Under the Udala Trees
By Chinelo Okparanta, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $37
God in Pink
By Hasan Namir, Arsenal Pulp Press, 158 pages, $15.95
Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home
By Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Arsenal Pulp Press, 240 pages, $18.95
How are we to engage with the countries of the world where LGBT people face the worst forms of state-condoned violence?
This is the question underlining two novels released this fall, both starring queer protagonists. Under the Udala Trees, the first novel by Chinelo Okparanta, is about a queer woman growing up in Nigeria, where, today, same-sex relationships are criminalized and punishable with up to 14 years in prison, or, in the north, punishments that include death by stoning. God in Pink is Hasan Namir's debut. It focuses on gay men in Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In the story, Ramy and his lovers face the threat of torture, rape, and assassination – carried out or condoned by the authorities.
Okparanta and Namir are of the same generation of writers, both children of the eighties, and by strange coincidence both emigrated at the age of 10 from the place they now write about (Okparanta's family moved to the United States, Namir's to Canada). Their writing shows a number of strong parallels as well, ones that go beyond representing queer repression.
Both novels open in war zones. In Under the Udala Trees it's the Nigerian Civil (Nigerian-Biafran) War, 1968. Ijeoma, 11, lives with her parents in Ojoto, on the losing Biafran side and dangerously close to the Nigerian border. For Ramy, the student nearing the end of his studies in God in Pink, it's Baghdad, 2003. Importantly, both novels go beyond portraying their respective country as simply war-torn, whether by continuing far into the peace that followed (Under the Udala Trees) or treating war as background (God in Pink). For now, we'll simply note the wars are there at the outset.
Both protagonists (no spoiler – this happens early) lose their father at the hands of the state. Ijeoma's father, despondent at what has come of Biafra, refuses to take shelter during a Nigerian air strike. Years before the novel opens, Saddam executed Ramy's father for performing Shiite ceremonies.
And that raises a third parallel: tribal, sectarian antagonisms crop up in both works. Ijeoma's first love is star-crossed: Ijeoma is Igbo, a Christian. When Biafra seceded from Nigeria it was along pre-colonial ethnic lines: Biafra was predominantly Igbo. Ijeoma's love, Amina, is Hausa, a Muslim group predominant in northern Nigeria.
The lovers are discovered and separated. Ijeoma is sent back to her mother for Bible study (the instruction backfires: it only shows Ijeoma the faulty logic of her mother's interpretation). One lesson strays from the theme of homosexuality. Leviticus 19: "thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed."
"You're Igbo. That girl is Hausa. Even if she were to be a boy, don't you see that the Igbo and Hausa would mean the mingling of seeds?" Adaora admonishes her daughter. "Are you forgetting what they did to us during the war? … Have you forgotten that it was her people who killed your father?"
In Ramy's Iraq, the widening faultline is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. "During Saddam's reign, we had no checkpoints, but now there are too many of them. There are Sunni and Shia areas, a distinction we didn't have before."
These similarities may just be coincidences, but I read Okparanta and Namir as engaging in a similar artistic project. Placing the queer within a historically specific context rather than a nebulous timelessness means acknowledging that the treatment of queer people is contextual, and the thing about context is it can change. Even when well-intentioned, so much of what is written about LGBT-hate laws ignores the historical context of those laws' creation, which can end up being reductive and defeatist. These novels, by contrast, even when shining a light on the worst atrocities, offer faint optimism.
Change is a central force in both books. Both feature devout characters who undergo relatively radical transformations in perspective on homosexuality. But what's more significant, God is the agent of that change. In God in Pink, it takes the form of the angel Gabriel, who visits a sheikh at the local mosque, Ammar, to question Ammar's interpretation of the Koran. While both books engage in interpretive critique, neither rejects the religious text as a frame of reference. The final words of God in Pink are "God Almighty has spoken the truth." In the epilogue to Under the Udala Trees, Ijeoma considers Hebrews 8: "God made a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that He made with their fathers."
"Sometimes I sit with my Bible in my hands, and I think to myself that God is nothing but an artist, and the world is His canvas. And I reason that if the Old and New Testaments are any indication, then change is in fact a major part of His aesthetic, a major part of His vision for the world. The Bible itself is an endorsement of change."
