Inspired by her mother’s stories of war and Nigeria’s folktale traditions, Under the Udala Trees is Chinelo Okparanta’s deeply searching, powerful debut about the dangers of living and loving openly
“If you’ve ever wondered if love can conquer all, read [this] stunning coming-of-age debut.” — Marie Claire
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
Named a Best Book of the Year by
NPR * BuzzFeed * Bustle * Shelf Awareness * Publishers Lunch
“[This] love story has hypnotic power.”—The New Yorker
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. But when their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself—and there is a cost to living inside a lie.
Inspired by Nigeria’s folktales and its war, Chinelo Okparanta shows us, in “graceful and precise” prose (New York Times Book Review), how the struggles and divisions of a nation are inscribed on the souls of its citizens. “Powerful and heartbreaking, Under the Udala Trees is a deeply moving commentary on identity, prejudice, and forbidden love” (BuzzFeed).
“An important and timely read, imbued with both political ferocity and mythic beauty.” — Bustle
“A real talent. [Under the Udala Trees is] the kind of book that should have come with a cold compress kit. It’s sad and sensual and full of heat.” — John Freeman, Electric Literature
“Demands not just to be read, but felt.” — Edwidge Danticat
Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.
Ours was a gated compound, guarded at the front by a thicket of rose and hibiscus bushes. Leading up to the bushes, a pair of parallel green hedges grew, dotted heavily in pink by tiny, star-like ixora flowers. Vendors lined the road adjacent to the hedges, as did trees thick with fruit: orange, guava, cashew, and mango trees. In the recesses of the roadsides, where the bushes rose high like a forest, even more trees stood: tall irokos, whistling pines, and a scattering of oil and coconut palms. We had to turn our eyes up toward the sky to see the tops of these trees. So high were the bushes and so tall were the trees.
In the harmattan, the Sahara winds arrived and stirred up the dust, and clouded the air, and rendered the trees and bushes wobbly like a mirage, and made the sun a blurry ball in the sky.
In the rainy season, the rains wheedled the wildness out of the dust, and everything took back its clarity and its shape.
This was the normal cycle of things: the rainy season followed by the dry season, and the harmattan folding itself within the dry. All the while, goats bleated. Dogs barked. Hens and roosters scuttled up and down the roads, staying close to the compounds to which they belonged. Striped swordtails and monarchs, grass yellows and redtops ?— ?all the butterflies ?— ?flitted leisurely from one flower to the next.
As for us, we moved about in that unhurried way of the butterflies, as if the breeze was sweet, as if the sun on our skin was a caress. As if slow paces allowed for the savoring of both. This was the way things were before the war: our lives, tamely moving forward.
But in 1967, the war barged in and installed itself all over the place. By 1968, the whole of Ojoto had begun pulsing with the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.
By 1968, our men had begun slinging guns across their shoulders and carrying axes and machetes, blades glistening in the sun; and out on the streets, every hour or two in the afternoons and evenings, their chanting could be heard, loud voices pouring out like libations from their mouths: “Biafra, win the war!”
It was that same year, 1968 ?— ?the second year of the war ?— ?that Mama sent me off.
By this time, talk of all the festivities that would take place when Biafra defeated Nigeria had already begun to dwindle, supplanted, rather, by a collective fretting over what would become of us when Nigeria prevailed: Would we be stripped of our homes, and of our lands? Would we be forced into menial servitude? Would we be reduced to living on rationed food? How long into the future would we have to bear the burden of our loss? Would we recover?
All these questions, because by 1968, Nigeria was already winning, and everything had already changed.
But there were to be more changes.
There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker. Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.
If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.
So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968. Ubosi chi ji ehihe jie: the day night fell in the afternoon, as the saying goes. Or as Mama sometimes puts it, the day that night overtook day: the day that Papa took his leave from us.
It was a Sunday, but we had not gone to church that morning on account of the coming raid. The night before, the radios had announced that enemy planes would once more be on the offensive, for the next couple of days at least. It was best for anyone with any sort of common sense to stay home, Papa said. Mama agreed.
