Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writings have, in various forms, influenced my life for a few years now. I often show her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” in my English class, particularly as we embark on studying stereotypes. Yet this is the first time I’ve read a novel by her—and it was a treat. Half of a Yellow Sun brought me back to my youthful summer reading of other postcolonial fiction, particularly that set in India. I picked the right time to read this, too: finally, a warm and sunny weekend in May here in Thunder Bay, where I could relax on my deck and allow myself to be drawn into the 1960s world of Nigeria and Biafra that Adichie recreates here.
Set in the 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun follows a small ensemble cast through the Biafran War of 1967–1970. If, like me, you are a white person of a certain age and therefore hadn’t even heard of the Biafran War, well, that’s OK. But in that case, this book represents a fascinating glimpse at that unknown, underappreciated moment in history: an African state, created by colonizers, fractured by tensions among the various nations within the state, attempting to reforge itself according to its own destiny and not one determined along white supremacist lines. As much as it is fascinating, and as much as Adichie captures the optimism and political fervour of the Biafrans, she also reminds us of the horrors that always attend any theatre of war. The characters in this story endure hardship after hardship, in a variety of forms, and they are forever changed by those years. This is neither a happy nor a sad story, overall, but it is certainly moving and at times very difficult to read.
Trigger warnings in this book for extreme violence, including against children; sexual assault and rape; anti-Black racism.
The power of this book comes from the diversity of characters Adichie gives us. It opens on Ugwu, a 13-year-old Igbo boy from a poor village brought into Nsukka by his aunt to become the houseboy to Odenigbo, a mathematics professor at the university. Immediately, the contrast between this uneducated rural boy and this incredibly intellectual, academic man creates an interesting dynamic. It reminds me a little of The Remains of the Day, where the butler is present for these intense political conversations among his master’s circle, yet he is not actually a part of those conversations. Yet Ugwu does not remain static: as the years go by, he receives an education, and his world begins to open up.
This dynamic grows richer when Olanna moves in. We see how Ugwu often interprets events using the wisdom passed down to him by his elders. When Odenigbo’s mother shows up, Ugwu talks of her using magic to hex or curse Olanna—something Olanna dismisses, even though the result is the same regardless. I love how Adichie portrays the ways in which these characters’ various upbringings dramatically alter their view of the same world in which they live. Olanna’s personal passions are tempered by this circumscribed view of what’s possible in the world—as much as she supports Odenigbo’s passion for a free Biafra, she is too close to the corruption within her father’s/Kainene’s realm of business to share his naive idealism.
And then there’s Richard, the Token White Guy of the novel. He comes to Nigeria looking to write about a certain style of artwork. Eventually he ends up staying for deeper reasons. I love how Adichie shows his evolution. Richard doesn’t start off as this “woke white guy” who totally gets the Igbo perspective. He is every bit as naive as you’d expect a British expat to be. It’s only as he starts to get to know Nigerians, and through his increasingly serious relationship with Kainene, that his viewpoint can change. He becomes an ally first and then even more than that, as he actively participates in the Biafran cause—literally putting his career and even his body on the line. Richard’s palpable frustration, towards the end of the book when he is talking to the other foreign journalists, really stands out for me. He’s suddenly starting to understand what it must be like all the time for Black people interacting with whites—and of course, he is still getting a diluted experience because of his privilege.
I love the little bait-and-switch with regards to the authorship of the book. It’s so appropriate, of course: not only does Adichie reject the idea that a white person (any white person, even a well-intentioned one who has chosen to live within this world) should speak for the Biafrans, but it’s someone who has literally started from a place of very little privilege and grown up and experienced so much. Ugwu’s voice is unquestionably the core of this experience, the quintessential example of someone whose life has been inexorably shaped by colonialist forces since birth, yet whose awareness of those forces has only recently come into focus.
Moving away from the characters as individuals, though, let’s take a moment to think about the politics in this novel. Adichie captures the ugliness of revolution and fighting for a cause. Nigeria’s history and economics are inextricably linked to Britain’s colonial strategies for control. Whether or not one thinks the Biafran struggle for independence was justified or a good idea, it stems from tensions created by or exacerbated by the international community that colonized and exploited the African continent and peoples. So even though, on the surface, this seems like a very isolated, localized struggle—hence why I never heard about it in school or anything like that—it’s actually one of a much longer line of localized struggles set off by wider, international influences. And if, like me, you are trying to understand the ways in which patterns of colonization committed by your ancestors have affected the whole world, then this book is a good read.
Adichie employs an interesting narrative structure here. The first and third parts of the book take place in “the early sixties” while the second and fourth take place in “the late sixties”. By flashing back to the earlier period in the middle of the story, Adichie effectively juxtaposes what has happened to our characters in the “present” with how they used to live. We abruptly revert to the safety and security of a reasonably well-off household in Nsukka, which is a far cry from the refugee camps and bunkers our characters find themselves in after the declaration of independence. In this way, Adichie shows us how even the most comfortable and secure parts of eastern Nigerian society were shaken. At the same time, we learn that those in the western part of the country barely felt or saw anything different—for them, the war might as well have been happening even farther away, if it weren’t for the news and rhetoric on the radio.
Olanna, Odenigbo, Baby, and Ugwu go from having so much and living so comfortably to literally eking out the most minimal existence. It is stark and frankly somewhat disturbing, but it is such an effective depiction of how war rips apart a country. We get to see it from every level, from the professors now high-up in the Biafran directorates doing their best to keep the bureaucracy together long enough to fight this doomed war, to the civilians and soldiers struggling with day-to-day necessities. It’s not a question of morality now, of right or wrong, good or evil—it’s about survival.
Half of a Yellow Sun is brutal and beautiful simultaneously. The writing is every bit as compelling and carefully crafted as I have come to expect from Adichie’s speaking. The characters are complex, and their setting a rich one—both in terms of its descriptions but also the political and historical situation. This is exactly the kind of summer read I want: something thought-provoking, moving, something that makes me a little bit uncomfortable, even as it wraps me in the warmth created by such a well-balanced story.