Chinelo Okparanta’s writing is poised and powerful beyond her years. Her voice is sure, confident, unshakable, and so is her hold on the reader. Her debut novel, “Under the Udala Trees”, is struggle embodied – the struggle for a sense of self, for parental approval, against religious mores and community prejudices, and of a country at war.
In war torn Biafra (now Nigeria), Ijeoma is an only child, essentially orphaned by war when her father is killed in a bombing raid and her mother ships her to an acquantaince’s house to work as a house girl for years without contact. Despite the traumas of war, loss, and maternal betrayal, Ijeoma is unbreakably strong. She works hard, hopes for an education, and follows her heart.
Eventually, Ijeoma’s heart leads her to love, but it is a forbidden love – in many cultures and times but indisputably so in the Nigeria of the 1970s. She has fallen in love with another girl her age. When they are discovered, Ijeoma is subjected to near-abusive proselytizing, prayed over and shamed into denying who she is. Self-denial is nearly impossible, and a woman as insightful and secure in herself as Ijeoma isn’t fooled. As an adult, new romantic opportunities present themselves and the temptation proves stronger than any imposed restraint and denial; not, however, without consequences. Ijeoma lives in a village and a time when vigilantes mete out injustice with impunity. Known homosexuals are publicly lynched and gay bars burnt to the ground. Ijeoma’s lover pushes her, one believes out of fear but also out of guilt, to “try” dating a man, to attempt the safety of a straight, traditional life.
“Of course I had never tried being with a boy. How could she imply that I even had a choice in the matter? How could she imply that it was that simple – that I should just go on and order myself to try things out with a boy? Had she? Was that how it worked for her? Anyway, if I had had any attraction at all to boys, would it not have expressed itself by now? What sense was there in my ‘trying it out’? My heart and soul and mind were centered around her. She was the one I wanted, and she was enough for me. She was the one I loved, the one who had a hold on my heart. It infuriated me that she was trying to push me away.”
Ijeoma has to decide for herself what to do. She is a woman at constant odds with what her mother and her society say is right. She is bold, brave, and insightful; she is also human, with a finite store of fight.
“I acknowledge to myself that sometimes I am a snail. I move myself by gliding. I contract my muscles and produce a slime of tears. Sometimes you see the tears and sometimes you don’t. It is my tears that allow me to glide. I glide slowly. But, slowly, I glide. It is a while before I am gone.”
Chinelo Okparanta tells a gripping, heart-wrending story about identity and survival. Though the story is undeniably heavy, Ijeoma (and her faithful reader-followers) never lose hope. Okparanta dances dangerously close to the edge, testing the mettle of her heroine and the tolerance of her readers; but her step is sure, her grace unwavering, and her command exquisite.