September 28, 2015

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta | Book Review

Ijeoma is a young Nigerian girl, an only child, who lives with her parents in Southern Nigeria. We are introduced to her family in the time period of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Everything around them is crumbling down and it's not long before Ijeoma's dad dies from an air strike. Ijeoma's mom sends her off to live with her father's close friend because living conditions in Ojoto are getting worse even though Ijeoma would prefer to follow her to Aba. When they both reunite one and a half years later it's because Ijeoma has been caught doing something "abominable" with another girl, Amina. Her mother decides to nip this in the bud by conducting protracted daily Bible studies with Ijeoma, painstakingly covering the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelations, and coupling that with loud, fervent prayers, beseeching God, begging Him to banish all abominable desires from her daughter. That was many years ago. An older Ijeoma looks back on her life as she narrates this tale, taking time to describe surroundings, seasons and dreams as she lays the groundwork for this very important story.

Okparanta explores and questions the complexities of the Bible's teachings in a way that Christians are often taught not to. Her selected scriptures, especially those from the Bible book of Lot, are fitting, poignant, and thought provoking. In the telling of this tale Okparanta grabs the bull by the horns and forces you to confront this controversial issue in the hopes that you (especially her countrymen) reexamine your thoughts on the subject matter. Under the Udala Trees is shamelessly honest, a moving tale of forbidden love by the amazingly gifted and incredibly courageous Chinelo Okparanta. This is a tale well told, a job very well done. You should read this.
Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta - My Thoughts

[Image via NPR]

September 14, 2015

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu | Book Review

Vimbai Hozo makes a big first impression on the beginning three pages of The Hairdresser of
Harare. She's self-assured, blunt, conscious of her own greatness in Harare and not afraid to own it. In her words she's the "Queen Bee" and her place of employment - Khumalo Hair and Beauty Treatment Salon - is her domain. Being regarded as the best hairdresser in all of Harare, which she says equates to being "the best in the whole country", feels good and neither her employer nor her fellow employees pose a competitive threat. Then one day Dumisani Ncube walks into the salon seeking employment. He's confident, very highly skilled and spontaneous. He has a customer service approach that's very different from Vimbai's and much more successful. Vimbai's dethronement seems imminent with his arrival and then the story takes a different turn from what you might have expected.

The Hairdresser of Harare was great from the beginning. I got excited because Tendai Huchu's another gifted Zimbabwean author to rally around after my 2013 introduction to NoViolet Bulawayo. Even though The Hairdresser of Harare is set in Zimbabwe, the commonality of the African experience shines through with slightly varying details. Once we leave the salon drama and power struggle and delve into the personal lives of the main characters I wasn't as excited as I was in the beginning but I still found the novel engaging. Tendai Huchu builds up to a "big reveal" that I wish had been a chapter in the character's life and not his whole story. I wasn't too pleased with the ending of this novel. It's a hasty wrapping up of the story but it still works in some way. The Hairdresser of Harare is entertaining and humorous. It's a fine debut by Tendai Huchu.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo - My Thoughts

[Image via Amazon]

September 07, 2015

Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta | Book Review

Happiness, Like Water is a collection of ten compelling short stories. It begins with Chinwe and Eze in the story On Ohaeto Street. Chinwe is quiet and dutiful woman who becomes a Jehovah's Witness in order to marry Eze, a prosperous and materialistic Jehovah's Witness whom she first meets when he arrives at her mother's doorstep to preach the good news of God's Kingdom. After marriage and with the passage of time, Chinwe's disquiet grows and she questions her choices and weighs her options. The collection continues with Wahala, Fairness, Story, Story!, Runs Girl, America, Shelter, Grace, Designs, and finally Tumors and Butterflies. These are stories about relationships, domestic abuse, colorism, immigration and girls who love girls, narrated by female protagonists for the most part. Each tale sits comfortably on its own, weighty and deep, ready to be lengthened if Okparanta chooses.

When I found out Chinelo Okparanta had been raised a Jehovah's Witness I hoped that she would explore that religious background deeply in one of the stories but she didn't and that's fine. The stories America and Grace are bold in their exploration of Nigerian protagonists attracted to members of the same sex but still somewhat tame in its handling of the accompanying issues. I don't think any Nigerian author has written this openly about same sex relationships since Jude Dibia broke the ice with his debut novel, Walking With Shadows, and followed up in his third novel, Blackbird. Happiness, Like Water is a well written short story collection that can't be ignored in any line-up. Chinelo Okparanta is a bold new voice and an excellent addition to the literary throng of voices from Nigeria. Her full length novel Under the Udala Trees will be released in two weeks on September 22nd, 2015.
11 Questions for Jude Dibia

[Image via Goodreads]