As someone who survived ex-gay ministries and conversion therapies in the name of religion, I am always cautious when reading narratives about similar experiences. There is always a risk I can re-trumatize myself. After my partner, Glen Retief, attended a reading by Nigerian-American author, Chinelo Okparanta, he insisted I would find her novel, Under the Udala Trees, both beautiful and moving.
Glen was so right in large part because Okparanta is such a skilled writer. She expertly recreates the Bianfran/Nigerian Civil War as we see it from a child’s eye. The horrors of this conflict and the extreme hunger people experienced are illuminated along with loving acts of survival and caring. This little girl, Ijeoma, is sent away by her deeply religious Christian mother for her own safety and survival. While away, Ijeoma enters puberty and begins a a romantic and sexual relationship with another young woman, a Muslim around her age who is also displaced by the war. Eventually they are discovered. Ijeoma is sent home where her mother attempts to “cure” her of her lesbian orientation.
From the Amazon site:
As Edwidge Danticat has made personal the legacy of Haiti’s political coming of age, Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees uses one woman’s lifetime to examine the ways in which Nigerians continue to struggle toward selfhood. Even as their nation contends with and recovers from the effects of war and division, Nigerian lives are also wrecked and lost from taboo and prejudice. This story offers a glimmer of hope — a future where a woman might just be able to shape her life around truth and love.
For folks like me who were bullied about my sexuality by Bible passages, Okparanta brilliantly goes through these clobber passages and deftly addresses the inaccuracies of interpretations by anti-LGBTQ religious leaders. Her young character, Ijeoma, uses simple logic to help herself stay grounded in the midst of the biblical barrage leveled against her by her mother.
Under the Udala Trees works on so many levels–as good literature, as a way for American LGBTQ to experience a Western African story of a young woman who loves another woman, and a means for folks like me who have been traumatized by cruel and inaccurate biblical interpretations in order undo some of the damage.
The book reads well, but if you enjoy audio books, you may want to check out the Audible version narrated by Robin Miles. She interprets the story well and flows seamlessly in and out of English.