Of the two novels, Under the Udala Trees is the more classically realist in style and structure, following Ijeoma into her early 50s. It's most innovative formally in melding biblical verse and Nigerian folk tales, a mix of influences that is true to the protagonist. God in Pink is the slimmer book – you could argue it's really a novella – and a bit more structurally complex in its alternating first-person narration between Ramy and Ammar. It's also more experimental in how it incorporates the angel Gabriel as an actor in the story. Most novels work with characters from a single metaphysical plane (our world); here Namir is working with characters from two.
It's easy to lose sight, for all the talk of the things around sexual orientation, that we are talking about sexual difference. God in Pink is the more thoroughly explicit of the two, but Under the Udala Trees doesn't revert to hand-holding and hugs either.
For some readers, reading within the context of a national literature or a given faith, this might be the most provocative aspect of either book. That difference in desire that makes for identity is kind of the point though, and the authors are right to insist on it.
If reading from the context of queer lit, what's most revolutionary about these novels is their insistence on faith. Namir's work especially. It isn't that there are no representations of queer Muslims in fiction (Farzana Doctor's novel Stealing Nasreen and Abdellah Taïa's fictionalized memoir, An Arab Melancholia, come to mind) it's that there aren't many of them. Even among these, God in Pink is the first I've come across of such fervent devotion. Namir is one among a growing number arguing you can be actively gay and a good Muslim. If this presents a challenge to the simplistic view that Islam, a religion of 1.6 billion people, is one monolithic set of rigid beliefs – and I think Namir does make this challenge by citing, for example, dissent between Sunni and Shia Muslims – it is also a challenge to a particular representation of the queer as agnostic or overtly atheist.
It's not news that queer – and to a lesser extent, trans – people are currently having a moment as far as cultural representation goes. What you hear less about is who gets to participate in this moment and how these representations reproduce other power structures, such that "LGBT" most often looks cis, white, middle-class, able-bodied, male. Gay.
Of course there are counterexamples to this exclusive assimilationist homogeneity, but the exceptions seem to prove the rule. See black American rapper le1f's tweet (since deleted), "i feel i cant be a 'Gay Rapper' because 'Gay' in modern art has so much to do with white patriarchy & an idea of beauty i don't agree with." See the need for Nia King's book of profiles, Queer and Trans Artists of Color, published last year, because QTPOC are not celebrated with the same critical attention as their white artistic counterparts. King self-published that book, by the way. See Stonewall, a film released this year widely criticized for white- and cis-washing the foundational event in modern LGBTQ liberation history. (And by "see" in this case I mean "witness the existence of" – please don't legitimize this film by watching it.)
I had this on my mind recently while reading Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's memoir, Dirty River, because it's like a biracial-abuse-survivor-queer-femme-working-class-immigrant-anarchist-punk bomb exploding this myth of LGBT sameness. Intersectionality is its M.O., so it's a book difficult to pin down as just one thing, but one way of reading it is as a kind of oral history and love letter to Toronto as it was in a weedier, less shiny time, which was only, tops, 20 years ago but by my count is two waves of gentrification distant. If the Toronto that Piepzna-Samarasinha memorializes still exists, it is increasingly pushed to the margins.
Toronto isn't the point for the purposes of this review; it's just the particular example written about in this book and you could probably extrapolate to many other places what I'm about to say. What struck me while reading Dirty River, and even more so at the book launch, where the audience also shared their stories of being queer women of South Asian descent in the Toronto of that time, was the shocking diversity of the experience. This is not a new idea – that as queer people make strides in legal equality and social acceptance, we've marginalized many representations of ways to be queer from the mainstream – but the contrast is stark in reading Dirty River.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of "the danger of the single story." Under the Udala Trees and God in Pink give voice to the often voiceless, offer the outside world a window into their lives, and provide a glimmer of hope for change – all good things. But they also give a Canadian reader more than an instance for complacent homonationalist pity. All three of these books offer different ways of being queer in the face of a single story. In the words of Matthew Salesses, "We need diverse diverse books."
Jade Colbert writes the Small Press and Debuts columns for the Globe and Mail.