Earlier this year, Heady Mix spoke with author Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta. Chinelo’s list of accolades and awards is extensive and includes being named as Granta’s Best of Young American Novelist in 2017 for her novel Under the Udala Trees. It was this same novel, a love story set in Nigeria during the country’s civil war, the Biafran War – that featured in the Heady Mix book box, Section 28, last June.
Section 28 looked to showcase stories by and about those who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community in parts of the world where their identity is criminalised. We wanted to raise awareness of how despite policy progress in the West – there are still people persecuted by governments for simply being, simply loving whom they choose. And Chinelo Okparanta’s book, ‘Under the Udala Trees’ – utterly distilled the theme we hoped to share with our readers…
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.
So, after introductions and musings over our common causes, we sat down to speak with Chinelo over Zoom to discuss the theme that brought us together…
Again Chinelo, thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with us.
So, for our first question, we’d like to ask you about ‘Under the Udala Trees’, a turbulent love story set in the beginning in Nigeria’s Biafra war – how far did you use the backdrop of war and ongoing conflicts as a parallel of the experiences of LGBTQ+ community within the country?
Well, the novel begins in 1968 and the Nigeria Biafra war took place between the years of 1967 and 1970. And so in that sense, the novel sort of begins along with the war. And for me, I think the novel in many ways is a commentary on the internal and external struggles of one member of the LGBTQ+ community, which in my opinion, resembles the internal and external conflicts that occur in a nation at war.
So we’ve got to essentially realise that a person is the equivalent of a small country, and within us, there are aspects of ourselves that are at war with one another much in the same way that within a country there are factions and groups that often are at war with one another.
In writing the novel, I wanted to demonstrate this conflict, this internal/external conflict, and also show how similar the battles are. The country is at war with itself, much like Ijeoma, is at war with herself and we see her having those conversations. There’s a lot of thinking and trying to understand the world going on within her and even after that war is over, there’s still quite a lot of work. And by that, I mean the war of the country, Nigeria, but also the war within Ijeoma.
It seems that she does come to a point of peace just as the nation does, but then we also see that there’s still a lot of work to be done, the work of nation-building, of self-acceptance, of self-building. And as with the civil war, its consequences on the nations, there’s the same aspect of unity. How do we come together as one? And for Ijeoma, how does she come together with her community – the LGBTQI+ community in Nigeria – also how does she come to a really good, comfortable, stable place of self-acceptance.
Completely, and as you say – there’s an ongoing dialogue as well, the same way you would get with war and diplomacy, it’s that ongoing sort of conflict. It doesn’t always need to be violent, it’s just the two different sides and negotiating that to try and find peace.
So, our second question – we wanted to ask you is why was it important for you to show these multifaceted barriers to homosexuality in countries like Nigeria? And to what extent were you conscious of showing more liberal audiences, the reality of being gay in a deeply conservative society?
Well, it’s interesting. When I hear certain people – those who consider themselves liberal, liberal minded, or from liberal minded societies – they are often are not as liberal as they think that they are.
So I would say that the barriers to being gay in Nigeria are not all that different from the barriers to being gay in many other parts of the world, even in the U.S. which is where I live, there are simply gradations of the differences.
I said, I live here in the U.S. and I’m aware that it’s members of the LGBTQ+ youth community that are often those who are homeless and are often those who suffer violent crimes because they are not as accepted as one would like to think that they are in a country like the USA.
I’ve had to listen to homophobic comments even in New York City and here where I live, I’ve heard people make comments that why would any woman ever want to be with any other women sexually? Why would a man want to be with a man? And we’d like to think that these conversations are not happening in the U.S. but they are in fact happening and many people do have incredibly negative thoughts towards members of the LGBTQ+ community and if given the opportunity would inflict violence.
So it’s just an issue of like the gradations of differences, but where the thoughts are concerned – you know, I wouldn’t say that there are huge, huge differences.
They are not physically burning members of the LGBTQ+ community at the stake like I depicted in my novel, that sort of violence does happen in Nigeria, has happened, and was happening at the time that I wrote the novel.
But, emotionally these comments, these homophobic comments are just as damaging in many ways.
It’s the difference of emotional violence versus physical violence. Yes, it’s true. You’re not physically maimed and you don’t die from it, but you have to live with that, and that’s something to be talked about.
That’s a really powerful notion. Opening the conversation, opening people’s minds and awareness to what is actually happening in the places we thought were so-called ‘liberal’.
Exactly. I mean, I like to sometimes equate it to this idea of somebody comes to you and says “I had this terrible accident” and you say, “well, what happened?”.
And they say “I was at this work site and I lost my finger” and they show you their finger is gone and it’s a terrible pain and somebody else comes and says “well, I was at this work site and I lost my entire leg” depending on who you are, you look at the other person and say that sucks that you lost your entire leg and you look at the person with the lost finger and you say that’s nothing.
