Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel Under the Udala Trees begins in 1967, seven years after Nigeria gains its independence from Britain, and one year into the Nigerian civil war to reclaim the separatist state of Biafra. Divided into six sections, the novel is narrated by Ijeoma, a ten-year-old Igbo girl living in Ojoto, whose life of prosperity takes a downward spiral due to the effects of war.
Transitioning from a life that centered around the wet and dry seasons to one proscribed by bombing raids, where she and her family must run and hide in their secret bunker, Ijeoma swaps a privileged middle-class existence for one of dangerous instability. Losing her father in a raid, Ijeoma and her mother quickly devolve into poverty and nearly starve. Ijeoma is sent off to be a housegirl—a live-in servant—to ensure she is educated, clothed and fed.
The war uproots everyone. Children roam the streets with “begging bowls” and distended bellies. They wait outside for the relief lorry to bring food supplies. Babies are orphaned, wives are widowed, people return from bunkers to find their homes destroyed, windows blown in, and loved ones killed. Corpses line the streets and people pass them on their way to market to buy kerosene. The effects of the war are even inscribed on the land:
Before the war came, the land, where there were plants, was covered with lush green grass. On the grass grew weeds, and among the weeds, and from the bushes, grew flowers. The wind carried the dandelion clocks, and the hibiscus flowers painted the buses red, and it was barely remarkable a thing, that deep redness of theirs. But now almost all the plants had withered, and the wind carried in it only traces of destruction.
Okparanta is unsparing in her depiction of the war-torn landscape of Ijeoma’s journey: “Corpses flanked the roads. Decapitated bodies. Bodies with missing limbs. All around was the persistent smell of decaying flesh.” After she settles into her new role as a housegirl, Ijeoma’s errands take her past even more grisly sights: “In a field right next to the road, a policeman was moving through a row of corpses, using a long cane to prod them or mark them as he went.”
Unlike Okparanta’s first book, the short story collection Happiness, Like Water, which featured stories that took place in both Nigeria and America, Under the Udala Trees is solely located on Nigerian soil. In order to recoup their losses, find safer lodgings, and seek better economic prospects, Ijeoma and her mother move among villages, towns, and cities, traveling from Ojoto to Nnewi to Aba to Oraifitie, and to Port Harcourt. Having shed their middle-class privilege, they try on new identities in these new places—widow, housegirl, merchant, schoolgirl. Okparanta shows how, as a result of the war, people live makeshift lives and make makeshift families. People from different tribes and classes who otherwise would not associate find themselves thrown together by necessity and desperation. Ijeoma’s mother clings to religious and cultural norms, which Ijeoma rejects, which becomes its own kind of danger.
Against the backdrop of coups and countercoups, blockades that prevent relief aid from reaching starving victims, and a once-lush land now barren and withered Okparanta focuses on Ijeoma’s inner war—her personal struggle to come to terms with her budding sexuality in an environment where her sexual preferences challenge cultural norms. Under the Udala Trees begins in the midst of the Nigerian civil war but ends in 2014 in present day Nigeria, shifting from the aftereffects of the Nigerian civil war to a religious and cultural war against same-sex couples. Both sections include images of buildings destroyed by bombing raids and corpses left for dead on the street, but in the second section these ravages are acts of violence against same-sex couples, byproducts of the criminalization of same-sex unions which encourages the persecution of those who identify as gay. Churches that serve as nighttime gathering places for lesbians are raided, razed to the ground, and destroyed, while women are removed from their safe spaces and burned alive. Corpses of gay men are found beaten, desecrated, and left in the grass, ignored by officials who refuse to remove and bury them.
Despite the violence, Okparanta’s narrative style is graceful and understated. It reflects Ijeoma’s youth, and naivete, and it characterizes her thoughts and actions as she matures. In Ijeoma, Okaparanta has created a victim who survives two different wars— one waged against her cultural identity and one waged against her sexual orientation. Both are life-threatening, and both teach her how to live with scars.