Reading outside your comfort zone

Hello, darlings!

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.

I also recently finished Under the Udala Trees, the debut novel by Nigerian American author Chinelo Okparanta, and it is this, dear readers, that I would like to discuss with you.

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. Chinelo cover

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!

Cheers, everybody! Stay safe and hope you have a most happy Friday.
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  1. This sounds like a wonderful read. I don’t normally read science fiction, but The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God by Mary Doria Russell has stuck with me.


    • I have been in awe of everything I have ever read by Mary Doria Russell! What a fabulous writer … I think I could ‘bliss out’ on her grocery list! 🙂


  2. Very interesting, Andi! Chinelo Okparanta is among the authors recommended by an author I very recently read. About a week ago I completed “Migratory Animals,” a novel by Mary Helen Specht. She studied at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in what she calls “a reversal of the usual migration.” Her book itself was, while, to me, somewhat unsettling and disturbing, is also well worth reading. But she also includes an informative “About the Book” and a postscript, “Read On.”

    In “Read On” Specht writes (among other interesting comments): “ … I think there is an opportunity for writers from the developed world to write about the developing world in a way that is productive, especially when these writers use the opportunity to explore their own privilege and maybe even culpability. That said, it is almost impossible to entirely escape being part of the “Western gaze” when writing about other cultures. I believe the most important action writers and readers can take to ameliorate this situation is to support— by reading, reviewing, promoting, assigning to our students— international fiction written by nonwestern writers.”

    Nigerian literature recommended by Specht:

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (“ … the Biafran civil war through multiple points of view …”)

    Wole Soyinka, “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” (memoir)

    Chinua Achebe, “Anthills of the Savannah”, (“ … less canonized than his more famous Things Fall Apart … my favorite Chinua Achebe novel … “)

    Ulli Beier, editor, “Political Spider and Other Stories,” (“ … from the pages of famed Ibadan literary magazine Black Orpheus, and the stories are by many of the best writers of Nigeria’s independence era, including Ama Ata Aidoo.”

    She also recommended fiction by “ … Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Femi Osofisan, and Amos Tutuola [writers from “Nigeria’s independence era”] and Rotimi Babatunde, A. Igoni Barrett, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Chinelo Okparanta, and Ben Okri [“more contemporary” writers].

    Your blog post here gives me even more encouragement to follow up on Mary Helen Specht’s recommendations!


  3. In the vein of your New Orleans reading, I recommend another book, a biography, that I read about a month ago … and, frankly, have on my re-read list!

    I was still young at the time, but old enough to remember the 1960s, and the era of both the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War are rarely far from my mind (or my reading). I was not, however, before aware of Ethel Payne, a Black journalist. I learned a great deal reading “Eye on the Struggle,” by James McGrath Morris. It is a great addition to the ‘usual’ history of that time – insightful to read what was not in the major [read: white] press at the time.

    Always more to read, always more to learn,


  4. Great blog, Andi.

    Although I’m a lesbian writer I read widely outside its particular genres. One of the books which will always stay with me is ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. It is written in a sensual, almost overripe way, which my tutors at uni (post-modernists to the core) would warn us against with pennants waving and sirens honking. But in the hands of this wonderful female author the writing is pitch-perfect. There is a strong feminist vibe, but it is essentially the story of a family, and the eviscerating effects of an entrenched caste system. You may never have visited India, but this book makes you feel as if you know it, in all its tatty, snobbish, sweat-soaked glory.

    I wrote a review of it on Goodreads, if this comment has attracted your interest. Oh, and it won the Booker prize, not that prizes necessarily adorn great books, sometimes it’s a fashion thing; but in this case the reviews calling it a masterpiece aren’t exaggerating. Highly recommended.


  5. Thanks, Andi, for writing this blog about reading outside of one’s comfort zone. And than you, Lynn, for supplying the reading list. There are so many literary gems to be discovered if one is willing to explore past the borders of the familiar.


    • You are very welcome …I was really ‘channeling’ Mary Helen Specht there – perhaps in too great a degree! – but I have been trying to read (as Andi suggests here) a bit more out of my usual type of book. Although I admit it is sometimes hard as there are many evenings when I just want to pick up a good Gerri Hill and not be quite so challenged! But overall it is good to balance that out and accept the challenge at times.


  6. The last book I read that stuck with me was “Last Standing Woman” by Winona LaDuke. It is a fictionalization (or is it?) of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people from the 1860’s through the 2000’s. While most contemporary white readers in this country grew up romanticizing the “plight of the American Indian,” this book brings the situation sharply into focus and out of any mythological existence. I highly recommend it and have to everyone in my life who reads, and to a few I think should. While writing a paper comparing novels, I felt the need to read Native American authors so I could experience additional ways of storytelling in a novel format and gain literary understanding of writing a culture most often thought of as oral in tradition. Winona LaDuke certainly showed me what I was looking to find in ways that stretched my mind, disturbing me and leaving my mind soothed at the same time. I cannot recommend it more highly than I do for you now.

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  7. Though I generally prefer spec fic, after reading a Lambda Lit review of Tiya Myles’ “The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Garden and Ghost”, I ordered it, as it sounds like a great read, and II also enjoy historical fiction at times. My problem (if it is really a problem) is that there are soooo many books to be read, and so little time to read, that I have a lengthy list of my preferred spec fic, and many that are outside of that genre as well. I guess I just need to make more time to read!


  8. Thanks for this review, Andi. I loved Okaparanta’s short story collection “Happiness Like Water”. Now I’m looking forward to reading this too. And very much looking forward to reading her interview here on WaW. 🙂

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  9. A novel I never would have thought to read but was given and loved: A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra. It’s about Chechnya. Grim but hopeful and well written.

    I just finished In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. He’s amazing. Funny, informative, reflective. It’s about Australia.

    My wife is binge reading Louise Penny, a mystery writer I’d never heard of till recently. I’m trying to keep up. I’m not a big mystery fan, so not sure how to compare them. Agatha Christie-like. Set in Quebec, Canada. She sucks you in and gives you lots of clues to solve it yourself.

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