Not far from me in the parlor, Papa sat at his desk, hunched over, his elbows on his thighs, his head resting on his fisted hands. The scent of Mama’s fried akara, all the way from the kitchen, was bursting into the parlor air.
Papa sat with his forehead furrowed and his nose pinched, as if the sweet and spicy scent of the akara had somehow become a foul odor in the air. Next to him, his radio-gramophone. In front of him, a pile of newspapers.
Early that morning, he had listened to the radio with its volume turned up high, as if he were hard of hearing. He had listened intently as all the voices spilled out from Radio Biafra. Even when Mama had come and asked him to turn it down, that the thing was disturbing her peace, that not everybody wanted to be reminded at every moment of the day that the country was falling apart, still he had listened to it as loudly as it would sound.
But now the radio sat with its volume so low that all that could be heard from it was a thin static sound, a little like the scratching of skin.
Until the war came, Papa looked only lovingly at the radio-gramophone. He cherished it the way things that matter to us are cherished: Bibles and old photos, water and air. It was, after all, the same radio-gramophone passed down to him from his father, who had died the year I was born. All the grandparents had then followed Papa’s father’s lead ?— ?the next year, Papa’s mother passed; and the year after, and the one after that, Mama lost both her parents. Papa and Mama were only children, no siblings, which they liked to say was one of the reasons they cherished each other: that they were, aside from me, the only family they had left.
But gone were the days of his looking lovingly at the radio-gramophone. That particular afternoon, he sat glaring at the bulky box of a thing.
He turned to the stack of newspapers that sat above his drawing paper: about a month’s worth of the Daily Times, their pages wrinkled at the corners and the sides. He picked one up and began flipping through the pages, still with that worried look on his face.
I went up to him at his desk, stood so close to him that I could not help but take in the smell of his Morgan’s hair pomade, the one in the yellow and red tin-capped container, which always reminded me of medicine. If only the war were some sort of illness, if only all that was needed was a little medicine.
He replaced the newspaper he was reading on the pile. On that topmost front page were the words SAVE US. Underneath the words, a photograph of a child with an inflated belly held up by limbs as thin as rails: a kwashiorkor child, a girl who looked as if she could have been my age. She was just another Igbo gi...
Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Jessie Redmon Fauset Book Awards—Fiction
Nominated for the NAACP Image Awards, "Outstanding Literary Work—Fiction"
Nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, Fiction
Short-listed for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award
Finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction
Long-listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Long-listed for the 2016 Chautauqua Prize
Semifinalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
One of NPR's "Best Books of 2015"
One of Buzzfeed's "The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015"
One of Bustle's "2015’s 25 Best Books, Fiction Edition"
Included on the Los Angeles Times's "Holiday Books Roundup"
One of the Wall Street Journal's "15 Books to Read This Fall"
One of Buzzfeed's "19 New Books You Need to Read This Fall"
One of Bustle's "Best Books of September 2015"
A Shelf Awareness "Best Book of 2015"
One of the Sun Herald's "Ten noteworthy fiction and nonfiction titles on the way"
One of Gawker's "9 Must-Reads" for Fall
One of Publishers Lunch's "Favorite Books of 2015, From the News Editor"
One of Buzzfeed UK's "27 Brilliant Books You Must Read This Winter"
"Incorporating Nigerian folktales, the author weaves a lush coming-of-age tale of forbidden love but also of strength and resilience... The vivid imagery of the bloody civil war and the stark Nigerian post-war landscape complements the sumptuous prose. This book has universal appeal."—Historical Novel Society
"Under the Udala Trees is a gripping story of love, faith, and turmoil in post–civil war Nigeria. When Ijeoma falls in love with another girl, she must come to terms with who she is in a society that refuses to accept her. A heartbreaking and moving account of Ijeoma’s coming-of-age, as well as the story of a country during a time of great disturbance, Under the Udala Trees will affect you deeply."—Buzzfeed, "The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015"
