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 the 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” (New York Daily News).
Okparanta [is] a graceful and precise writer.
—New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice
Okparanta is masterful...Here is writing rich in the beautiful intimacies of people who love each other—and wise about the importance of holding onto those precious connections in a world that is, more often than not, dangerous and cold. Written with courage and compassion, this debut novel by Okparanta stunningly captures a young girl's coming of age against the backdrop of a nation at war.
—Kirkus, Starred review
Okparanta dexterously layers her story with historical events and Nigerian folktales to give a fuller picture of both the beauty and conflict of the country and its cultures...[she] manages to leave readers hopeful for a better future through love and courage.
—Shelf Awareness, Starred Review
Gripping...Okparanta deftly negotiates a balance between a love story and a war story...through an undaunted Ijeoma, who in pursuit of seeking a fulfilling, joyful life gains an insightful awareness about the relationship between hatred and persecution – one that extends well beyond Nigeria’s borders.
I have never seen or read anything quite like Under the Udala Trees. Debut novelist Chinelo Okparanta (remember that name) blends traditional storytelling with a knockout plot.
A unique story told in a distinctive, lyrical voice.
Elegant and serious prose...Ijeoma is a narrator who reveals herself as the story develops, strong-willed, witty and unforgettable...It’s no small feat that a novel so weighed with heartbreak can end in a place of hope for the future.
Under the Udala Trees is written in a folkloric cadence, a music that echoes the many Nigerian war stories and songs that are woven into the book...[It] is a novel as much about queer experience as it is about origin and incidence, a story of war, of purpose and fate and accident...Clearly in the tradition Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Edwidge Danticat, and others whom Okparanta calls in her acknowledgements 'my predecessors, my guiding lights,' Under the Udala Trees does something further. Here we have a narrative of war, of LGBTQ Nigerians, and of Nigerians of faith. Ijeoma’s faith, her war-torn childhood, and her sexuality are not politized items, but deeply felt...But the power of Under the Udala Trees, a book that is both rich in history and magnificently felt, comes not from its panoramic displays of violence and terror, but from its nuanced refusals of grandiosity, its steady and elegant churn...Under the Udala Trees is unrelentingly a novel of hope...What is most surprising in this book, which, by description, is a story of LGBTQ rights and experience against the backdrop of Civil War, is that it is not a work of agitation. But this may be Okparanta’s sly shattering, a hopeful fracturing that allows for change.
This absorbing story parallels the ongoing struggle for equality in Nigeria and is a powerful contribution to LGBT and African literature. Readers will finish the book hoping that every however-flawed character will find his or her own version of happiness.
[A] deeply affecting debut novel...This is a remarkable portrait of a young woman’s coming-of-age in a society where rigid interpretations of the Bible label same-sex relationships as an 'abomination,' and where violence is all too often part of the 'solution.' The fact that Nigeria criminalized same-sex marriages in 2014 makes Okparanta’s tale that much more sobering and urgent. It is especially gratifying that one of the defining tag lines of the feminist movement, 'a woman without a man,' just might be co-opted here in another time and place.
[A] heartfelt coming-of-age story set in Nigeria....[A] well crafted coming-of-age novel; book groups in particular will likely find it's a good choice for discussion.
—The BookBrowse Review, Editor's Choice (Oct. 30, 2015)
Under the Udala Trees never reads like a position paper or a protest speech. As Ijeoma grows into womanhood, she suffers or witnesses many kinds of intolerance: sexism, ethnic hatred, homophobia, religious bigotry. There is even a glimpse of how children “cursed” with harelips or other birth defects are treated. Yet none of these experiences seem contrived. Each develops organically out of her life experience, making them more powerful both as character development and social commentary. Under the Udala Trees offers few verbal pyrotechnics, but the emotional honesty that drives it is devastating....[T]he unsettling truth it conveys is that most unnecessary suffering doesn’t come from the extremists. It comes from ordinary people who are just a bit narrower and a bit more unfeeling than they need to be.
—The Christian Science Monitor
[Okparanta] is unafraid to write about everything. Her prose is clear and beautifully paced.
—The Recorder, A Staff Pick
[A] striking debut novel...The scenes of war are rich in devastating detail, and Ijeoma's relationships with her parents are nuanced and affecting. Amina and Ijeoma's first love is sweetly, heartbreakingly portrayed...[The] novel stands as a necessary and important testament to the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people continue to face life-threatening challenges.
