Queerness, Womanity and Hope: A Conversation with Chinelo Okparanta, Author of Under the Udala Trees
Battles, personal and political, fill the pages of Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, Under the Udala Trees (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015). In the late 1960s during the Biafra War in Nigeria, Ijeoma, a young Igbo girl falls in love with an ethnic Hausa orphan, Amina. Okparanta, whose accolades include a 2014 O. Henry Prize, offers a vivid portrait of blossoming queer love and all its attendant beauty and wretchedness, alongside the country’s coming of age as a nation. The novel reaches to the present and into the complications and hopes of contemporary queer life in Nigeria.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: In the first pages of Under the Udala Trees, you plunge us into the Biafran War — and a life-altering moment for Ijeoma, the novel’s protagonist. I think I am correct in believing that you are a generation removed from the conflict and am interested in the choice of historical setting. How has the war’s shadow shaped you as a writer, and more generally, what are its effect on your generation? Did you consider a contemporary setting for the book at all?
Many people seem intent on erasing the not-so-glamorous aspects of our history. But there are many of us Nigerians still living with the memories of the war.
Chinelo Okparanta: When the novel (in its present reincarnation) was born in my mind, this war period was its natural beginning. At its inception this was the story of a young girl, sent away during the war, after having lost her father. This aspect of the character having lost her father in the war was inspired by my mother’s life. In addition to hearing about the death of her father, I grew up hearing stories of the young men she knew who went to fight for Biafra and never returned. I heard about the food scarcity, about the way people ran and hid inside the bunkers during the bombing raids. I heard about the kwashiorkor children and about the corpses littering the roads. Nigerians don’t like so much to talk about the war, especially not these days, with the “Africa Rising” narrative. Many people seem intent on erasing the not-so-glamorous aspects of our history. But there are many of us Nigerians still living with the memories of the war. I’d like to think that as more time passes, and as the wounds become less raw and gaping, more stories will be told.
JRR: While the war rages around her, Ijeoma has to grapple with the dangers of her emerging sexuality and love for Amina. I was especially struck by how you invoke both Christian scriptures and Igbo folk tales to weave together the complexities of Ijeoma’s predicament. Would you talk a little bit about these currents and their impact on the shaping of the novel?
CO: I grew up on Igbo folktales. And, like many Nigerians, I grew up in a very religious atmosphere: I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, which meant that I attended Bible studies three to four times a week. Those two aspects of my life came together naturally when writing the novel. There’s a proverb by Chinua Achebe that goes, “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” I would say that these days, for many Nigerians, Bible verses have replaced our traditional proverbs. These days, Bible verses are often the palm-oil with which words are eaten. But for Ijeoma, I think the Bible stories and verses were in some ways an extension of the folktales. For her, it was a sort of juggling act: using elements of the folktale (and storytelling elements, in general) to try to understand the Bible.
JRR: I really appreciate your Chinua Achebe tribute, particularly the lines: “His name was something like water, something like air — an ongoing and essential part of my existence, though often taken for granted.” Achebe is just one of the very many enchanting storytellers that Nigeria has given the world. Do you feel that you are writing as part of this established canon? What effect, if any, do you feel this has when you approach the page?
I don’t feel that I am writing as part of an established Nigerian canon. I’m simply writing…
CO: It is true that, like Achebe, I am the product of the Igbo oral storytelling tradition; this tradition has perhaps had the strongest influence on my work. It is also true that I write a lot about Nigerians. But no, I don’t feel that I am writing as part of an established Nigerian canon. I’m simply writing: Writing from a place of emotional truth. Writing about things that move me. I think it would be a mistake for any writer to write with the intention of entering a particular canon, or with the intention of being part of any trend. By the time the work is done, the trend might have moved on; the canon might have been redefined and re-set. Canons often change. That being said, if, in my lifetime, I were to accidentally find myself in any canon of great writers, I would be super excited. I would gather my mother and siblings and all my BFFs, and we would do the dance of joy around the kitchen table!
