“Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister?” (Alice Walker)

October is Black History Month in the UK, so here is a little contribution, two wonderful novels by black women that I want to gush about 😊

Firstly, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (2015), a remarkably accomplished debut novel, set in the years during & immediately after the Biafran civil war.

Ijeoma loses her beloved father in the war:

“Uzo. It was the kind of name I’d have liked to fold up and hold in the palm of my hand, if names could be folded and held that way. So that if I were ever lost, all I’d have to do would be to open up my palm and allow the name, like a torchlight, to show me the way.”

Her mother struggles to cope with her grief and so Ijeoma is sent away, and it is then that she meets Amina. The young women’s mutual attraction is problematic within their highly religious society (not only are they gay, but Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo while Amina is a Muslim Hausa), and so their secret romance is always tempered with the knowledge that they could be torn apart at any moment:

“When our lips finally met, she kissed me hungrily, as if she’d been waiting for this all along. I breathed in the scent of her, deeply, as if to take in an excess of it, as if to build a reserve for that one day when she would be gone.”

Ijeoma’s sexuality forces her to question much that forms the foundation of her life in Nigeria, not least the religion she has been brought up to and educated within.

“Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable.”

Being gay is a dangerous thing for Ijeoma and the threat is very real; at one point a club she is in is raided. The women hide in a bunker left over from the war, but one who doesn’t make it is brutally murdered. Okparanta captures the fallout from the war and the ongoing violence faced by gay Nigerians in a dramatic but never sensationalist way. Under these pressures, Ijeoma tries to lead a conventional life but it unsurprisingly leads to true misery for all those involved:

“I acknowledge to myself that sometimes I am a snail. I move myself by gliding. I contract my muscles and produce a slime of tears. Sometimes you see the tears and sometimes you don’t. It is my tears that allow me to glide. I glide slowly. But, slowly, I glide. It is a while before I am gone.”

Under the Udala Trees is very much rooted in a particular country at a particular time, but it has something to say as well that is beyond the specific. It is most definitely about the continued criminalisation of gay people in Nigeria, and it is also about how all of us have to question the beliefs and structures we are raised within, and find our own way to be free:

“That tethering way in which the familiar manages to grab ahold of us and pin us down.”

This is an accomplished first novel, and Okparanta is a wise writer. She creates beautiful prose, compelling characters and a well-paced story, and she has important things to say about the world and those of us in it.

“Sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.”

I’m excited to see what she does next.

Secondly, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972, trans. Barbara Bray 2015), and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I wanted to read this after seeing Claire’s wonderful review at Word by Word (over a year ago – I get there in the end…) My copy is the New York Review of Books edition, which I recommend for a sensitive, enthusiastic introduction by Jamaica Kincaid.

Narrated by Telumee, it tells the story of her life on the island of Guadeloupe, and the women she is descended from. The opening paragraph is just beautiful:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane-swept, mosquito-ridden island.  But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing in my garden, just like any other old woman of my age, til death comes and takes me as I dream. Me and all my joy.”

Part One tells the story of her mother Victory, and her grandmother, Queen With No Name, who raises Telumee. Her great-grandmother was a freed slave and her descendants have lives which are hard and with more than their fair share of grief, but also with moments of love and joy.  After her father is stabbed, Telumee’s mother is swamped in grief, until she falls in love again. She doesn’t want her young daughter living with them, and so Telumee goes to live with Queen Without Name:

“Grandmother was past the age for bending over the white man’s earth binding canes, weeding and hoeing, withstanding the wind, and pickling her body in the sun as she had done all her life. It was her turn to be an elder; the level of her life had fallen; it was now a thin trickle flowing slowly among the rocks, just a little stirring every day, a little effort and a little reward.”

Telumee grows up in the loving home of her grandmother but Queen Without Name cannot protect her from making a disastrous marriage. Telumee survives though, and The Bridge of Beyond is a tale of overcoming adversity, of finding strength within yourself that you didn’t know you had, and of drawing on the strength of other women to help you endure.

“Through all her last days Grandmother was whistling up a wind for me, to fill my sails so that I could resume my voyage.”

Schwarz-Bart is a beautiful writer who captures an individual voice compassionately without descending into cliché. I’ll definitely be looking to read more of her work.

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25 thoughts on ““Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister?” (Alice Walker)

  1. Beautiful reviews, Mdame bibi. I often think that reading fiction can give us a real insight into certain periods of history, particularly the emotional impact of a war or period of unrest on the lives of the people affected. It sounds like this might be the case here, particularly with the prejudices highlighted in the first novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui! Yes, I think the power of fiction is to really bring home the human reality of things we might see on the news or read in history books, and feel awful about but not understand on that very visceral level.

      Like

  2. Those quotes from Under the Udala Trees are beautiful if heart wrenching. I agree, absolutely, that fiction helps us to understand cultures and beliefs outside our own experience. It humanises the plight of others in a way that the abstraction of reportage very often fails to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you these sound great. I’m currently reading a book called The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan who is a Syrian refugee living in Canada and part of it is about gay life in Damascus prior to the civil war. It is not altogether successful as a novel but it is fascinating to read about gay lives in the non-western world and to get a completely different picture of Damascus to the one we’ve had recently on the news.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ooh, that was lovely (and heartbreaking), and I’m completely sold, you seem to know the passages to pick to make me part with cash! I find things that focus on strong bonds between women to be endlessly uplifting (I’m including the Golden Girls in that).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved ‘Under the Udala Trees’ too, and ‘The Bridge of Beyond’ sounds like another must read (especially as I quite fancy stopping off at Guadaloupe on my armchair travels!)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I do enjoy reading your thoughtful reviews, they are motivation for me to slow down and savour with my reading instead of the usual breakneck pace with which I cross off yet another on my TBR list. I will look out for these, thank you. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There is something in common between the first quote you chose grin each book. The size of a hand, the size of a heart, the name of a father, a country. I loved Bridge of Beyond. The fact that its translated is so crazy, how is the writing so perfect? I may have to pick up the first book. Ill also recommend Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid to you. Near perfect novella with some similarities in theme to both books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true, I hadn’t noticed that!

      The translator did a great job on Bridge of Beyond, for sure. I’ve a friend who’s just starting out in translation and it really is such an art.

      I keep hearing wonderful things about Jamaica Kincaid, I have to read her. Annie John sounds like a great place to start – thank you for the recommendation!

      Like

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