Chinelo Okparanta wrote a book for those people in Nigeria who live hidden in plain sight. Under the Udala Trees. In 2014, as the world was expanding beyond the pink and blue we had traditionally assigned the different halves of our population, Nigeria was moving towards one color: scarlet. That year, the Nigerian governmant banned same-sex relations, both as public displays and as states of being recognized by the government. Those who broke this law risked more than a scarlet letter, though: imprisonment of up to 10 years would be in order. Against that backdrop, Okparanta tells the story of Ijeoma, our young female protagonist who comes of age during the Biafrian war, and who discovers that the danger of her divided country is no more than the danger of her divided sexuality.
I read this book on the suggestion of another member of my book club, and we were supposed to come together and discuss the book, though that never happened. Just as well. The book was written with a purpose in mind, and those are the books I enjoy least frequently. It takes me back to my first reading of Native Son by Richard Wright. I hated that book. It was a thinly-veiled manifesto of the author’s ideology, which is not what I’m seeking when I pick up a fiction novel. Write a gaddamn non-fiction book that is researched and annotated, why don’t you? This strain of fiction, the Atlas Shrugged and Animal Farms of the world, all of them drive me bananas. People who want to propound theories and serious ideology without the responsibility of doing it through a platform that requires intellectual rigor often instead choose to sheath their exposé in the clothing of a fictional story. It’s intellectual laziness to me.
Fine, so you want to write a novel about what it is like to grow up and grow conscious in a world that is actively seeking to destroy a central aspect of your identity. Just don’t do it in a way that is so in your face. Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate this book. It was fine. The characters were fine. The plot was fine. The writing was fine. It was fine.
But nowadays, I don’t want to spend my time, money, and energy on fine.
I will say that I did learn some things by reading this book. Some of the intricacies of life in general, and life as a LGBTQ person in Nigeria in particular, were new for me. I always jump at the chance to learn through fiction. Still, fiction for me should feel like a journey and not an exercise. I’m spending my holidays this year in Nigeria with some family members, and the 12-hour flight in the back of the plane was about on par with the journey of reading this book. Fitting.