Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Half of a Yellow Sun ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

When I was in middle school, my best friend was a girl named Vanessa, whose parents were from Nigeria.  All I know about their decision to emigrate was that one day they'd woken up to hear on the radio that they had a new president (SCARY) and decided to get out of there.  One summer, Vanessa went to Nigeria for a few weeks.  I was pretty impressed and her mom told me that one day they'd take me to Nigeria too.  Unfortunately, in high school Vanessa and I made new friends and that never happened, but a vague interest in Nigeria has continued in me.  Therefore, when I recently heard of Chimamanda Adichie and her general awesomeness, I was more than a little intrigued and eager to get my hands on her work.

Half of a Yellow Sun does not cover the coup that urged Vanessa's parents out of Nigeria, which I think probably happened in the 80's.  Instead, it covers post-colonial unrest and war that preceded their emigration.  It takes place in the 1960's, when Nigeria is trying to figure out what Nigeria even means after arbitrary borders were drawn by European governments, separating old tribal groups and attempting to unify groups that were historically enemies.  Meanwhile, England is still influencing groups to their own benefit and spreading propoganda and stereotypes about those who don't serve their interests.  Amidst this unrest, racial profiling and genocide break out, leading to a secession of the Eastern part of the country and a brutal civil war.  Amongst the victims of this war are a college professor, Odenigbo; his houseboy, Ugwu; his lady-friend, Olanna; her twin sister, Kainene; and Kainene's British lover, Richard.  We see the unrest and war through their eyes and their own personal struggles and relational troubles.

The story is told from the perspectives of three alternating narrators - Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard - and in four parts, switching back and forth between the early 1960's, when tension is growing, and the late 1960's, when the country is plunged into war.  For the most part, this technique really worked for me, as I tend to like alternating narrators and stories that move around in time.  My only complaint about how this is done is in part three, which returns to the early 60's.  Up until then, the story ties together two narratives; the personal lives of the characters and the unrest in the country receive equal attention.  But suddenly, in this section, the relational drama hinted at by part 2 (late 60's) takes center stage and the story becomes all about who slept with whom and the violent backdrop is almost completely forgotten.  Part 4 (late 60's, in the middle of the war) makes up for this, by showing how inconsequential all that is in the end, but the narrow focus really bothered me at the time.  However, we do eventually get perspective on how the two storylines compare and it is powerfully and simply done:
There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable." (435)

Adichie's writing is sparse, in a refreshing way.  While I love lyrical writing, whose metaphors can supplant the story itself, there are times when beauty is equally found in a more bare narrative that allows the events of the story to shine through, and that is the case here.  While this is no he-said/she-said deal, the writing is far from flowery and the story takes center stage.  Along with the sparse writing, the narrator leaves a lot to the reader and to the characters.  Some of the events of the novel are morally ambivalent (e.g., affairs and violent self-defense), while many others are clearly despicable (e.g., gang rapes and strafing civilians), but the narrator takes the same tone throughout and lets us understand the meaning of these events through her characters' reflections and our own responses.

Adichie does a really great job of making her book accessible to a foreign audience.  The character of Richard, the white Englishman who is attempting to write a (really boring-sounding) novel based on Nigerian art, falls in love with a Nigerian woman, and comes to identify with Nigeria more strongly than with his own home country is just one way that Adichie does this.  Richard is a foreigner, in a strange place, who is implicitly blamed for the problems that the country faces because his home country has so long been its oppressor.  As a white American, I can identify with this position.  I also identified with some of the Nigerians in this book, particularly the academics who gather at Odenigbo's house to discuss the need for revolution and a Nigerian government - though they are Nigerians and eventually directly impacted by the situation, for a large portion of the novel they are more voyeuristic commenters than anything.  They learn what's going on from TV and the radio and discuss it from their protected, privileged positions.  This also sounds a lot like...well...me.  I can sit around and discuss world events without ever actually being involved in them.  Of course, these characters are eventually drawn into the war and lose their privileges and the very TVs that distanced them from the political situation...but until then I could strongly relate to them and to their sense of shock and vulnerability when they are drawn in.

Because of the sparseness of Adichie's writing, her book is not always the most quotable.  However, this quote from the very beginning of the book, regarding Ugwu going to school, really struck me.  It says a lot, both about the book and about our world in general:
"There are two answers to the things they will teach you about our land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass.  You must read books and learn both answers...  They will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger.  That is rubbish.  Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park's grandfather was born.  But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park." (13-14)

I think that this is a really important book for anybody to read, not just people interested in Nigeria.  It says a lot about the world we live in and the many ways that reality and truth have been twisted to serve certain people's ends.  More importantly, there is no white savior.  This is the story of people who have been hurt by whites, but without villainizing all whites.  But this isn't just a depressing lesson in what happens when white people interfere - it's also a story, about individuals as much as major historical events.  I definitely recommend it and will certainly be reading more by this powerful writer.

3 comments:

  1. She's an amazing writer. I was lucky enough to hear her read from this book at the Twin Cities Book Festival the year it came out.

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  2. So glad that you liked it, she is one of favourite authors. I would recommend Purple Hibiscus next, it's her first novel and it's a great coming of age story.

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  3. I do love this author so much. I read her most recent book, Americanah, and loved it, and I'm reading Half of a Yellow Sun now. It's pretty wrecking. It's filling my heart up with sadness, and I read the end and I'm not sure I can take that ending. :(

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