JRR: In Under the Udala, Ugochi, Ijeoma’s roommate says, “Everyone knows the story of Okonkwo.” This seems to be true — Things Fall Apart is so very much a cherished part of many lit syllabi. Okonkwo’s story is deeply centered on masculinity, and his show of it to his community. It seems too that much of Udala (and the stories of your debut Happiness, Like Water) are about the feminine, and its workings, values, and value within the characters’ prevailing societies. Would you discuss this? Perhaps in the context of the book’s evocative title?
CO: That’s a nice thought — the idea that Under the Udala Trees might be in some ways the feminine counterpart to Things Fall Apart. It would make for an interesting study! Where the title is concerned, the udala fruit was one of my favorite fruits growing up, so it made its way naturally into my writing. The fruit itself is thought to symbolize female fertility, so, in that way, it was also relevant to the themes of my novel, as the novel seeks to interrogate prescriptive notions of femininity.
Men tell women how to be. Women tell other women how to be.
Udala fruit aside, it seems to me that in too many societies, people are obsessed with telling women how to be women. Men tell women how to be. Women tell other women how to be. Womanity is often being defined in relation to men or in relation to other women or in relation to children. I wanted to write this novel about a woman who goes on a personal journey at the end of which she comes to terms with herself and with her own personal beliefs; a novel about a woman who succeeds in defining herself outside of those restrictive societal constructs.
JRR: Without giving away too much, I’ll say I was relieved by Ijeoma’s eventual fate. I imagine you must get a lot of emails about your work from the global Nigerian LGBTQ community. Are you hopeful for a more peaceful and open life for queer communities in Nigeria?
I do hope that there comes a time when Nigerians finally accept that homosexuality is in fact a natural part of our society just as it is with all other societies.
CO: Actually, there are parts of Nigeria (Hausaland) in which members of the queer community exist relatively conspicuously and fairly peacefully. This is not the norm for all of Nigeria, but nevertheless, these ‘yan daudu (i.e. men who “present” as women, or in the least, as a cross between masculinity and femininity) enjoy relative freedom. Even so, they still fall victim to homophobia. And, they are still looked upon as aberrations. The general attitude of Nigerians toward the ‘yan daudu is one of reluctant tolerance — the notion that they are not a naturally existing part of Nigerian culture. These ‘yan daudu are expected to marry women and have children, contrary to what they might really want. So, in the end, theirs is a false sort of freedom. I do hope that there comes a time when Nigerians finally accept that homosexuality is in fact a natural part of our society just as it is with all other societies.
JRR: You don’t shy away from the difficult in your fiction. How has your work been received by your family and community in Nigeria?
CO: I have received some interesting messages via social media. Messages that seemed half-joking, but also half-serious, along the lines of: “If you do that Gloria and Nnenna thing in Nigeria, we will kill you.” I was upset at the time, but nowadays I just think to myself, “Well, they haven’t killed you yet!” Anyway, my mom and siblings and friends have all read my work. I have the support of the people who count.
JRR: I read and contemplated the last line of your acknowledgement quite a bit: “Last but not least, God and the Universe, for conspiring together to make this book the assured expectation of things hoped for, and the evident demonstration of realities, though not beheld.” Would you meditate further on this?
CO: The novel was a difficult book to write. On the surface, it seems a rather simple book, but it’s astonishing how much effort goes into chiseling down words and ensuring they are unpretentious, unaffected, honest, and true to themselves. I’m naturally a “simple” writer. But even for me, this was work.
Also, the novel came at a difficult time in my life. Between the weird, threatening messages from random people who thought I should not be writing about homosexuality, and general difficulties in figuring out this whole writing business, it’s a surprise to me that I was even able to write the book. Basically, that aspect of the acknowledgment is simply a sigh of relief. Relief that I had set out to write a meaningful novel, and I had succeeded in doing just that. Relief that I set out to create a fictional storyline that would embody some sort of hope for those who found themselves in the same situation as my protagonist. I hope I have succeeded in doing that.