Book: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chapter: 37 (450pages)
One of the works that brought Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie into limelight was her book, “Purple Hibiscus.” Often described as 21st century feminist, for her continual advocacy for women to have a high sense of achievement and not be apologetic about being independent, the award-winning novelist has also distinguished herself as a remarkable culturalist.
Her authentic cultural voice was expressed in a 2009 TedEX presentation, “the dangers of a single story” where she reiterated her believe in the power of stories. But she warns about the downside of telling a one-sided story. “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with the stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” she said.
In “Half of a Yellow Sun,” Adichie tried to tell a complete story. She told an authentic but fictitious story about the Biafran war, dispelling any cultural misunderstanding of the war that took place even before she was born. Her ability to tell the story accurately is drawn from an in-depth study of what others have written and first-hand stories her father and elders who witnessed the war shared with her. These sources- books and people- were acknowledged in her author’s note. She also pointed out that the intent of the story “is to portray my own imaginative truths and not the facts of the war.”
Half of a Yellow Sun depicts the struggle of the Igbos during the Biafra war. Adichie creatively weaved the novel around the lives of three people- Ugwu, a teenager; Olanna, one of the daughters of the elite; and Richard, a British writer. Drawing from the complex relationship of each of the characters, Adichie narrates their experiences in an interesting way. Her powerful ability to make each character come alive made the historic event a mesmerizing one.
The story in Half of a Yellow Sun is divided into three phases- Pre-Biafra era, Biafra era and Post-Biafra era. The story begins with Ugwu, a young boy being taken from his village to serve as a house-boy of a university professor- Odenigbo. The rich culture of the Igbo ethnic group was seen in Ugwu’s character as he experimented with his cooking skills.
Using an omnipotent point of view (first-person narration), Adichie unveils each of the other characters. Describing Odenigbo, his master, Ugwu says, “Master was little crazy- he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings and had too much hair.” True to his words, these were the traits Odenigbo exhibited throughout the book. Albeit a mathematician, Odenigbo’s character was more like an activist than someone rooted in the mathematical field as his character was first presented. No wonder Olanna’s sister referred him to as “revolutionary lover.”
Olanna, who returned to Nigeria after her study in the U.K moved in to live with Odenigbo at the University in Nsukka. Even though they later married during the eve of Biafra war, the duo portrayed the theme of love, betrayal and perseverance.
Adichie let out her feminism through Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister. Although not as beautiful and affectionate as Olanna, Kainene exhibited a strong personality- fearless and outspoken. Described as one who always dated White men to the embarrassment of her sister, Kainene showed more interest in their father’s business and flirted with the crème de la crème. She eventually fell in love with Richard, a British writer who was infatuated with the Igbo culture. She naturally took over some parts of her father’s business.
Using the flashback technique, Adichie narrated how Odenigbo betrayed Olanna by sleeping with a maid from the village whom his mother cunningly forced on him. The lady later gave birth to a baby girl, who was referred to as “Baby” throughout the novel. Olanna and Odenigbo officially adopted the child and raised her as their daughter.
Meanwhile, still on the theme of betrayal- Olanna, while estranged with Odenigbo for betraying her, slept with Richard, her sister’s boyfriend. Kainene later found out and in revenge burnt Richard’s manuscript.
The novel is not shy of romance. The author allowed herself the freedom to present twisted passion and sensuality in its raw form.
The main characters soon recovered from the heat of betrayal and heartbreak, as the Biafra war forced everyone to embrace forgiveness and struggle to survive while looking out for one another.
Kainene’s enigmatic and powerful feminism is humbled by the war. She volunteered to supply food and shelter for the refugees at the relief camp during the war. However, just before the end of the war, she went on affia attack- to trade for more food- but never returned. Her family’s search for her whereabout was futile.
Despite the weight of pain and agony in the novel, the author maintained a healthy sense of humour. For instance, when one of the children at the refugee camp is impregnated, the girl’s mother wondered if her belly was swollen from kwashiorkor. Also in the search for Kainene, Olanna asked her uncle Osita to go and consult the dibia. “She gave him a bottle of whisky and some money to buy a goat for the oracle.”
After carrying out the ritual Kainene still did not return home. To pacify his wife, Odenigbo then interjected, “the war has ended but hunger has not, nkem. That dibia was just hungry for goat meat. You can’t believe in that.” But Olanna insisted that she would believe anything that would bring her sister back.
In terms of language, Adichie’s style is simple but rich. Her writing prowess and endearing storytelling ability is seen in the naturalness of her characters. The heroes and the heroines were not flawless or devoid of challenges. She developed the role of her protagonists with care but did not leave them isolated on a pedestal of superiority. During the outbreak of Biafra war, each of the characters felt the negative impact of the war.
For instance, Olanna’s baby almost died of malnutrition, forcing her to join the queue of those seeking succour from relief efforts. Ugwu was drafted on the Biafran army in spite of Olanna’s several attempts to shield him. He experienced the brutality first-hand and on one occasion gang-raped a bar attendant. At one point, news about his demise while on a mission was spread like wide fire and everyone who knew him mourned. However, Richard soon found him in hospital and informed Olanna and Odenigbo. He was later reunited with them.
After the war caused by political misunderstanding, the Igbo ethnic group tried to pick back their lives again. In one of the last chapters, Adichie sheds light on how Odenigbo and Olanna returned to the University in Nsuka but they met the home in ruin. Ugwu made attempts to clean up the mess. “He wanted to clean. He wanted to scrub furiously. He feared though that it would change nothing. Perhaps the house was stained to its very foundation and that smell of something long dead and dried would always sting to the rooms and the rustle of rats would always come from the ceiling.”
While Richard passionately wanted to write about the Biafra war, as a result of his “connection” to the culture, he however left the experience to Ugwu. The latter wrote the book, “The world was silent when we died,” and dedicated it, “for my master, my good man.” It is ironical, as Odenigbo used to call him “my good man.”
The balance in the characterization is commendable. Adichie developed characters fitting both elite personalities as well as those at the bottom of the pyramid to tell the story well. The accolades Half of a yellow sun has received till date is well deserved. However, in an attempt to portray the Igbo culture, the author fell short. The characters were sometimes presented as speaking in Igbo dialect without any provision for translation. Her tone of narration was also a bit exaggerated.
The book also unnecessarily made the sexual escapades and fantasies of Ugwu and other protagonists explicit. This automatically classified it as adult-content.
What could have been an eclipse of other Nigerian cultures in the novel was salvaged by the loyalty of friendship displayed by Mohammed, Olanna’s former lover and Mrs Adebayo, Odenigbo’s colleague. Nothing much is said about these cultures in details. The dismissive way they were also presented made them appear disenfranchised in reality.
The gripping title, “Half of a yellow sun” is derived from the Biafra flag. During the war, the Igbo ethnic group adopted a rising yellow sun on their flag. The thirty-seven-chapter novel was worth every read. The intensity and graphic narration would leave one feeling emotional at some point. No scene in the impact of war was left out- the violence, the famine, the despair, the loss, the greed and hate trailed on even after it was called off. “War is very ugly” Agha ajoka. And like Adichie wrote in her author’s note: may we always remember.