Visiting Author Advocates for LGBTQ Through Literacy

By Rreze Kadrijaj ’19

Multi-award winning author Chinelo Okparanta visited Ms. Farhana Hoque’s sophomore English classes on April 13, 2018.

Ms. Hoque was able to receive this amazing opportunity for herself and her students thanks to the LAMBDA Literary Foundation. The organization reached out to her and other teachers for a professional development meeting, where they spend a day learning what it would be like if an author to come to her classroom.

The organization gives the teachers a list of 36 to 40 authors who are willing to come to classrooms, talk to the students, give out free books, and have the authors sign the books as well.

LAMBDA is a LGBTQ literacy organization that “believes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer literature is fundamental to the preservation of our culture, and that LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published, and read,” according to the LAMBDA mission statement.

To Ms. Hoque, the list was overwhelming because many on the list had received notable awards. She chosed Ms. Okparanta, a Nigerian female writer who is known for her short story collection Happiness, Like Water and her novel, Under the Udala Trees.

Ms. Hoque’s students were each sent their own copy of Under the Udala Trees. This made the students really excited because they got to write in it, and at the end, when Ms. Okparanta finally came to visit, she would sign the books.

Students also prepped for what an author talk would be like. Ms. Hoque reminded students that they should be relaxed and talk like it’s a normal conversation.

Under the Udala Trees is about Ljeoma, a Nigerian girl who falls in love with Amina, another refugee girl from a rival community, during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). Their relationship is discovered by others and they face prejudice from their communities.

Students read the book in their literature circles before Ms. Okparanta came. Innovatively, Ms. Hoque used Google as a way for students to discuss the book.

The students were divided into groups with their own blogs to have open conversations about the book.

According to Ms. Hoque, the students were very insightful. When Ms. Okparanta arrived, she kindly introduced herself and told the students how she normally formats her visits. She would share her inspirations, do a reading, and then sign their books.

But she decided it would be more interesting if the students read their favorite parts of the book to her instead.

Students shuffled through pages trying to remember where their favorite moments were.

The inspiration for the title of her book, Under the  Udala Trees, came from the fruit she used to eat as a child that came from the Udala trees. Ms. Okparanta said that children love the fruit because if you chew long enough, it turns into a natural chewing gum.

The tree also has many legends associated with it.

“If you stand under it and you shake it or when the fruit is ripe, they start to fall,” said Ms. Okparanta. “It’s supposed to be like a good luck wish to young women about to get married or who are married a sign of fertility, to give your husband as many fruit, or as many children, as they desire.”

This was an inspiration because the book does have to do with fertility and paths in people’s lives and how everyone’s path is different. Another inspiration was her life and her mother’s life during the Nigerian Civil War.

Ms. Okparanta wanted her book to be realistic and true to her culture. She discussed the effects of society on women and also men.

“Living as a woman in this world and the obligations that we have that society puts on us, that we must get married at a certain age,” said Ms. Okparanta.

Students were able to tell the author what their favorite parts are and why. Some students questioned why some things happened in the book and why they didn’t happen earlier.

A student made a similar point to the point Ms. Okparanta’s editors when Ms. Okparanta was publishing her book: the main characters are passive. She responded that, in life, it takes a long time to make difficult decisions.

She also noted that the cultural context of the story also determined the characters personalities. 

The setting of the story and the 1970s  in a conservative, religious society.  It would have been very dangerous for the main character to come out about her sexuality.

The students didn’t just ask questions about the book, but also about Ms. Okparanta’s life.

Ms. Okparanta wrote the book on and off for four years and says the most difficult thing about it was the structure and the emotions that she re-lived while writing.

“It was hard because structurally I wanted to make it so that there was tension so that people simultaneously knew what was happening, but also there was a way which I sort of created the tension so that you still wanted to find out what was going to happen,” said Ms. Okparanta.

To maintain the story’s realism, the star-crossed lovers don’t end up together, because in real life they wouldn’t have.

The only thing she wishes she changed was not italicizing her language because in real life the native people use a mixture of languages in their daily conversations.

Monica Carter, the Program Coordinator at LAMBDA said she “loves seeing male students engage with the novels because they talk about LGBTQ issues, and a lot of students are standoffish, they don’t want to talk about it.”

Ms. Hoque agreed. She thinks that sometimes male students aren’t as comfortable talking about LGBTQ issues as the girl students. She was glad to see all her students contributing to the conversation and being engaged in the reading.

Ms. Hoque said, “It’s still important to read about people who are different from you, who think differently, because if you don’t, then how will you ever know other views and why they think the way they do.”

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