Being true to yourself isn’t quite as simple as it seems: we can wake up, smile at our reflection in the mirror, and present our best selves to the world, but in the end, we are hiding behind some sort of facade.
But think for a moment if being yourself was dangerous, and to show yourself as you really could result in personal catastrophe. For many in the United States, identifying as LGBT still presents risks. But with the Supreme Court’s ruling, same-sex marriage is now marriage, and those who identify as LGBT are no longer quite on the margins as they were even five years ago.
It’s important to remember how much has changed so quickly beginning Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. While set in Nigeria, largely during the civil war of 1968 and the years that followed, Ijeoma’s struggle to remain to be true to herself resonates across boundaries of time and place.
“Papa’s name Uzo, meant ‘door,’ or ‘the way.’ It was a solid kind of name, strong-like and self-reliant, unlike mine, Ijeoma (which was just a wish: ‘safe journey’),” she explains early in the book, setting the tone for the often folk tale-like rhythm. It is the death of Ijeoma’s father an air raid that makes way for her journey far from home to stay with friends of the family, while her mother attempts to start over without her, or so it seems.
While she stays with the school teacher and his wife, she meets Amina, her first love under an udala tree—which signifies fertility and life—on her way home from the market. Amina is welcomed into their home, and during the course of the year, the two fall in love and begin to consummate their relationship. When caught their primary transgression is determined to be their relationship, however, Ijeoma and Amina come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, making the nature of their relationship even more fraught.
This is how Ijeoma’s mother returns to her life, taking her to a new home and deciding to ‘help’ her daughter turn from her “abominable” lifestyle. “There’s nothing more important now than for us to begin working on cleansing your soul.”
As her mother reads the Bible with her, cover to cover, emphasizing the portions of Leviticus that prohibit same-sex relationships, Ijeoma ponders to herself:
“Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories. Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable.”
While most parents would go to the extent that Ijeoma’s mother to “cure” her—let alone believe she needs curing to begin with—the harsh and harrowing repetition of the Biblical lessons presents a form of reparative, or gay conversion, therapy, which is currently only outlawed in three states.
But even as the lessons end and Ijeoma begins to move forward with her life, the stakes against living as her true self continue to pile against her. The deadly repercussions for identifying as a lesbian eventually led Ijeoma into fulfilling her mother’s greatest wish: marriage.
To go much farther would spoil too much. Where happiness often eludes the figures in Nigerian folk—and even Biblical—tales, Ijeoma continues to strive towards realizing her own desires and happiness. Even the hardest of hearts can be changed is the ultimate message of Under the Udala Trees.
While the narrative feels hurried at times, it’s more due to the division of the novel into short chapters within larger sections. Or perhaps, it only felt rushed because I found myself unable to put the book down as I rode the train or lay in bed at night.
And while society has largely moved beyond tolerance and towards joyful acceptance, Under the Udala Trees serves as a reminder of the deadly consequences of intolerance. While the violence can range from self-denial and shouldering the heavy expectations of others to a painful death, intolerance present itself as dangerous in all forms.
With her tender portrayal of female desire and one woman’s journey towards selfhood, Okparanta has created a new testament to the strength of the human spirit—against the expectations of society, of family, and of religion.