I’m sorry, that’s nothing compared to the person who lost their leg”. But when you think about it, that’s a loss, you lost your finger.
You might not be able to use things and write. And you might not have the same life you used to have before. Yes, it’s true that person who’s lost their leg, it’s a terrible accident but why would you try to make one person’s tragedy worse than the other? You don’t know what it would mean for that person. And a loss is in fact, a loss.
Why do humans have to do that?
Why do we have to say, well, U.S. is better than Nigeria because they’re not burning them at the state, but they’re still sitting around homeless and they don’t have food to eat, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Their health is at stake, but, oh, it’s still better than Nigeria. It’s fascinating when we have this conversation.
Absolutely. That’s such an interesting parallel to draw, why do we always go to comparisons and try and make things relative to something else? It’s a standalone tragedy on its own without any comparisons or parallels. It’s just as is.
That’s right. Exactly. A loss is a loss, a tragedy is a tragedy. Don’t try to deny it, don’t try to diminish it, and don’t try to make other people’s tragedies better or worse. Tragedy is tragedy.
Thank you for that really insightful explanation, that’s so interesting.
So our final question then: in the book, there are a number of poignant moments that feel filled with hope, for a Nigeria free from stereotype, where love is love. So we just wanted to ask what, how far is that your own projections for the country and how much of it feels contained to the narrative itself?
Well, I firmly believe that the time is coming when love will be love in Nigeria. Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but I’m very hopeful aside from its religious fanaticism, which, you know, incidentally is a by-product of many unfortunate systems like colonialism, poor government leading to unemployment and poverty – people do rely on God even more heavily when they realise that their own efforts at providing for themselves are futile. So there is a reason for this religious fanaticism that happens in Nigeria.
But aside from that I do think that we are hopeful that fundamentally we are a progressive, extremely intelligent society.
And I say that because in fact, same sex relations occurred in our societies, African societies, long before the Western missionaries came along.
We had systems that just did not set them apart in any way. It was just accepted.
So I think that there is a lot of hope. I think we can once more get back to that original nature-loving, nature-respecting kind of society that we once put aside, because in some senses we had indiscriminate worship of the West; whatever they brought we took. There are, of course, many things to love and emulate about the West, but this enticing sex law that we now have all over many countries in Africa, I don’t think that should have ever been one of them.
In any case, to answer your question more precisely, I would say that even my journey as a writer is proof that things are changing because I now have many people who come to me and say I read your book and it really got me thinking, and I’ve really changed my mind. I don’t know why I was so hung upon hating people, and now I realise how inhumane that was. And so I can already see a shift in the comments that I’m getting.
Initially, I would get comments like, oh my God, what are you doing? Homosexuality is not part of our culture; homosexuality is not part of our society. Why are you borrowing from the West? You know, like that is a Western disease and it’s not anything to do with Africa.
And to which obviously I would say, well, it’s not a Western disease.
It was part of our culture too but now I’m getting the other kinds of comments where they’re realising exactly what that hate means even for their own history.
And it’s hopeful. I do believe that things are changing, but change sometimes can be slow, but it’s happening.
That’s so insightful to hear from you. Do you think it’s a generational change then, or do you think it’s, as the younger generations are coming through those older ideals are being more relaxed and people are more open?
I really do think it is generational. I think sometimes it’s the younger generation that has to teach the older generation because sometimes the older generation is just so stuck.
If the younger people who are also coming to me, they were educated by their parents and their parents’ generation to think that this is not our culture, this is against the law, but they’re thinking now for themselves, they’re becoming, you know, older adults and realizing that this might not be the path I want to keep in terms of my belief. It’s changing.
Thank you Chinelo, we’re sure for our readers – your words will have provided a glimpse into a context that might have been otherwise unfamiliar. Which of course, is how we all learn more about the world.
So, I’ll ask you if you wouldn’t mind reading your passage now. And maybe just before you do, if you could just introduce the context, and why you’ve chosen these words as the part that encapsulates the narrative.
So if I remember correctly, I believe that this is from the scene where Ijeoma is coming to terms with her feelings for Amina, and she is questioning what love is. And she’s thinking well, do I love her and I think I do. It is just the short line that shows you a little bit of her thoughts as she’s figuring out what love is…
Thank you to Chinelo Okparanta for her spellbinding words and wisdom. We hope you enjoyed reading the interview as much as we did talking to Chinelo – and if you haven’t already been transported into the world of Ijeoma in Under the Uduaa Trees, then you can purchase your copy now via our Diverse Bookstore. What better way to celebrate LGBTQ+ month this June, than picking up a book that champions the theme, love is love.