No writer wants the defining trait of his or her novel to be that it reminds critics and readers of other best-selling and/or critically acclaimed novels. The Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, does this from the first page… actually from the very first sentence.
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet…
That is not Okparanta, but the famous opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s (or, if you prefer, Karen Blixen’s) Out of Africa. In the paragraphs that immediately follow Dinesen goes on to to describe the topography, the weather and the sounds of her home in Kenya. And say what you want about Dinesen – her politics, her character, her ability to run a farm – she could write. Those opening pages of Out of Africa are a sensory immersion, and the country of Kenya is as important a character in her story as any man or woman she introduces later in the narrative.
Okparanta also opens with her protagonist describing her home in Africa.
Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.
Okparanta narrator goes on the describe her family’s compound, the wet versus dry season, the smells and noises, the life she lived as a child before the Biafran War interrupted in 1967 – a period of time notably brought to most Western readers’ attention by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun. But most of Under the Udala Trees takes place in the aftermath of that war. Nigeria is not a character, nor is it integral to her story. The plot momentum comes from it being a coming of age and a coming out story which could, unfortunately, have taken place in many African nations. The book purports to be about the relationship between two young girls, but is more about the sexual journey of only one of those girls. The narrator, Ijeoma, is a Nigerian girl who is attracted to women. And while her relationships are sometimes interesting – with her first love, her mother, her husband, her daughter – they are never explored enough to be moving. They lack depth. Their portrayal is only one-sided. We never get to see the world through anyone’s other than Ijeoma’s eyes… and she is not especially effusive or forthcoming with her emotions or opinions. For the kind of portrait Okparanta is trying to create, – a nuanced one in which even the book’s antagonists are sympathetic though misguided – having a reserved character such as Ijeoma at the center is an unnecessary obstacle. Under the Udala Trees would have benefitted from multiple perspectives. As it is, it lacks a strong narrative arc, reading more like a personal essay than a story designed to inspire empathy or a strong emotional response.
There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker. Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.
If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.
Ijeoma meets Amina while acting as housegirl for a schoolteacher and his wife who were friends of her late father. Her mother has sent her there while she rebuilds a life for them in Ijeoma’s grandparents village. The two girls share their quarters, become close and eventually fall in love. They are discovered and Ijeoma’s mother is sent for. An extremely religious woman, Mama takes Ijeoma away and spends hours instructing her that what she has done is unnatural and an abomination in God’s eyes.
This doesn’t change Ijeoma, it only teaches her that her relationships must be conducted in secret. At school she and Amina meet again, and are again separated (this time by Amina). The plot, narrated in Ijeoma’s voice, chronicles her journey to love and acceptance. Okparanta hits all the expected plot points: first love, exposure, betrayal, a more mature relationship, violent persecution, an attempt to lead a “normal” heterosexual life, and then the realization that road leads only to unhappiness for everyone involved. Ultimately, Ijeoma has a happy ending of sorts – one that is realistic in the society in which she lives.
For all the flaws in this novel, Chinelo Okparanta writes well, as befits her background. A Nigerian-American writer, who immigrated to America at with her parents at age ten, she attended Penn State, Rutgers and is an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s been published everywhere you’d expect: Granta, Tin House, The New Yorker, etc. She’s held professorships and received fellowships and her book of short stories Happiness, Like Water, was well received. In Under the Udala Trees, her plain straight-forward prose style is interesting, sometimes even engaging. And there is no denying that she’s written a timely novel, one could even argue an important novel. But, unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating novel. Her heroine is too hesitant and circumspect in what we are expected to believe are her innermost thoughts and desires. The words “suppose”, “might” and “perhaps” pop up often. Ironically, the one thing Ijeoma is quite definite about is her preference for women. Though she is frequently told that her feelings are wrong – as if love could ever be wrong – she barely struggles with them. She never seems torn or even confused by the fact that she is attracted to women, and yet at the book’s turning point she inexplicably turns her back on the woman she loves and instead marries a childhood friend (we assume to please her mother). This happens with no explanation as to why, no real foreshadowing and no insight into the pressure (we again must assume) she feels to conform. The actual decision is made between chapters. The actual undoing of that decision also happens between chapters. Okparanta seems to have an innate fear of climactic scenes. She may be the rare author whose work has suffered from too much editing. Under the Udala Trees has the skeleton of a great book in it, but sadly lacks the substance of one.