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.


Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okaparanta

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happinesslikewaterPublisher/Date:  Mariner Books, Aug. 2013
Genre(s):  Short Story, Love, Family, Religion, Women’s Issues
Pages:  208
Website:  www.marinerbooks.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

When I picked up HAPPINESS, LIKE WATER by Chinelo Okparanta, I saw it profound that I was drawn to this book about girls and women in Nigeria, the same country where almost 300 girls were stolen from their dormitory in April, only to be sold as chattel or hidden away. In Okparanta’s short story collection, her characters wrestle with their own issues of love, faith, and sorrow. Happiness grabbed me at the first couple of pages, and I couldn’t stop reading – and thinking – about a woman’s worth.

Set in a land with lush landscapes and sweltering days, the women’s plights – from coveting a lighter skin color, to falling in love with the same sex – are captured in heartbreaking detail. It deftly embodies what lengths women would go through to have what they believe is happiness.

Lambda-Medal2014

2014 Lambda Literary Award WinnerFrom http://www.lambdaliterary.org

Highlights include “Grace,” surrounding a religion professor with an inquisitive student posing questions about sexuality and the Bible, with both eventually discovering the tough answers lead to each other; “Runs Girl” featuring a young woman who learns there is a price to doing the right thing for the right reasons; and the unreliable narration of “Story, Story!” drew me in to a woman’s despiration to have a baby.

Yet by far, my favorite story from Happiness is “Tumours and Butterflies,” which drew me into the tumultuous relationship between a daughter and father so focused on his child’s missteps he fails to see his own. There’s a loss of innocence one has, even as an adult, when you realize your parents are toxic to your well-being. Okparanta portrays this feeling well.

What Okparanta also does well is convey the realities of Nigerian women and families in America. Okparanta, a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 10, allows us to see how the United States is treated as a promise land of sorts in her native country, where dreams can be fulfilled.

After reading Happiness, Like Water, I can see exactly why Okparanta won a 2014 Lambda Literary Award just a few nights ago because I was enamored with her writing. The way she turns a phrase, even when a story takes a sad turn, is comforting. The lesbian stories are handled with care, providing some of the happier moments. Happiness envelopes you into the life of the characters, who have experiences that could shared by any woman in any country, but are more sentimental to Black women in particular. But the sadness is truly palpable in Happiness. There were only couple of stories I felt had an abrupt ending, but it didn’t take away from the strength or authenticity of Okparanta’s voice.

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Reviewed June 2014

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.