Book Chat: Sweet Medicine, Under the Udala Tree - IfeOluwa Nihinlola

Authors: Panashe Chigumadzi and Chinelo Okparanta

Moderator: Ayodele Morocco-Clarke

Panashe Chigumadzi and Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novels, Sweet Medicine and Under the Udala Trees, both have women as their central characters. Sweet Medicine, set in 2008 Zimbabwe, tells the story of Tsitsi, who tries to find economic security in the midst of the financial turmoil of the time. Under the Udala Trees is the story of Ijeoma, and Amina, two women, one Igbo the other Hausa, set in the time of Biafra. Both novels deal with political ideas, and in the book chat moderated by Ayodele Morocco-Clarke, the authors talked about their motivations in writing the stories.

Panashe’s interests were not primarily political. She said, “I’m interested in sort of the interiority.” Of the heavily politicised backgrounds like the Zimbabwe she works with, she said,  “sometimes we forget about people, and people are really just a vehicle to talk about Zimbabwe. We don’t really care about what happens in the day to day experiences of people, which is sort of what I’m interested in right now.”

Chinelo, however, embraces the political dimensions of her book. She clarified her intentions in writing the novel, saying, “I don’t write because people tell me what to write, I write because I have something to say. And so I wrote the book because I had a need to express something that is important to me.” 

She spoke of a dichotomy in the response she got from people in the west and the communities of African people she knows. The former, she said, claimed they were far ahead in the issue (LGBTQ) and Africa is behind, while the latter said, “Don’t bring that western disease to us. Don’t let yourself be brainwashed by the west.” But she believed there are people on the ground that will benefit from a book speaking to their experiences—people being shut down by the two worlds with their differing opinions.

Panashe was raised in a Christian background and spoke about how this, and the kind of privilege she has, shaped her perception of the book’s principal character, to the extent that she started off the book judging her. “Tsitsi came by mistake,” she said.  “I was actually more interested in the depiction of religion.”

At the prompting of an audience question, she credited growing up—she started the book in the final year of high school—and coming into black feminist/ womanist thoughts, as the reasons for her change in perspective.  She came to understand the different things people have to do to survive in this world, and how sometimes, the best way for a woman to escape poverty, especially in highly patriarchal societies, might just be to marry a rich man.

Panashe also spoke about the Nigerian influences in the book, and how Nigeria, via pop culture—Nollywood, music—looms large in the rest of the continent.

Ayodele Morocco-Clarke pointed out the happy ending in Chinelo’s book, and how, along with Patricia Highsmtih’s The Price of Salt (Carol), it differs from stories like Brokeback Mountain in the way many LGBTQ stories end as tragedies.

“The book ends happily because it needs an happy ending,” Chinelo said. A book like hers (on LGBTQ people) should have a happy ending.

Chinelo also spoke about how religion has influenced the perception of LGBTQ people. She spoke about how, before the advent of western religions, many African cultures had no issues with homosexuality.

“Religion is a reason so many bad things happen,” she said. “But people need religion. People need some form of organizing force in their lives. People need hope. People need a reason to be hopeful.”

This, she suggested, was the reason many people went to Christianity when it came into West Africa, and abandoned their own religions. She pointed out the irony of people who have run to Christianity in this manner talking to her about not being brainwashed by west.

The panel ended on a near-pesky note, when one of the members of the audience made a comment about “the natural order of life…” expecting a response from Chinelo. The audience shushed him.

IfeOluwa Nihinlola edits and writes essays and short stories. He blogs at ifenihinlola.wordpress.com.