Comments from the judges
A splendid first novel from a promising and exquisite young writer. Set against the backdrop of war in Nigeria, the story is one of friendship and love, and an attempt to give African marginalized gay and lesbian citizens a powerful voice. In Mia Couto’s words, this is “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.”
About the book
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.
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.
About the Author
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.
Ijeoma is 11 years old when the Nigerian civil war breaks out. Wanting to keep her safe, her mother sends Ijeoma to live with family friends in another town. There, Ijeoma meets a girl and falls in love. The two girls are discovered and immediately yanked apart. Ijeoma’s mother, armed with Christianity, assaults her daughter with daily bible study. The book has a storytelling mode, as if told by an adult Ijeoma, which gives the book an intimate feel.