Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

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undertheudalatreesPublisher/Date:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2015
Genre(s):  Romance, Coming of Age
Pages:  336
Website:  http://www.chinelookparanta.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

I love coming-of-age stories. The transition one makes from child to adulthood is an evolution I watch with fascination. Ijeoma’s growing up is especially captivating because the 11-year-old lives with the threat of falling bombs, food rations and army takeovers during the Nigerian Civil War in UNDER THE UDALA TREES by Chinelo Okparanta (author of Happiness Like Water).

Set in the town of Ojoto, the time is 1968, and the juxtaposition of her typical experiences of a girl her age – attending school and watching the boys play Policeman – contrasts sharply with worries of her father, a drafter obsessed with any report about Biafra’s attempt to defeat the government. Ijeoma sees him poring over newspapers that line his study or listening to his radio-gramophone, and prays for an end to the conflict so that her father, as well everyone around them, can return to normal life.

A subsequent attack leaves Ijeoma fatherless, and fearing her daughter’s safety and well-being, her mother sends her to be a housegirl to a grammar school teacher and his wife in neighboring Nnewi. An adjacent hovel with only a table and mattress – no bathroom or running water – becomes her new home, and Ijeoma has to contend with her new surroundings as well as her mother’s abandonment to prepare them a new life.

Working for the childless couple proves mindless, until she meets Amina, a girl about her age whom she discovers has no family, and luckily, convinces her caretakers they could use an extra pair of hands with chores. They share Ijeoma’s small confines, but it’s where their attraction begins to blossom. Ijeoma and Amina come from different tribes – Ijeoma is Igbo, Amina is Hausa – but they shyly explore the other under the moonlight and stars while taking nighttime baths. Both without family, both working to earn their keep, the girls begin a love affair that sustains them and blinds them to the danger of being found out – until they are found out – and then Ijeoma returns to the care of her mother.

This is where Udala finds its footing. Ijeoma becomes bombarded with the decisions of whether being gay is God’s will or an abomination as her as her mother emphasizes with daily Bible studies and incessant scripture quoting. Her questioning of God’s word leads her to believe that the world is not as black and white as the pages of her Bible, but her mother sees her daughter’s life only in terms of being married and having children. Ijeoma is reluctant to take this path, but it seems the only way out in a country where being gay can be a destructive decision to make.

Under the Udala Trees is a lot of things: a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of Nigerian folklore, an examination of religious doctrine. But quite simply, at its heart, Trees is a bittersweet love story written incredibly well by Okparanta. While the religious overtones can sometimes bog down the story, it leads to Ijeoma becoming introspective about what God sincerely wants. I found the story, despite its somber nature, to be hopeful with every page toward the novel’s end. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about Trees that makes me feel as if Ijeoma finds her happy ending.

Reviewed February 2016

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About Chinelo Okparanta

Chinelo Okparanta was born in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, and was raised there as a Jehovah’s Witness. When she was ten, her family relocated to the United States. She received her BS from The Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the University of Iowa. She has worked as a middle and high school French and English Language teacher, and an undergraduate writing teacher. She is one of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012 and has stories forthcoming from Conjunctions, Subtropics, and elsewhere.



Meet the Girl in the Mirror Contest Winner!

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girlinthemirrorThe winner of Sistahs on the Shelf’s Girl in the Mirror Contest is:

sapphicbeauty

SapphicBeauty

When I look in the mirror I see a mother, daughter, sister, aunt & friend.  I see a professional woman who enjoys educating and advocating for children.  I see a woman who has loved, been loved, lost love and still believes that there is someone out there who is THAT ONE and is waiting for me.  There are times when I look in the mirror blink and look away, I see a woman who once believed she had been broken.  But, when I look back again, I see a woman who understands that life’s adversities have made her stronger and continue to build her into someone of greatness.  A role model for the young ladies following in her footsteps.  That mirror reveals a woman of depth and strength, built upon the highs, lows on the back of this thing called Life.  I’m not skinny or built to a supermodel’s size.  I have curvy hips and thick thighs.  And when I turn to the side there’s a pronounced fullness to my backside.  My eyes glisten, my hair shines. My lips beckon others with sweet, sultry smiles.  Don’t look into my eyes unless you want to be mesmerized.  Yes, I have a tremendous view of my fantastic self.  But the one image the mirror doesn’t reflect, is hidden within the walls of my chest.  My heart is bigger than any vast sea and completely open and welcoming to someone who is worthy.  This is the total picture my mirror reveals to me.

As the winner, she receives an autographed copy of Alix B. Golden’s Girl in the Mirror!

Congratulations to SapphicBeauty!

Alix B. Golden’s Girl in the Mirror is available now on Amazon.