I have read a lot of lesbian fiction in my time. For the most part my life, both as a reader and a lesbian woman, has been all the richer for it. However, the vast majority of these books have focussed specifically on love, sex, and relationships between white women – specifically, white American women. The early 1980s were something of a golden era in African-American women’s lesbian fiction, bringing the publication of books such as The Color Purple, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, The Women of Brewster Place, and Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. The Color Purple, and Alice Walker with it, received critical acclaim. Although The Color Purple was partially set in Africa, the romance between Celie and Shug unfolds in Georgia and, later, Tennessee – the lesbian experience is not explored outside of a Southern American context.
Black lesbian fiction exists. It can be wonderful. That being said, it’s difficult to think of many recently published novels or collections specifically about Black lesbians. No subsequent decade has brought about the same mainstream visibility in fiction that the 1980s did for Black lesbians. The stories of lesbian women of colour, lesbian women from other continents, are not so easy to find as the stories of their white, American counterparts. This lack of representation contributes to the marginalisation of Black women both in queer culture and wider society.
Within the field of Black Queer Studies, the invisibility of Black lesbian women is recognised as “endemic”. Respectability politics still shape the experience of Blackness in contemporary society and, according to Professor Barbara Christian, are largely responsible for the old myth that there are no Black lesbians – that queerness is a white occurrence, belonging only to white people. Given the dearth of Black lesbian stories in popular culture, the publication of Under the Udala Trees was a cool drink of water in a representational drought. Upon hearing about Chinelo Okparanta’s latest novel, my first reaction was extreme delight. My second was to reserve a copy immediately.
Under the Udala Trees exceeded every one of my expectations, and they were high to begin with. It is a poignant coming-of-age story set in war-torn Nigeria, following the story of Ijeoma, a young Igbo girl who struggles to find her place in life, to reconcile the rigidity of gender roles with her true desires.
The death of her father sends Ijeoma’s life into freefall – unable to cope with her grief, newfound poverty, and the demands of parenting, her mother sends Ije to live as a schoolteacher’s house-girl on the understanding that her labour pays for future education. Though Ijeoma’s life becomes bleak and comfortless, she discovers joy through the companionship of Amina, an orphaned Hausa girl. It is not the differences between Igbo and Hausa that define their relationship, but rather the similarities between them – both girls have lost their parents as a result of the war, both occupy a powerless position in society, and each girl is drawn to each other in a way that surpasses anything they have been taught. Together, Ijeoma and Amina explore their budding sexualities. Their relationship is tender and playful, as young love should be. Ije’s suggestion that they marry is as heart-breaking as it is sweet – the reader knows, as a young Ijeoma does not, that the road ahead is not so simple. More than forty years after the Biafran war concluded, same-sex marriage remains illegal in Nigeria, and same-sex relationships a criminal offence.
In her mother’s eyes, Ije has transgressed not only the boundaries of gender roles and female sexuality, but the boundaries set by God. With her understated prose, Okparanta articulates the very real and painful possibility of parental rejection in the face of homosexuality. Okparanta’s writing is unflinchingly honest as she explores religion as a vehicle for homophobia – the unbridgeable distance between a mother wishing to “cleanse” her daughter’s soul through intensive Bible study and a child in desperate need of her mother’s compassion is devastating. The death of her father is not the great tragedy that unravels Ijeoma’s world, but rather the lack of a place for her to exist as a lesbian within society.
Just as Ijeoma takes an extraordinary risk participating in the underground gay scene, so too did Chinelo Okparanta in penning and publishing this novel. The message behind Under the Udala Trees in no way detracts from the novel’s readability – if anything, its relevance creates an altogether more powerful read. It is impossible not to root for Ijeoma – for her to survive the devastation of war, the brutality of homophobia, and the sustained terror of male violence. Under the Udala Trees is a compelling and highly political novel. Ijeoma’s struggle for self-definition is mirrored by that of her country. By the conclusion, Nigeria has achieved a state of peace and Ijeoma has attained some hard-won happiness.
Books like Under the Udala Trees – books with the power to break the heart, expand the mind – are essential both to quality bookshelves and the overall body of queer fiction. Though queer spaces and the wider publishing industry have a tendency to centre the white experience, it is vital that characters like Ijeoma are given a voice alongside the Annies and Camerons that populate lesbian fiction. If Ijeoma had easy access to a blueprint upon which to model her life, a point of reference by which she could understand her sexuality, I believe it would have been a happier story. The same is true for lesbian and bisexual women of colour around the world.
Claire Heuchan is a Black radical feminist from Scotland. She graduated in Politics and Journalism from the University of Stirling, where she is presently working towards an MLitt in Gender Studies. Both professionally and personally, Claire is committed to mapping the intersection between race and sex. Claire is a volunteer with Glasgow Women’s Library and blogs as Sister Outrider. Tweet her @ClaireShrugged
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