Review: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

It was then that I made the realization: Chidinma and I were both choking under the weight of something larger than us, something heavy and weighty, the weight of tradition and superstition and of all our legends.

Under the Udala Trees

Summary and Thoughts

Inspired by Nigeria’s folktales and its war, Under the Udala Trees is a deeply searching, powerful debut about the dangers of living and loving openly.

Ijeoma comes of age as her nation does; born before independence, she is eleven when civil war breaks out in the young republic of Nigeria. Sent away to safety, she meets another displaced child and they, star-crossed, fall in love. They are from different ethnic communities. They are also both girls. 

When their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself. But there is a cost to living inside a lie. 

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.

—- Goodreads

Under the Udala tress follows the adolescence of a young Nigerian girl, Ijeoma, as she comes to terms with her sexuality and how to live authentically within a deeply homophobic and religious country, all under the atmosphere of civil war. This story is inherently moving, effective in evoking the fear Ijeoma feels of not only belonging as a closeted lesbian, but also within a deeply divided country. Though I cheered Ijeoma on, empathized with her, and was delighted to see her find peace, the writing and characterization fell a bit flat for me in comparison. Shortening some of the Bible excerpts in Ijeoma’s mother’s lectures and adding more backstory/characterization to Ijeoma’s family and the civil war looming over her life would have augmented the emotional storyline and further bonded the reader to her experience. Finally, while the writing and pacing is easy to follow and perfectly enjoyable, they also are not of any noteworthy praise. All in all, Under the Udala Trees is a novel one reads for Ijeoma – in acknowledging the significance of power of her story. While I don’t imagine this being a favorite of mine or anyone else I would recommend it to, I would still recommend it nonetheless for its emotional impact alone.

Photo Courtesy of Goodreads

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