The journey to self-acceptance, and love – more difficult, the author reminds us, at other times, and in other places during our time, when same-sex love seems alluringly, misleadingly secure – is charted in minute steps in this wise-beyond-its-years novel...In an arresting understatement near the end of her novel, Okparanta writes, 'Some things can't easily be explained.' But they can be written about. Told. And you can tell someone. And really, you must.
—Bay Area Reporter Online
Rich in complexity, compassionate in the treatment of political violence and flagrant oppression...Okparanta’s prose feels natural, effortless. She renders the Nigerian landscape in lyrical bursts...and, as in her short stories, the rhythms slide seamlessly into intimate, conversational tones, equal parts folk tale and confessional. Throughout the book, many characters pound yams at the kitchen counter, echoing the constantly beating drums in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The hearts of the people beat in unison, the symbol seems to say — as do the hearts of literary forefathers and descendants.
A real talent. [Under the Udala Trees is] the kind of book that should have come with a cold compress kit. It’s sad and sensual and full of heat.
—John Freeman, Electric Lit
Courageous and heartbreaking and multifaceted.
Under the Udala Trees is a poetic but fierce portrayal of the Nigerian Civil War...[Okparanta] is a natural storyteller, and her words carry a graceful, folkloric quality...Under the Udala Trees is an important and timely read, imbued with both political ferocity and mythic beauty.
Okparanta’s novel is full of heart, and it’s incredibly smart — Under the Udala Trees is a must-read this fall.
Exceeding the extraordinary promise of Happiness, Like Water, her stunning story collection, Chinelo Okparanta has written a remarkable and exquisite first novel about wars – both external and internal – endurance, survival, and love. A coming of age story that demands not just to be not just read, but felt, Under the Udala Trees, wraps us in the spell of an exceptionally talented writer and storyteller.
—Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light, The Farming of Bones, and others
Chinelo Okparanta is major new voice not only because of her mesmerizing storytelling, but for her bravery and originality. She is a truth teller and soothsayer. In this debut novel, she brings us two unforgettable heroines, exposes the past – with a lens both panoramic and kaleidoscopic – and predicts a future heavy with struggle yet glowing with hope. Under the Udala Trees is breathtaking, rich with history and heart.
—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow and others
Under the Udala Trees is my favorite debut novel of the year – gorgeous, moving, and entirely hopeful. I wept through the final pages of this beautifully written, extremely necessary book.
—Jami Attenberg, author of Saint Mazie, The Middlesteins, and others
Under the Udala Trees is an evocative, fiercely told story about a woman's life, about family and love, and about becoming who you are meant to be. Chinelo Okparanta is an incendiary, essential voice.
—Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
Boldly unadorned and utterly heartbreaking—Okparanta dares to tell a story that the world desperately needs to hear. Almost fable-like in its simplicity, Under the Udala Trees interrogates constructions of womanhood, of nationhood, and of sexuality. In these elegant folds of restrained prose lies a searing condemnation: of violence, religion and patriarchy in modern day Nigeria. Raw, emotionally intelligent and unflinchingly honest, Under the Udala Trees is a triumph.
—Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go
Under the Udala Trees has all the ingredients of a great novel: set against the backdrop of war, it tells a story of loss, forbidden love, and one woman’s fight against tradition on her journey to becoming who she really is. An African bildungsroman, its direct and folkloric prose captures the spirit and mood of its time and place. This is a brave and timely achievement.
—Helon Habila, author of Measuring Time
Chinelo Okparanta tells a unique and devastatingly hopeful story about the paradox of love: Even in the midst of war, and in a world dominated by violence and prejudice, still, love transcends.
—Mia Couto, author of Sleepwalking Land and others
With this novel, Chinelo Okparanta has firmly placed her name amongst the ranks of some of our most talented and unflinching writers. Using words with both precision and sensitivity, Okparanta tells a tale of conflict and compromise, of love and power, and of family - those we are born into, and those we make for ourselves. A stunning book. Unforgettable.
—Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion's Gaze
A searing, yet delicately nuanced, story of an age of innocence first shattered by the vulgarity of war and its aftermath, and then by forbidden desire and religious intolerance. Under the Udala Trees is narrated in lyrical and lucid prose, in a wise and compassionate voice.
