Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel Under the Udala Trees opens with its narrator, Ijeoma, as a young girl whose family is caught in the middle of the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s. On the first day of Ijeoma’s story, her deep-thinking father refuses to seek shelter during an air raid and is killed. In the aftermath of this, Ijeoma is sent away to live as a servant with a corpulent grammar school teacher and his wife. Ijeoma makes the best of bad circumstances. She even makes a friend, Amina, and the two are immediately attracted to each other. “We might as well be married,” Amina says one day. It isn’t long before the two young women are discovered by the grammar school teacher in what he screams is “an abomination.” Ijeoma is soon separated from Amina and sent back home to her Mama, who mandates nightly Bible study sessions with the intention of correcting Ijeoma’s thoughts toward Amina. The inability of scripture to do this draws Mama’s ire until, eventually, before embarking for boarding school, Ijeoma lies to Mama, shaking her head no when asked if she still thinks of Amina “in that way.”
The above is just the beginning of Ijeoma’s story, less than the first third of the novel. There is much to follow and all of it, though firmly rooted in time and place, adds up to a universally salient and timely story of love against all odds.
Okparanta was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and lives in New York. Her previous book, the story collection Happiness, Like Water, won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and her shorter fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and elsewhere.
She will be appearing in Portland for the city’s Wordstock Book Festival this weekend.
The Rumpus: In a very short time you’ll be taking part in Portland’s Wordstock Book Festival. As a younger writer, did you go to a lot of readings? Are there any authors who seeing read in person was for you especially important or instructive?
Chinelo Okparanta: Yes, I did attend lots of readings while I was a student at Iowa. Some of my favorites were those of my peers. They were always entertaining and just super creative.
Some years ago, I attended a Zadie Smith reading at Purdue University, where she read her story “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets.” It was phenomenal, a performance type reading in which she essentially “acted out” the roles of the characters. Gestures, personalities, attitudes, and all. It was one of the most engaging readings I’ve ever attended.
Rumpus: What’s it like to be on the other side of this, to now be the person who others are coming to hear read?
Okparanta: It’s weird. Once, I did a reading in New York where an older lady came up to me afterwards and said, “Your writing is beautiful, and there’s no doubt you’re a great writer, but I’m sorry I won’t be reading any more of that story. That was just too painful for me.” Then, a year or two later, I did a reading in Florida where another lady raised her hand and asked, “Don’t you write anything happy?” After a couple more of those, it finally clicked. I realized that for many people attending a reading is like watching television at the end of a long day. They don’t want to be sad. They want to laugh. Chances are they’ll pick the sitcoms over the horror movies. This writing business is all about learning. So I learned. I learned that, while one’s larger body of fiction can have quite a bit of sadness and conflict and tragedy in it (and in fact, most good fiction does), in a reading environment, the average audience member seems able to tolerate only a little bit of sadness. They’d much rather the reading be sexy, funny, intelligent, and witty. But little to no sadness. Life is hard these days. There’s more than enough sadness in the world, so I certainly can’t blame them.
Which is all just to say that my book is actually a very happy book! Happy and hopeful and there’s some good, healthy love-making, and funny scenes, and lots of wit. And you should all read it. [Laughs]
Rumpus: About three years ago in an interview with Granta you said that you weren’t doing a lot of writing for the novel, instead you were mostly just thinking and, you said, one day you’d write all your thoughts down. What was it that had to click mentally, what piece of the puzzle had to fall into place, before you could begin to put words to page for Under the Udala Trees?
Okparanta: I just had to wait until the story felt ready to be written. There was no real magic to it. But I will say that winter helps. I was teaching at very cold places as I worked on the novel. Hamilton, New York. West Lafayette, Indiana. There was little else to do but to stay home, bake some brownies, and write.
Rumpus: Referring to your previous book, the story collection Happiness, Like Water, you said that you wrote some of those stories to purge something from your past, to work out a problem that had been bothering you personally. Was there anything similar going on with this novel?
Okparanta: Yes. The novel is in some ways an extension of the collection. They were written within the same general time frame, so I was working through similar sorts of issues: issues related to gender and women’s roles in society, the force of tradition and religion, domestic violence, etc.
Rumpus: There’s an extended section in the novel when Ijeoma’s Mama sits Ijeoma down to study the Bible and teach her why it is that homosexuality is an abomination. What struck me most about this section of the book was Ijeoma’s own intellectual awakening. She starts to formulate her own original interpretations of the Bible stories her mother is reading pretty narrowly. I found it to be a real testament to the intellectual curiosity of young people that Ijeoma could pull such a revelation from material being force fed to her in a really reactionary way.
