Interview: Chinelo Okparanta, Author Of 'Under The Udala Trees' Chinelo Okparanta's new novel follows a Nigerian girl as she grows up during a violent civil war and struggles to come to terms with her sexuality.

Finding Love And Self-Acceptance 'Under the Udala Trees'

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The new book "Under The Udala Trees" is the coming-of-age story of a young girl named Ijeoma, as she asserts her independence in life and love. But author Chinelo Okparanta throws everything in her protagonist's way. Ijeoma is just a child in 1967 when the Nigerian civil war erupts. The government brutally stamped out a rebellion by the Igbo people in the South, who had seceded and formed their own nation, Biafra. After her father dies in an air raid, young Ijeoma is abandoned by her mother into a life of domestic servitude. That may seem like a lot of tragedy to load onto one character, but Chinelo Okparanta told me she drew inspiration from her own mother's experience of the Biafran war.

CHINELO OKPARANTA: My mother watched her father die in the war the same way my protagonist does and watched many of - you know, many men - young men go out to fight for Biafra and just - they never came back.

RATH: A lot of heavy civilian suffering in that war.

OKPARANTA: Exactly. Right.

RATH: And I would like you to read a passage from - this is fairly close to the top of the book. Ijeoma's father was killed by the bombing in the war, and then the hardship after the war takes her away from her mother. Could you read from some months before the war?

OKPARANTA: (Reading) Some months before the war came, Mama had insisted that the nightgown was too old to continue to be worn and that I should allow her to throw it out. But I had refused. Now, as I slipped it on, it reminded of Mama and Papa and of Ojutu (ph) and of peace and calm and of our lives before the war. I was grateful to have it. What did it matter about the holes or the fading colors? My life had been turned upside down, so perhaps it was fitting that I should have such a nightgown, just the kind of thing that a castaway would wear. And I was indeed a castaway. I might as well embrace and play the part of a derelict child. No matter, I decided. If this was the rice that God was putting in my basket, there was no point wishing for soup.

RATH: Is that a traditional phrase, or is that your own coinage? Did you make that up?

(LAUGHTER)

OKPARANTA: It's one of these idioms or proverb kind of things because I grew up with people always reciting these proverbs to me. Between that and Bible verses and all these Bible quotes, I thought that it would be fun to just play around with it in the novel.

RATH: I know a lot less about Nigerian literature and folktales than I know about the Bible. But I feel like there are some other myths underpinning the story. I wonder if you could talk about that.

OKPARANTA: Yes, so there's the whole idea of the udala trees, which - the udala fruit represents, like, female fertility. And so I wanted to paint the journey of a girl who is told to be a certain way, thinks about them and still winds up making, like, a more informed decision for herself.

RATH: So playing a part, whether it's the part of a derelict child, a good daughter, it comes into conflict with what is really in her own heart.

OKPARANTA: Right.

RATH: Tell us about Ijeoma's first love, Amina - how these two girls connect and what they mean to each other.

OKPARANTA: Ijeoma meets Amina when she is on an errand. And she happens to stumble upon this girl, who is actually following her, and she takes her home. And so the relationship just blooms into a friendship and then becomes more than that.

RATH: You know, getting into this story, one kind of expected it to be about really focusing on the lovers, on Ijeoma and Amina. But, of course, that is there. But this driving relationship in the novel really seems like it's between Ijeoma and her mother, which is both a loving and abusive relationship.

OKPARANTA: I don't actually consider that an abusive relationship. Maybe that says something about my experience or something. But I think it's a mother who really loves her daughter and is so invested in it. But it's also a mother who is a product of her society, you know. And so - you know, I hear all sorts of excuses or reasons why a person's sexuality should not be what it is. And so that's essentially what the mother does when she says, oh, is it because I left you? Is it because I let you see your father's - your dead father's body, you know? Is it because this and is it because that? And maybe the girl just loves women. Maybe that's just her sexuality.

RATH: And by the end of the novel, you know, while Ijeoma has - maybe her personal situation might have improved, you know, we do know that the LGBTQ community in Nigeria is still suffering a lot of persecution. Did you talk with the community there about what's going on now and - to try to incorporate that?

OKPARANTA: I do have a friend who lives in the North of Nigeria - well, he lives in Abuja. We talk a lot about the LGBTQ community and the law that passed back in 2014. And what it does is it criminalizes same-sex relationships. And if you get caught in some kind of same-sex act, it is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. And then if you combine that with the Shariah laws, you could be killed - death by stoning. So it's a scary situation to be in if you're part of the LGBTQ community. You're always being cautious.

RATH: What kind of audience do you expect for this book, or what kind of reaction do you expect to get there?

OKPARANTA: (Laughter) I have no idea. Maybe they think what is this girl doing writing these homosexual things? But maybe with time, they will acknowledge to themselves that I am just doing something that is humanistic.

RATH: Chinelo Okparanta, her novel "Under The Udala Trees" is out on Tuesday. Thank you so much. It's been great speaking with you.

OKPARANTA: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

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