then email to a handful of friends who were interested, when I was done. I felt like a legit writer, you know.

 

My sister: Chimamanda

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whom I am in love with, and would like to make my best friend one day, was the first person who actually showed me that I had something to write for. Before I even read any book of hers, I was exposed to her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”. This was like four years ago. I was thirteen or fourteen then. I swear when I watched it I was like, “This is true! Yes! Exactly what I’ve been thinking! Whoa, madam, who are you and why have I never heard of you before?”

Turns out I’d never heard of her before because nobody in my domestic life knew her, and my academic system didn’t think she was worth mentioning to me.

Anyway, I fell in love with Chimamanda, and she’s probably the one African writer I relate with most which is really weird because I haven’t had even a quarter of the experiences she has had. Perhaps we just think alike. All I know is that she inspires me greatly, both as a writer and as a person. It might sound cliché, I know because “Oh, everyone loves Chimamanda”. But she’s amazing. Sometimes I think I watch/listen to her more than I even read her. But that’s not entirely true. I read her. Except that I haven’t read Purple Hibiscus. For no sensible reason too. It’s just been sitting on my Kindle for years. I’m really pathetic. LOL.

 

My twin: Paulo Coelho

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Paul and I sometimes seem to share a brain. I won’t even say much. Just go and read Veronika Decides to Die, the book which has made my life. Please and thank you!

Share your literary stories with me too!

-Akotowaa

P.S. about Double Fudge – eventually I went back and read it, and liked it so much that I read the rest of the Fudge series! LOL, imagine!