Happy Friday and all of that. I hope your weekend goes well and that you’re able to engage in fun things.
Some of those, for some of you, will probably involve reading. Good on you if that’s the case. Because reading is one of the best things ever. I say that not only as a writer (and I like it when people read my work and enjoy it!), but also as a reader of other writers.
Let’s chat about that. I tend to read across genres, fiction and nonfiction. I’m currently reading an absolutely fascinating history of early 20th-century New Orleans, told through the stories of specific people during that era who played a role in not only the evolution of NOLA’s vice culture, but also in the hardening of segregation, exemplified through mob violence directed at the city’s black population as Jim Crow intensified across the South. It’s a heartwrenching, brutal story at times, made even more so because it’s true.
Under the Udala Trees is a story of love and loss set against the backdrop of civil war in Nigeria, in the late 1960s. The main character is Ijeoma, a girl of 11, who is sent by her mother to live with a teacher and his wife in hopes that she will be safe. Ijeoma meets another displaced girl from a different ethnic group, about her age, who the teacher takes in, as well. Love blossoms between the girls, but they’re discovered, and Ijeoma realizes that she must keep silent about this part of her identity. However, doing so incurs a cost because she is not living true to herself, and as we follow her through the upheaval of the civil war and the struggles of the country as a whole to find its own place in the world and its own national identity, we see the same struggle mirrored in Ijeoma, who buries her attractions to and relationships with women in shadows. Nigerian culture also places demands on women, and Okparanta reveals that burden, too, in this story, and how it plays out in terms of Ijeoma’s sexual orientation.
One of the things I really loved about this book is how taut the story-telling is. Okparanta unspools her narrative slowly, revealing a little at a time, exploring fraught relationships between Ijeoma and her mother; Ijeoma and her first love; Ijeoma and her second great love; Ijeoma and herself. Now, I love a fast-paced thriller or urban fantasy, but I also love quiet stories with deep, rich layers like this, set in countries I don’t know much about. I love them because I learn things about writing and about how other authors spread their vision across the page. I also learn about the countries and the cultures that inhabit them.
This story is particularly relevant to current events, and that may be another reason that it resonated with me. Though its time period is the late 1960s through the 1980s, its one that is playing out now because several African countries criminalize homosexuality. Nigeria is one of them, and violators of the anti-homosexuality law face a felony conviction and 14 years in prison. Many of these laws are remnants of British colonial rule, but they’re currently being supported not only because of that legacy, but also the efforts of anti-LGBT groups and individuals from western nations, including the U.S. Especially the U.S.
Okparanta writes the struggles Ijeoma has to endure with regard to homophobia with tense grace, somehow demonstrating that even the characters who express the worst of it have, at their core, an element of humanity. Everyone is fighting something in this civil war and its aftermath. No one is unscarred, which makes hang-ups about homosexuality seem so trivial when it’s placed against the backdrop of war. Perhaps it’s because of the enormity of social and cultural change in the midst of conflict that people still cling to familiar fears — because those fears ARE familiar and in a twisted way, safe. Something to hold on to in turbulent seas, no matter how harmful.
I’ve been thinking about that. I finished reading Under the Udala Trees two weeks ago, and it’s still with me.
I love books that stay with me like that. Which is why, fellow travelers, I encourage you to read as widely as you can, and to find new worlds in authors and genres you might never have considered engaging with. Because you never know what gems you’ll find among the pages.
And, as an aside, Chinelo Okparanta will hopefully join us here at Women and Words for an interview. I had her scheduled for September, but she is so busy right now with the forthcoming release of her novel, teaching duties, writing, and life in general that she unfortunately had to postpone. But let’s keep our fingers crossed!
At any rate, if you’re so inclined, share a story in the comments about a book you read that stayed with you that wasn’t in your usual genres. Because we all love to expand our reading lists. Thanks!