—Zakes Mda, author of The Heart of Redness and others
Here are Nigerian women at home and transplanted to the United States, building lives out of longing and hope, faith and doubt, the struggle to stay and the mandate to leave, the burden and strength of love. Here are characters faced with dangerous decisions, children slick with oil from the river, a woman in love with another despite the penalties. Here is a world marked by electricity outages, lush landscapes, folktales, buses that break down and never start up again. Here is a portrait of Nigerians that is surprising, shocking, heartrending, loving, and across social strata, dealing in every kind of change. Here are stories filled with language to make your eyes pause and your throat catch. Happiness, Like Water introduces a true talent, a young writer with a beautiful heart and a capacious imagination.
The stories in Okparanta’s first collection are quiet, often unnervingly so, in the manner of a stifled shriek…One character notes the silences that fall between her and her mother, ‘as if we no longer valued spoken words, as if spoken words were gaudy finishes on a delicate piece of art, unnecessary distractions from the masterpiece, whose substance was more meaningfully experienced if left unornamented.’ If this is Okparanta’s goal – the distillation of experience into something crystalline, stark but lustrous – she is well on her way there.
—New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice
In her first collection of stories, Nigerian-born Okparanta focuses primarily on African women and their relationships with family, lovers, colleagues, and the community at large. Okparanta draws on her experience as a Jehovah’s Witness growing up in Port Harcourt and immigrating to the U.S. These are fierce, unflinching stories of the complicated knotting of close ties and the strange behaviors of language. In stories of hearsay and rumor, Okparanta portrays the ways language creeps around social circles and intrudes, distorts, and penetrates the heart of life. In “Wahala!,” after receiving questionable advice from a shaman, a husband and wife hear chillingly different intonations in each other’s intimate exhalations. In “Fairness,” young girls overhear talk about using bleach to lighten skin color and experiment with the treatment to horrendous results. In other stories, Okparanta presents a picture of the U.S. as envisioned and talked about by Nigerians overseas. Named one of Granta’s New Voices, Okparanta joins the good company of young writers like NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names, 2013) and Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife, 2011).
[Okparanta] confirms her place as a writer to watch with the remarkable debut collection Happiness, Like Water... A clear-eyed, sensitive debut collection of stories by a talented young Nigerian writer exploring themes of family, religion, longing and duty.
Okparanta skillfully introduces readers to a new world held back by old-world traditions.
Nigeria, the vibrancy of its heart, the soul of its people, is captured in these stories.
Bittersweet. . .[Happiness, Like Water] is an extremely promising debut: the handling of tone and perspective is assured; the prose lucid and elegant throughout.
—Financial Times (UK)
Okparanta is an unpretentious writer, but her ambition comes through in the lives she renders—young Nigerian women divided between home and a new world.
Happiness, Like Water is a collection about of Nigerian women both at home in Nigeria and relocated to the United States. As these women try to make sense of their new lives as mothers and wives in a new country, the reader sees the struggles that need to be overcome, and the emotions that come along with a major life change such as this.... [A] great use of writing to show the human condition.
...[A]stonishing. Her narrators render their stories with such strength and intimacy, such lucidity and composure, that in each and every case the truths of their lives detonate deep inside the reader’s heart, with the power and force of revelation.
—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers
...[T]ender, beautiful and evocative. These powerful stories of contemporary Nigeria are told with compassion and a certain sense of humour. What a remarkable new talent.
—Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street
Intricate, graceful prose propels Okparanta’s profoundly moving and illuminating book. I devoured these stories and immediately wanted more. This is an arrival.
—NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names
A haunting and startlingly original collection of short stories about the lives of Nigerians both at home and in America. Okparanta’s characters are forced to make difficult, often impossible choices—a university student decides to go to work as an escort to pay for her mother’s medical bills, a high school teacher is asked to come home to care for her dying, abusive father—and yet they manage to prevail through quiet and sometimes surprising acts of defiance. Okparanta’s prose is elegant and precise, fueled by a strong undercurrent of rage that surfaces at unexpected moments. Happiness, Like Water is a deeply affecting literary debut, the work of a sure and gifted new writer.
—Julie Otsuka, author of National Bestseller and National Book Award Finalist The Buddha in the Attic
Without bluster, Chinelo Okparanta writes stories that are brave and devastating.
—Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist