Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

Courtesy of Biafraforum.com

Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have time to be in it and to move slowly.

― Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

My first touch with Africa was through Hemingway’s infamous book Green Hills of Africa. Although it is an account of a hunting safari on the Serengeti Plains and a chronicle of adventure, it revealed to me the beauty of this strange land – a continent full of contrast and opportunity. As inspiring as this book was, however, it missed one vital element – humans. After all, as Albert Camus once said in one of his essays: “What’s a city but the people?”

The second book that gave me a better insight into Africa was Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. This vivid and incisive portrait of a South African’s childhood during Apartheid left me craving for more. I knew that Africa was something more than the Ebola virus, civil wars, failed states and a recipient of development aid, because after all, this is not Africa’s full story. Most people can easily recall images of African kids with the bloated stomachs, eyes dazed, and flies peppered around their heads. But there is a danger of how we frame the story of other nations and its people, and there is also a responsibility in this type of story-telling. I had to find a book that would show me what are the true dreams and the trepidations of the African soul, the ones far beyond the familiar pictures on the TV-screen.

After dozens of books, I have encountered one that made me truly appreciate the African (in particular, the Nigerian) culture, history, and literature.

 

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book tells stories about lives in Nigeria, torn apart by the 1960s Nigerian-Biafran war. For those of you who do not know about it – this war was an attempt to create a secessionist state due to economic, ethnic, and cultural tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. Its flag showed the top half of a rising (or else, not setting) sun, hence the title Half of a Yellow Sun. This painful story is told with a lucid intelligence and compassion that simply cannot leave you indifferent. The author’s focus on war’s impact on civilian life, and the trauma that follows, makes the reader realize that wars, above all, are about people, and not so much about money, power or ideas. The book begins in a period of peace after Nigerian independence in 1960, and it spans the decade to the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war between 1967 and 1970.

There are several protagonists in the book whose stories are told in a way I rarely encounter among writers. Adichie divides the chapters among sets of different characters, and instead of telling their stories altogether, she focuses on a specific pair or a single person. Each chapter concerns only one character, so the reader has a chance to get to know the character in depth – with all the turmoil, pain, thoughts and dreams. The most interesting part is when, in between those chapters, the characters meet, as we can then observe the interaction amongst them, and how their own backgrounds and ideas shape the way they experience their own reality.

Among the protagonists are Odenigbo, also referred to as “the Master”. He is a radical math lecturer at the University of Nsukka (which later on becomes part of the secessionist Igbo land) and his houseboy – Ugwu. The novel begins with Ugwu’s devoted creativity in the kitchen, his passion for cooking and his fascination with pepper soup, spicy jollof rice, and chicken boiled in herbs. However, as he serves his Master and his friends, he also absorbs bits of intellectual debate in the era of de Gaulle in Algeria and the struggle for US civil rights.

Another interesting character in the book is Odenigbo’s lover – Olanna. She is the London-educated daughter of a “nouveau riche” businessman in Lagos. We would later on periodically encounter also Olanna’s estranged twin sister Kainene and her English boyfriend, Richard. She has a mystical presence, yet an enchanting one as it is seen through the eyes of Ugwu.

Ethnic differences are hinted at early on, as some characters persistently switch between the English and Igbo languages, and other ethnic characters are introduced, like Odenigbo’s Yoruba colleague, Miss Adebayo, and Olanna’s ex-boyfriend from the north, the Hausa prince Mohammed. These differences, however, become much significant after the ostensibly Igbo-led 1966 military coup. As Olanna and others become caught up in the violence, the novel captures the horror in the details of “vaguely familiar clothes on headless bodies”, or corpses with “odd skin tone – a flat, sallow grey, like a poorly wiped blackboard”. The description of some of those scenes might appear crude and ferocious, giving the reader a sensation of impending doom. Nevertheless, against the backdrop of the war, there are quiet revolutions, which should not be easily passed. Such an interesting contrast is Odenigbo’s submission to drink and despair, while the seemingly compliant Olanna draws on profound strengths.

The novel’s fable, moving in chunks between the late and early 60s, is not without glitches, revealed in the time of war. There is a rare emotional truth in the descriptions and dialogues between the characters, the beauty of humans in their interactions with one another and their ugliness in the face of war.

This book is a literary reflection on the Biafra war and its long and distinguished history. Wars always take their victims, who often remain overlooked and forgotten. This work of art can be seen as a heartfelt plea for a memory of those who fell in the Nigerian-Biafran war. It underscored a bitter truth for me: the name “Nigerian” is a mythical invention and “home” can only be your own ancestral land. This book serves as a reminder of the effect of genocidal war on the human psyche and this makes it worth re-reading it so that future generations do not forget their legacy.

***

Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

 

 

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