Books We Love: Under the Udala Trees

Kiyoko Shiosaki shares the joyous experience of discovering a blazing new talent: Chinelo Okparanta, Author of Under the Udala Trees.

By Kiyoko Shiosaki, OPL Collection Development Intern

 

As NoViolet Bulawayo says in her interview with Chinelo Okparanta, “When you encounter a good storyteller you want to find all of [their] work and inhale it.”

This is exactly how I felt when I checked out Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees  (see 10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in September 2015), a coming-of-age and coming-out story of a Christian girl falling in love with a Muslim girl during the Nigerian Civil War, and her healing process as she grows older and searches for peace with her past and identity. Udala fruit or star apples (chrysophyllum albidum) represent female fertility and generosity, as Okparanta tells Arun Rath on NPR that this story is “the journey of girl who is told to be a certain way…and still winds up making a more informed decision for herself.”

Okparanta manages the immensity of war and gives us the human interactions that continue to make up daily life- frustration, play, heartbreak, beauty, and loneliness. She describes smells in a way that takes you to that exact place and time, she writes of food that makes your mouth water and your heart long for home. Her writing remembers things- those details that bring a memory back into feeling, and weaves these memories into a story that feels so complete, it’s hard to imagine how it didn’t exist before.

As soon as I inhaled this book, I went looking for her short stories in Happiness, Like Water. I love this title, and felt a sad satisfaction in the final tale called “Grace” where the phrase makes its appearance. Her stories humbly ask, Why? Why couldn’t Eve have a second chance at Eden after eating the apple? Why do women with dark skin feel the pressure to bleach it? Why do mothers who love their daughters make the choice to protect their husbands first? Why can’t a student get a visa to study in the very country that came and exploited her own resources in the first place? 

Now that her novel is out, you can find many reviews and interviews in the New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker, and The Guardian; but my favorite articles were written before Under the Udala Trees was published by Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn at Mosaic, NoViolet Bulawayo in the Munyori Literary Journal, and Yuka Igarashi at Granta. When Igarashi asks Okparanta what she is currently working on in 2012, and what her writing process is like, she replies:

I am working on a novel. I’m not very good at writing novels yet, so I spend most of my time just thinking about this novel. I spend most of my time just thinking in general. Anyway, one day I will write down all my thoughts for this novel. Not all in a day, of course. And when I do, I hope it comes out well.

 This day has come, and that novel is Under the Udala Trees, a courageous and powerful work from an author Tayari Jones calls a “truth teller and soothsayer… with a lens both panoramic and kaleidoscopic.”

                                        

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