UNDER THE UDALA TREES

A Novel

Chinelo Okparanta

Inspired by Nigeria’s folktales and its war, Under the Udala Trees is a deeply searching, powerful debut about the dangers of living and loving openly.

Ijeoma comes of age as her nation does; born before independence, she is eleven when civil war breaks out in the young republic of Nigeria. Sent away to safety, she meets another displaced child and they, star-crossed, fall in love. They are from different ethnic communities. They are also both girls.

When their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself.

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Inspired by Nigeria’s folktales and its war, Under the Udala Trees is a deeply searching, powerful debut about the dangers of living and loving openly.

Ijeoma comes of age as her nation does; born before independence, she is eleven when civil war breaks out in the young republic of Nigeria. Sent away to safety, she meets another displaced child and they, star-crossed, fall in love. They are from different ethnic communities. They are also both girls.

When their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself. But there is a cost to living inside a lie.

As Edwidge Danticat has made personal the legacy of Haiti’s political coming of age, Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees uses one woman’s lifetime to examine the ways in which Nigerians continue to struggle toward selfhood. Even as their nation contends with and recovers from the effects of war and division, Nigerian lives are also wrecked and lost from taboo and prejudice. This story offers a glimmer of hope — a future where a woman might just be able to shape her life around truth and love.

Acclaimed by Vogue, the Financial Times, and many others, Chinelo Okparanta continues to distill “experience into something crystalline, stark but lustrous” (New York Times Book Review). Under the Udala Trees marks the further rise of a star whose “tales will break your heart open” ().

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  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Hardcover
  • September 2016
  • 320 Pages
  • 9780544003361

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About Chinelo Okparanta

One of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012, Chinelo Okparanta grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. She lived in Nigeria until the age of ten, when her family came to the United States. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has also taught middle school, high school, and college.

Praise

Under the Udala Trees is a gripping story of love, faith, and turmoil in post–civil war Nigeria. When Ijeoma falls in love with another girl, she must come to terms with who she is in a society that refuses to accept her. A heartbreaking and moving account of Ijeoma’s coming-of-age, as well as the story of a country during a time of great disturbance, Under the Udala Trees will affect you deeply.”—Buzzfeed, “The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015”

“Ijeoma is a young girl growing up in the difficult years following Nigeria’s 1967 Biafran War. But coming of age in a war-torn country isn’t her only challenge: She’s also struggling to balance her taboo same-sex relationship with her mother’s (and her society’s) expectations. Chinelo Okparanta’s writing is so immersive that even readers who have nothing in common with Ijeoma will feel like they’ve lived her experience. I couldn’t put the book down and even pulled an all-nighter to finish it (then was a zombie at work the next day). Plan your schedule around this binge read!”—NPR, “Our Guide To 2015’s Great Reads”

“At the height of the Biafran war, two Nigerian girls fall in love. The romance is brief, but for Ijeoma, the narrator of this début novel, it is the beginning of years of pain…The love story has hypnotic power…Details of disco-era Nigeria—jerricans filled with palm wine, a suitor in bell-bottom trousers—suggest Okparanta’s skill and promise.”—The New Yorker, “Briefly Noted”

“She had me at ‘inspired by Nigeria’s folktales…’, but I stayed for a story that should be told far more often than it is: That of a same-sex couple (two girls, in this case) who fall in love very young and keep their bond through the ravages of war, cultural ignorance, time, and fate. Ijeoma and Amina are born into a 1960s world of conflict, and while the decades may change, the conflicts continue, especially for the couple themselves. As Ijeoma tells us, ‘If I had not met Amina, who knows, maybe there would be no story to tell.’ That’s the simple but deep truth at the heart of every love story, especially a love story between two girls whose skin happens to be dark.”—Literary Hub, “10 Overlooked Novels by Women of Color in 2015”

Discussion Questions

1. What did you learn about Nigeria’s civil war? What role does it play in this novel? What is the significance of Ijeoma and Amina being from separate tribes?

2. What is “ubosi chi ji ehihe jie” or “the day night fell in the afternoon,” and how does it impact the lives of Ijeoma and her family? What does her father tell Ijeoma about worrying? Why does he stay in the house rather than join his family in the bunker?

3. After her father’s death, Ijeoma begins to think that perhaps the nature of life is change. Does her view on this subject evolve throughout the story? Is change ultimately presented as a positive force or a negative one?

4. Why does Ijeoma’s mother send Ijeoma off to stay with the grammar school teacher and his wife? When Ijeoma’s mother comes back for her, what is their reconciliation like? What do these scenes reveal about their relationship?

5. Does Ijeoma believe that she acted in error or feel any guilt? How do her mother’s and the teacher’s responses affect her self-perception and life choices? Is she affected by the views on sexuality that she comes to see are held by society? Is the author offering a commentary on how LGBT citizens are treated in Nigeria today?

6. Explore the effects of war on those it touches in the book. Who does the war seem to have the greatest impact on? How are the lives of the characters altered by the war going on around them? Does the author provide a clear sense of what the warring groups are fighting over? Ultimately, what view of war and conflict or message(s) about war and conflict does the author offer to her readers?

7. Consider how love is defined within the novel. What examples of love are present throughout? Look at the various relationships depicted within the story. Does any single definition or view of love seem to stand out from all the rest?

8. Ijeoma frequently recalls the folktales that were told to her as a child. What kinds of lessons do these folktales impart? What role do folktales play, then, in teaching concepts of “right” and “wrong” to children? What does this indicate about storytelling and the importance of literature?

9. How does Ijeoma react to the Bible lessons that she sits through with her mother? What does Ijeoma suggest about the Bible stories that her mother reads with her? What message or messages might this offer about allegory and the way that we read and interpret texts?

10. Evaluate the theme of faith in the novel. Consider Ijeoma’s relationship to God and religion. Is there ultimately a conflict between Ijeoma’s faith and her desires? What other examples of faith are presented in the book?

11. When Amina marries, Ijeoma feels that she has been betrayed. Are there other examples of betrayal found in the story? Do the characters regret these betrayals? Are their choices justifiable? Do they seek or find forgiveness?

12. Why does Ijeoma marry Chibundu? Evaluate the depiction of their marriage in the story. What role does marriage seem to play within the culture? Does this help us to better understand Ijeoma’s decision?

13. In Chapter 56, Ijeoma sits in church thinking about a baby who was born with a harelip a few months earlier. Why is she so taken by this? What does Ijeoma say that the fate of the baby reveals about the treatment of “anything outside the norm” (228)?

14. How does Chibundu treat his daughter? What do his feelings reveal about the treatment of women and gender roles in this culture? How does this compare to the treatment of women in other cultures? How does it compare to the treatment of women in your own country today? Does Chibundu ever change his behavior?

15. Why does Ijeoma ultimately leave Chibundu? How did Chibundu respond? And how did you respond as a reader? Where does Ijeoma ultimately end up? Do you consider this a happy ending?

16. Explore the motif of dreams in the story. In the Epilogue, Ijeoma says, “[i]n a life story full of dreams, there are even more dreams” (315). What does she mean by this? How important or meaningful are dreams to the characters who have them? What do the dreams reveal about the characters?

17. At the conclusion of the story, Ijeoma speaks of her fondness for Hebrews 8 and the importance of change and revision. Is there some way that necessary change and the passing down of traditions can be reconciled, or will the two always be at odds? Must traditions be discarded or eschewed for the greater benefit of society and its members?

18. What is Ijeoma’s understanding of God? Where do you see different interpretations of faith throughout the book, and what does that mean for the different characters and their relationships with each other?