Okparanta: Yes, children often do find their own meanings. And, as Ijeoma is really not so young when she does, and as she has been lucky enough to have had an intelligent, educated father who reasoned out things with her when he was still alive, she is able to intellectualize her mother’s teachings, to question them, to make her own meanings out of them. This skill she probably owes to her father.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit more about the presence of her father, who, though not a physical presence for most of the book, is still very strongly felt? Although gone, he’s still a character.
Okparanta: The father is an interesting character, because in the few years he has with Ijeoma, he manages to instill in her a solid foundation for critical thinking. He is an ongoing presence for her in that way.
But beyond Ijeoma, the father is also an ongoing presence for Adaora (Ijeoma’s Mama), who cannot seem to let go of what his absence causes her to be: a woman without a man. In this sense, his absence, the void that he leaves, is more of a character in the novel than his presence ever was. As Adaora had almost completely defined herself in relation to him, it’s no wonder that she is lost when he dies. For much of the novel, her actions are in reaction to having lost him. Even her desire for Ijeoma to marry almost seems a way for her to live vicariously through Ijeoma, to, through her daughter, once more have the husband that she lost. Luckily, by the end of the novel, Adaora does find her balance and is able to stand on her own two feet.
Rumpus: Let me quickly ask you about Ijeoma’s Mama. Her discipline of Ijeoma is tough to read, but, at the same time, she loves her daughter and her fear for Ijeoma’s soul is real. Can you talk a little bit about the crafting of that character and, especially in those early chapters, walking that fine line tonally?
Okparanta: Mama is a product of her society, so her behaviors are quite honestly just a reflection of her society’s beliefs. In creating her character, I simply had to deeply imagine a woman who loved her daughter, but who had herself been indoctrinated with the Bible and its verses—a woman who had been taught to take the Bible literally, and who now could not help but do so, because her salvation, and her daughter’s, was somehow on the line.
Rumpus: In the novel’s epilogue you mention a “new generation of Nigerians with a stronger bent towards love than fear.” But, also in the epilogue, you document a brutal beating of a lesbian couple and in your author’s note you write about the 2014 laws criminalizing same-sex relationships with punishments ranging to of fourteen years in prison in some parts of the county to death by stoning in others. How do you see LGTBQ rights gaining traction in Nigeria? What is the role of story and narrative in that?
Okparanta: The situation in Nigeria is not all that different from many places around the world. After the publication of this book, I’ve been shocked by a handful of people here in the United States who have come up to me and said things along the lines of, “Well, we’ve moved on from that. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, so what’s the point writing that book?” I look at the people making the statement and I can just smell the privilege wafting out of them like perfume. And, I think to myself: this is the problem with privilege. When we live in our own privileged little bubble, it is convenient to pretend that all is well with the world, that everyone enjoys the same privileges that we do. We conveniently forget that there are others, sometimes our very own next-door neighbors, who suffer in ways that we do not. I think the novel is a testament to this: a reminder that just because we perceive ourselves free does not mean that everyone is indeed free. Even in America there are communities in which gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgenders are still persecuted. Less than two weeks ago a transgender woman was shot dead in a shopping center in Maryland. These things still happen, yes, even in America, and to turn a blind eye to them is to do a disservice to our own humanity. If we say to ourselves that there is no more homophobia in the United States, that the LGBTQ community no longer faces discrimination here, we are simply deceiving ourselves.
But to answer your question, Ijeoma is simply being hopeful about the younger generation of Nigerians. Her hope is personified in Chidinma, her daughter, who is a full-fledged ally. But Chidinma’s support does not stop Ijeoma from taking note of the hate crimes that members of the LGBTQ community in Nigeria continue to fall victim to. The novel, then, seeks to open up—make transparent—the lives of these particular members of Nigeria’s LGBTQ community, so that those with a hatred for same-sex love might see just how human same-sex love really is. Nothing to be afraid of. Certainly nothing deserving of punishment. This ability to expose—to make transparent—is the power of literature.
Rumpus: This is usually where I might ask about what are you working on now, but instead I’m curious about simply enjoying the sense of a job well done.
Okparanta: These days, I try to hold on to a story until it seems to me that any more tinkering and I will wreck it. Then, I hand it off to my agent. Sometimes she feels it’s done, sometimes it turns out it needs more work. Sometimes you’re not the best judge of your own work; you need someone else to tell you if it’s working or not.
Rumpus: Is there a sense of having to get going on something else right away?
Okparanta: I try not to rush into anything new until I’ve thought really hard about what I want it to be, how I want to proceed. I don’t generally sit down to start writing until I have a pretty solid idea of the story I want to tell.
Author photographs © Kelechi Okere.