Danika reviews Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

undertheudalatree

Under the Udala Trees is set in Nigeria during and in the aftermath of the civil war. Ijeoma is sent to live in a safer area of the country with people she’s never meant. She acts as a servant to earn her keep. When she befriends a girl from another ethnic group–in fact, from the community on the other side of the war–this relationship is only barely tolerated. When it’s discovered that her and Amina’s relationship has changed into a romance, Ijeoma’s life is irrevocably changed.

This is not a light read. Under the Udala Trees deals both with living through war and dealing with brutal homophobia. In fact, these two types of violence get intertwined. We first meet Ijeoma in her childhood, when she lived with her mother and father. We see how war devastates her family and eventually takes her father from them. This is just the precursor to her later struggles with a culture and family that refuses to allow her to be an authentic version of herself. Her mother stresses the importance of marriage and makes her study the Bible daily, stressing any passages that can be interpreted as forbidding same sex relationships.

What I found especially difficult was how much Ijeoma internalized this messages even when didn’t consciously believe them. She questions how the Bible is being interpreted and doesn’t see how her actions or feelings could be sinful, but she still feels guilt and doubt. That is the damage a hateful statement repeated over and over can do. She ends up feeling the best parts of love and intimacy juxtaposed with shame and self-consciousness.

This does feel like a bleak read through most of the book. Ijeoma does not have a lot of options available to her, not just as a lesbian, but as a woman–and an unmarried one at that. Every choice that she makes seems to come with awful consequences. I don’t think I’ll be able to forget the scene where she and other gay friends hide in a bunker left over from the war in order to avoid a crowd intent on punishing or even killing any queer people that they find. It shows how much Ijeoma is still living within her own war.

I’ll admit that my first impression when I read this book was that it felt like a coming out story from earlier decades, mostly because the extreme backlash as well as the way the plot is mostly centered around her sexuality. But I had to reexamine that reaction when I got to the brief author’s note, which explains that in 2014 Nigeria criminalized same-sex relationships, and that Nigeria is the second most religious country in the world. With that context, the story line makes a lot more sense, and it reminded me that although I am lucky enough to live in a community that is fairly accepting of queer people, my situation is not universal. For many people, that backlash is the reality of their coming out, and these stories are therefore needed just as much now as they were in earlier decades. This is why we need more stories of the queer experience from a global viewpoint, and Under the Udala Trees is a necessary step forward down that path.

Maryam reviewed Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa edited by Allyn Diesel

I just finished Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Allyn Diesel. It is a wonderful anthology of personal essays, poetry, and photographs, each African woman telling the tale of what it is to be queer in South Africa. They range from the heartwarming – Yulinda Noortman’s description of shopping for wedding fabric with her bride-to-be, in “The Dog, The Cat, The Parrot and the Pig and Other Tales” – to the heartwrenching: Keba Sebetoane’s “Who Are You to Tell Me What I Am?”, the brief, calamitous tale of her struggle with rape and the flawed system that kept her, and so many other women, from justice. My favorite was “I Have Truly Lost a Woman I Loved”, which features the wonderful photography of Zanele Muholi – one of her photographs graces this volume’s cover – and is a loving essay to her late mother. I only wished that some of the photographs she wrote about had been included in this book. Although some of the essays may begin in a similar fashion – I was married to a man, and then… or When I was a child…, there is something in the collection that everyone should be able to appreciate, and should serve as food for thought both in terms of social justice and how we relate to other women, no matter what their place in the queer spectrum.

Allysse reviews The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif


The World Unseen is set in South Africa in the 1950’s and relates the story of two women – Miriam and Amina – and the way their lives impact each others.

Let me start this review by saying that I love this book. After a lot of trouble to get it from my library I read it in two days, unable to put it down unless I really had to.

What I love most about the novel is that Shamim Sarif takes the time to explore the two main characters but also their family and surroundings. The story is divided into three main sections and we can feel those separations quite well when reading the novel. However it is a smooth and logical process. Every part is introduced and possible only from the actions and developments of the previous sections.

Through the pages we are introduced to a culture, an environment, and we feel as a foreigner getting to understand an unfamiliar place. All characters’ point of views are explored objectively. We may dislike a character but it is from our own choices as we are given the key to understand them and their behaviour.

The author takes us into a different era and a different culture but it feels like we are with the characters, getting to know them and sharing their lives. We can sense the political background of South Africa in the 1950’s. It is fully present but only through the lives and actions of the characters. It is not emphasized or put in the front line of the text, it is simply there as a fact of life of those characters.

Shamim Sarif is a very skillful writer to set the tone of a character, a culture, and a place. She never uses many words but in a few lines, through a few gestures and thoughts, she conveys all the meaning necessary for the reader to understand each character and its motivation.

There is one minor aspect of the novel I didn’t enjoy much. It is the use of non-english words. I wouldn’t have minded so much if a glossary or footnotes had been included to give a translation or definition of the terms. Most of the time the context provides a sort of definition but the words mostly remained vague to me and I was feeling a bit irritated at not understanding them fully.

All in all I highly recommend this novel for its numerous interesting characters as well as for the discovery of another culture. I am not an expert about Idians in South Africa in the 1950’s, but it does feel like Shamim Sarif transcribed the feel of a period and culture very well.

On a none literary note, I also highly recommend the film. Directed by Shamim Sarif herself, it is very respectful of the book but the focus is put more on Amina and Miriam than in the novel. The book really is more about them and their environment, their families and friends, taking the time to explore the life of behaviour of all.