UNDER THE UDALA TREES

CHINELO OKPARANTA

Udala is set in 1968, one year into the Biafran conflict, and Ijeoma’s world is overcome by “the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.” Things grow worse. Her father, “a man who liked to wallow in his thoughts”, becomes so consumed by sorrow for his dying people that he refuses to seek refuge during an air raid over their town of Ojoto. When Ijeoma and her mother Adaora emerge from a nearby bunker, they discover his blood-soaked body. In shock Adaora sends Ijeoma to be a house girl for a school teacher in another town. “In a warped, war-induced sort of way, it made sense that she should find ways to shed us all: the soldiers, me, and the house. To shed, if she could have, all memories of the war. To shed, and shed, and shed. Like an animal casting off old hair or skin.” There she meets Amina, a Muslim Hausa. What begins as a friendship, turns into passion. “This was the beginning, our bodies being touched by the fire that was each other’s flesh … Tingly and good and like everything perfect in the world.” Caught in an intimate moment the two are forced apart. Ijeoma’s mother assaults her with biblical verses to ward off creeping lesbianism. “I went down the aisle to the front of the church, as I had done the time before. I knelt down before God. I would have prayed, but somehow I could not find the words to do so … Not a single word to express myself, not a single one to explain or to defend myself, not one single word to apologize and beg forgiveness for my sins.”

It is a compelling juxaposition: horrific war and true love in a same sex relationship in a deeply conservative society.

THE PISCES

MELISSA BRODER

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Lucy knew she had made a mistake. She wanted the words, ‘Maybe we should just break up,” to jump back into her mouth where they belonged. Especially when Jamie replied, “I think you maybe right.” Lucy packed up and moved to Venice Beach to lick her wounds and recover. She joined a support group for sex and love addiction where one of the more sane members convinced her to try Tinder. That didn’t work out so well. But she found a pleasant surprise on the rocks by the waters edge. The Pisces is a treaties on love and life that sparkles with magic and eroticism.

VI

KIM THUY

My first name, Bảo Vi, showed my parents’ determination to “protect the smallest one.” In a literal translation, I am “Tiny precious microscopic.” As is often the case in Vietnam, I did not match the image of my own name.Vi is about what Thúy calls “the invisible strength” of women, especially Vietnamese women. “I didn’t see the invisibility of their power until I went back as an adult, and saw the difference between my cousins and me.” Fleeing from the war Vi left Vietnam for Canada with her mother and siblings. Her mother worked hard to provide for the family without the support of her husband who stayed. As with so many immigrant families the offspring get educated and do well in their new world. Vi travels the world and returns to Vietnam with a different outlook than those who stayed in Vietnam.

Well-written Vi is a gem.

Blinded by the gentle, intermittent movement of the dress’s wings, [grandfather] declared to his colleague that he would not leave Cai Bè without [his future wife.] He had to humiliate another young girl who had been promised to him and alienate the elders in his family before he could touch my grandmother’s hands. Some believed that he was in love with her long-lashed almond eyes, others, with her fleshy lips, while still others were convinced that he’d been seduced by her full hips. No one had noticed the slender fingers holding a notebook against her bosom except my grandfather, who kept describing them for decades. He continued to evoke them long after age had transformed those smooth, tapering fingers into a fabulous myth or, at the very most, a lovers’ tale.

HEART BERRIES

THERESE MARIE MAIHOT

In a slender volume, Maihot’s poetic memoir explodes with power.  “How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?”  Her life is heaped with poverty, addiction, abuse and shame. Mailhot’s grandmother went to a brutal residential school. So many children starved to death there, the nuns ran out of places to bury them so their bones were hidden in the walls of a new boarding school under construction. Her affectionate but absent mother brought home men who preyed upon her children. She had a child, and lost custody of him as she was giving birth to another. “I wasn’t stable, but men don’t usually care about that.”  About her husband she writes,  “I wanted to know what I looked like to you. A sin committed and a prayer answered, you said. You looked like a hamburger fried in a donut. You were hairy and large.” 

“In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution.”  “I wanted as much of the world as I could take and I didn’t have the conscience to be ashamed.”

It’s great to see a new voice in indigenous literature open with a powerful work.