Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Title: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
Length: 541 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Vintage Canada / 2006
Source: The TBR pile (originally my local Indigo, I think?)
Why I Read It: I loved her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, and I’ve heard many great things about this author.
Date Read: 20/08/10
I knew after reading Adichie’s short story collection that I had to read her full length books as well. I picked this up a year ago, and can’t believe I left it so long. WHY did I leave it so long?! This book was incredibly well written and very powerful. I apologize in advance for how long this post is going to be
This book deals with so many subjects that I want to talk about. Let me start by giving you the book summary:
With effortless grace, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in African history: Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of promise, hope, and the disappointment of war.
When reading this book you don’t have to know anything about the history of Nigeria as it clearly lays out a lot of what is important for this time period. The book has four parts – early sixties, late sixties, early sixties and late sixties. It jumps back and forth but still easily maintains a single narrative. We follow all of the characters in their normal lives before the war, and then during the war and we see how it affects them and everyone and how their lives are changed.
The book is heartbreaking. It really is. Truly, nothing I can say about this book will do it justice so let me just say that it is incredible and you really must read it. There are, however, a few things that I especially want to talk about. First of all, a quick history lesson:
In case you don’t know, Nigeria has three main ethnic tribes – the Hausa in the North, Yoruba in the West and Igbo in the East. Besides these three main groups there are a large number of smaller minority tribes. The British always considered the Muslim Hausa easier to work with and gave them more power. The North is also much more dry and arid while the south has a lot of oil. As you can imagine, at independence in 1960 things didn’t go smoothly. After a coup which but the Igbo in power, a retaliation coup followed which gave power back to the Hausa. At this time an estimated 30,000 Igbo people were killed in the North and there were some reprisal killings of Hausa in the South. This was one of the main reasons for the succession of the Republic of Biafra. Nigeria then launched a campaign to regain Biafra (and it’s oil) which caused widespread hunger and the fighting lasted for three years. The support given to Nigeria by the US, UK and Soviet Union is considered to have played a major role in Nigeria winning. Tensions are still high and those in the South still fight for more control over their lives and the revenue of the oil money (and huge amounts of pollution caused by it). See Wikipedia for more.
One narrative throughout the book is the tribal politics. The characters we follow are all Igbo, but some of them have friends from other tribes. We hear about the desires for independence from Britain and the chance to govern themselves. We see how brave Hausa men and women helped to smuggle some Igbo people to safety. We see some still maintaining ties with their Hausa friends while others paint the entire group as evil, especially during war-time.
What was also interesting was to see the changes of the Igbo attitudes from being considerate of others to saying all ‘others’, including those in minority tribes, are saboteurs and should be killed. You could really see how the war and constant fighting was wearing on their psyches, and it was really well written to show this slow descent.
It was also interesting for me to see how Richard, as an Englishman, was treated compared to the others. He was always kept as more of an outsider even though he loved it and wanted to help the people. Even when he choose Biafra and to stay with Kainene, they never allow him to truly be a Biafran, or to experience the same things, because he could leave. He is an aspiring writer but throughout the book faces disdain for wanting to write about their experience, even though he is living it at the same time.
This was really interesting to me as, as a reader of International fiction, I always wonder who really gets to tell a story. I like to focus on writers who are native to that country as they are really telling their own story. But what gives a foreigner the right to write about another country or culture? How long does one have to live there before being a part of it? If you are living through a war along with the locals and not getting any benefits for being ‘other’ are you really still ‘other’? Or does it really just all come down to where you were born? I’m not sure I agree with the fact that Richard believes it isn’t his story to tell because in my mind he had no privileges that separated him. He was Biafran. But then again, I am ‘other’ so how can I decide? What do you think?
The last really interesting point I want to bring out was the way that the Western world responded. Food aid was available some days and not others, there was really no reliability or stability in people’s lives. The way it was handed out was also dehumanizing for people, as was the fact that it wasn’t food that they were used to or that they would normally eat so they didn’t always know what to do with it or even like it. Ugwu mentions (wish I could find the page number and actual quote!) that he doesn’t understand why they wouldn’t find out what people actually eat in the area.
The other side of this was the way the whole war and succession was treated by the Western media. The Western world doesn’t want to hear about the conflicts, how the tensions were a direct result of the British policies, and the truth for the ordinary people. Instead the news organizations only want to know about how tribal the people are, or about that one Westerner who was killed. It was sad as you can see that it is clearly true still today. The following is a section from a conversation between Richard and some journalists that he is showing around on page 465.
“Unbelievable,” the redhead said. “The Biafran propaganda machine is great.”
“There isn’t a propaganda machine,” Richard said. “The more civilians you bomb, the more resistance you grow.”
“Is that from Radio Biafra?” the redhead asked. “It sounds like something from the radio.”
The whole conversation in this part was sad to read. The journalists clearly have their minds made up of what is going on and what is newsworthy and will not see anything different. They also are incredibly rude and ignorant to all the locals and to Richard when he shows that he considers himself a Biafran rather than an Englishman.
This book took me 5 days to read, which is a lot longer than a book this size would normally take. As I said above, it truly was heartbreaking. I highly recommend it to everyone as I think it explores some really important topics as well as gives us a human view of a big event in history that is still affecting things today.