Under the Udala Trees, Chinelo Okparanta's debut novel has received international critical acclaim. 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. She spoke to SSDA.
You have an applauded writing history in short stories (we approve). Under the Udala Trees is your first novel. Was tackling a novel was a very different experience? Or was the writing process similar, but with more words?
CHINELO: Thank you. I’m glad you approve of my short stories. Writing my novel was different from writing the stories that went into my collection. The mulling-over of sad, upsetting occurrences in the lives of my characters for such an extended period of time—much longer than with my short stories—was not easy. And then of course, there are the practical things—the structuring of a novel, figuring out how to keep a narrative interesting for such a long stretch, etc. I don’t imagine these are ever easy for a first time novelist.
In her memoir Black Milk, Elif Shafak speaks of difficulty women writers have in writing about female sexuality in an authentic manner. That in these narratives, women often feel a need for "permission to tell the story."
Your book, Under the Udala Trees, is about a woman discovering her sexuality and the attempts others make in policing her very self. Was there a mental process you went through in order to give yourself permission to write this tale with the authenticity that it possesses?
CHINELO: When I was younger, there was a sense of liberation in reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe—the realization that I had a culture worthy of putting into books, the realization that I had the power to tell stories that were true to my culture, and there would be a place for it. Since making that realization, no, I’ve not felt a need for any kind of permission to tell any of my stories. The stories come to me, and I simply do my best to get them down on the page in a way that upholds their cultural and emotional truths.
Your main character, Ijeoma, is put through so much and yet she is so nice. To everyone! I kept thinking, I'd be so angry. I was angry. I am angry. My 40th birthday is getting closer and we're still having these conversations [about female sexuality and same sex relationships]. I wanted to growl on Ijeoma's behalf.
Is it inner strength keeping her so nice? Or is she repressing it? Where is the space to be mad?
CHINELO: LOL. Anger has different manifestations. Not everyone shouts and screams and makes noise when they are angry. Sometimes angry people go quiet. Sometimes an angry person mulls. It seems to me that Ijeoma’s situation calls for the mulling kind of anger, especially given the cultural context in which she exists. Rather than raging outwardly in her anger, she sinks into it, thoughtful and all. Better to be thoughtfully angry than not, I think. But is she angry at times? Of course. She's angry, for instance, when Amina betrays her by marrying the young man. She’s angry with her mother when she senses that Adaora is in some sort of league with Chibundu and she is a pawn in their game. There are times when her anger comes out in the form of sadness and tears. Perhaps she doesn't get as volatile as some would like. But maybe that's just not her style.
Was writing this book at all therapeutic for you?
CHINELO: Writing is always therapeutic for me. It feels good to be meaningfully occupied in creating something good. It’s soothing. Everyone should be an artist, I think. As an artist, one has a deeper appreciation of how hard it is to create, and how beautiful and meaningful and important it is to create. If more people were artists, perhaps people would think twice before destroying things. The world might be a better, more respectful, more sympathetic, more collaborative place as a result.
Every writer wants to be read. This novel has received a lot of attention in both the Western and African press. How do you deal with that international spotlight?
CHINELO: It's frightful but fine as well. I am happy that people are reading and having conversations about topics and themes in the novel. It's good when literature opens up the doors for important conversations to be had.
On Chinelo's Bedside Table
Igoni Barrett’s Blackass—a witty and funny, Kafkaesque novel set in Lagos, Nigeria; Amy Parker’s Beasts and Children, an emotionally intelligent, somewhat dark but also hopeful collection of linked stories set in the United States. I look forward to reading Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday. I have read excerpts of it, and he’s a beautiful writer. I’m excited to begin reading Chaitali Sen’s book, The Pathless Sky and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun.
Born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta received her BS from Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Okparanta was one of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012. Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, among others. Short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize in African Writing, she is also a 2014 O. Henry Award winner and a 2014 Lambda Literary Award winner for Lesbian Fiction. She is the author of Happiness Like Water (2013), and Under the Udala Trees (2015).
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie