Love is a Quiet Power | A Review of Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

All the things the boy will do, I promise to do better. In all the ways he can love you, I promise to love you better.

Ijeoma is eleven years old when the Nigerian Civil War breaks out. Eleven, when her father dies in the subsequent bombings that ravage her Igbo village. Eleven, when her mother sends her away to live with a grammar school teacher and his barren wife—whether for Ijeoma’s safety or out of the grief her mother has yet to cope with, Ijeoma herself cannot say. And she is eleven, living at the grammar school teacher’s, cleaning up and tending his home, when Ijeoma first finds love in the young Hausa girl that comes to live with them.

Under the Udala Trees is a subtle, slow burn that pays off emotionally in every conceivable way. From the onset of the Nigerian Civil War to Under the Udala Trees’ quiet and satisfying ending, we are dropped into and left to ruminate on Ijeoma’s world where the expectations of an only child—a girl child, at that—are monumental and the future she sees for herself as an independent woman freely living with her female lover, is inherently antithetical to how those around her would see her: dutiful student, dutiful daughter, dutiful Christian, dutifully working her way to being an equally dutiful wife. The constant push and pull of these warring ideas creates a beautifully, sometimes painfully, layered experience.

Chinelo Okparanta moves you intently through all of it. The budding curiosity of sexuality and the bliss of discovery that comes with Ijeoma falling in love with Amina, the young orphaned girl who ends up living with Ijemoa, the grammar school teacher, and his wife following the war, was tender and as palpable as the inevitable heartbreak that comes from that relationship. Ijeoma’s adulthood is entered into with a poetic fluidity that is the hallmark of how Okparanta has written this book. The ebb and flow is impossible to avoid sinking into as Ijeoma’s juvenile inklings of love begin to shape themselves and mature into something deep and potentially long-lasting in her adulthood romance—something that becomes emotionally tumultuous as history seems to repeat itself when, perhaps to Ijeoma’s but not the reader’s surprise, she is swept into a one-sided marriage to a childhood friend.

What is possibly most impressive in Under the Udala Trees is how rooted Ijeoma remains within herself. She is inquisitive and defiant—much to her mother’s chagrin—and reluctant to give into the status quo, even if accommodating it ensures her safety as a lesbian woman. She remains authentic to herself even in her marriage and motherhood only serves to strengthen and solidify what she knows to be true of herself. Her experiences with her husband, which begin unexpectedly cordial and grow bitter as he begins to realize that his marriage to her and his love for her will not change her, contribute to the lowest points of Ijeoma’s life and it is Ijeoma who pulls herself out of those lows. She understands who she is. She cannot change it and she doesn’t want to.

How could she imply it was that simple—that I should just go on and order myself to try things out with a boy? Had she? Was that how it worked for her? Anyway, if I had had any attraction at all to boys, would it not have expressed itself by now? …My heart and soul and mind are centered around her. She was the one I wanted, and she was enough for me.

The heart of this book is the constant validation and affirmation of sapphic love. There is not an inch of Ijeoma’s life that is not influenced or effected by this; and the potential for this to come off as heavy-handed never comes to fruition. The poeticism with which Okparanta allows Ijeoma to experience her life—both the positive and the negative—is so thoughtful, caring, and loving and even the depiction of the darkness of those experiences and the experiences of other queer Nigerians that Ijeoma meets, comes with a layer of respect and consideration. The way that Ijeoma regards other women, her interactions with them both intimate and otherwise, feels undeniably real. The constant self-affirmation that Ijeoma gives herself, even as her mother tries to purify her soul, or her husband implies she could love him, if she worked harder, gives Under the Udala Trees a power that can only be held within the pages of a book.

Under the Udala Trees is a beautiful, layered story about love, expectations, motherhood, and staying true to oneself even then that means making difficult choices. It is full of complex and deeply flawed characters, from Ijeoma’s mother whose love and fear for her daughter propels her to do the unthinkable, to Ijeoma’s husband who accepts her sexuality right up to the point that he realizes that no, he can’t change who she is.

Most importantly, and intentionally on Okparanta’s part, this is a story that centers all of these experiences outside of the Western gaze entirely, with people whose stories are often overlooked in favor of the Western ideal of what it is to portray queerness, feminism, motherhood, relationships between men and women, centered to the fullest. Ijeoma is a character worth rooting for, and Chinelo Okparanta’s fluid, immersive writing brings Ijeoma and the Nigeria of the 1970s to life.

Under the Udala Trees is for you if you enjoy: non-western historical fiction centering examinations of culture, feminism, and LGBT+ experiences, queer romance where the main character’s arc involves the discovery of their sexuality young, exploring it, and the growth between youthful love to mature, adult love.

Content guide for Under the Udala Trees can be found here, for readers who would like or need a breakdown of potentially sensitive content in this book.

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