"Ijeoma is a young girl growing up in the difficult years following Nigeria's 1967 Biafran War. But coming of age in a war-torn country isn't her only challenge: She's also struggling to balance her taboo same-sex relationship with her mother's (and her society's) expectations. Chinelo Okparanta's writing is so immersive that even readers who have nothing in common with Ijeoma will feel like they've lived her experience. I couldn't put the book down and even pulled an all-nighter to finish it (then was a zombie at work the next day). Plan your schedule around this binge read!"—NPR, "Our Guide To 2015’s Great Reads"
"At the height of the Biafran war, two Nigerian girls fall in love. The romance is brief, but for Ijeoma, the narrator of this début novel, it is the beginning of years of pain...The love story has hypnotic power...Details of disco-era Nigeria—jerricans filled with palm wine, a suitor in bell-bottom trousers—suggest Okparanta’s skill and promise."—The New Yorker, "Briefly Noted"
"One of the most talked about debuts this fall."—The Wall Street Journal, "15 Books to Read This Fall"
"[Okparanta] is a natural storyteller, and her words carry a graceful, folkloric quality. Unlike myths, though, this young writer is doing the worthy work of openly revealing the suppression that Nigerian LGBTQ people continue to face daily. Under the Udala Trees is an important and timely read, imbued with both political ferocity and mythic beauty."—Bustle
"If you've ever wondered if love can conquer all, read Ijeoma's story, set in Nigeria—her falling in love with another girl is problematic, if not illegal. The result: a stunning coming-of-age debut."—Marie Claire, "What We're Reading"
"Okparanta [is] a graceful and precise writer."—New York Times Book Review
“Remarkable…Timely…Under the Udala Trees confirms [Okparanta's] talent, recalling the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in its powerful interweaving of the personal and the political. Okparanta’s simple, direct prose is interspersed with the language of allegory and folklore and is scattered with biblical references. The dizzying scope of her storytelling keeps you gripped to the end.”—Financial Times
"Gripping...Okparanta deftly negotiates a balance between a love story and a war story...Udala Trees serves as a sobering reminder that despite the legality of gay marriage in much of the western hemisphere and in Europe and the US, not too far away LGBT communities endure government-sanctioned terror and brutality. Okparanta exquisitely captures this disparity through an undaunted Ijeoma, who in pursuit of seeking a fulfilling, joyful life gains an insightful awareness about the relationship between hatred and persecution – one that extends well beyond Nigeria’s borders."—The Guardian
"A real talent. [Under the Udala Trees is] the kind of book that should have come with a cold compress kit. It’s sad and sensual and full of heat."—John Freeman, Electric Lit
"She had me at 'inspired by Nigeria’s folktales…', but I stayed for a story that should be told far more often than it is: That of a same-sex couple (two girls, in this case) who fall in love very young and keep their bond through the ravages of war, cultural ignorance, time, and fate. Ijeoma and Amina are born into a 1960s world of conflict, and while the decades may change, the conflicts continue, especially for the couple themselves. As Ijeoma tells us, 'If I had not met Amina, who knows, maybe there would be no story to tell.' That’s the simple but deep truth at the heart of every love story, especially a love story between two girls whose skin happens to be dark."—Literary Hub, "10 Overlooked Novels by Women of Color in 2015"
"Rich in complexity, compassionate in the treatment of political violence and flagrant oppression...Okparanta’s prose feels natural, effortless. She renders the Nigerian landscape in lyrical bursts...and, as in her short stories, the rhythms slide seamlessly into intimate, conversational tones, equal parts folk tale and confessional. Throughout the book, many characters pound yams at the kitchen counter, echoing the constantly beating drums in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The hearts of the people beat in unison, the symbol seems to say — as do the hearts of literary forefathers and descendants."—Star Tribune
"Chinelo Okparanta’s stunning debut novel, Under The Udala Trees, is an epic story of love in the face of despair. Set in post-Civil War Nigeria, young Ijeoma comes of age in a country where following her heart may get her killed. Despite this reality, and
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