Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


It is hard to believe it has already been eight years since I read Purple Hibiscus. I loved that book, and always intended to come back and read some more Adichie, but, have you seen my reading list? It keeps getting longer despite my determination to read. In any case, I finally just ordered the book from the library, and read it.


In a lot of ways, this book is very different from Purple Hibiscus. It is pretty long, for one thing, and deals with a longer period of time as well as the sweeping scope of the Nigerian Civil War. It also focuses on several characters, and we see things from each of their perspectives at different times. 


The book, like the other, is brutal at times, but in a different way. In the first, domestic violence is described in horrifying detail. In Half of a Yellow Sun, the horrors of ethnic violence, civil war, starvation, and rape are all portrayed without looking away. The naked brutality is there for everyone to see, not swept under the rug like Western media chose to do during the war. 


While the story is pure fiction (although set in the midst of real events), Adichie based the characters on people in her family (particularly an uncle), and others that she heard about from her relatives’ stories about the war. 


One thing I disliked about the book was that it was told non-linearly. Now, I have complained about this before - I think it is an affectation of our time that will eventually be viewed like the overly flowery language of certain Victorian authors. I grant that some stories work best in that non-linear form, but it seems as if every modern author feels it necessary to use the technique. Even when telling the story in order would actually make the narrative arc better. I believe that is the case in this book. There is nothing added to the experience by jumping backwards and forwards between before the war, and during the war. Particularly since the “big reveals” so to speak are hinted at, but not explained, and just telling us wouldn’t have ruined any suspense - it just makes certain parts more confusing. 


In any event, that is really my only complaint about the book. Adichie writes well, makes the world come alive, and creates a compelling and unforgettable story. A haunting story, to be sure. 


The book follows several characters. There is Odenigbo, a professor at the university, who advocates for freedom from colonialism, and eventually for the formation of Biafra, a short-lived separate country mostly populated by the Igbo people, who are persecuted by the other Nigerians. He hooks up with (and eventually marries) Olanna, the beautiful daughter of an oligarch, who chooses to leave the family business to pursue her own academic career. It is Olanna’s twin, Kainene, who ends up running the business. And also shacking up with Richard, a British ex-pat who hopes to write a novel about Africa. (Richard is a good enough guy, but obviously a bit confused about who should be writing about Africa and why.) Finally, there is Ugwu, a young boy and later teen who is hired by Odenigbo as a house boy, but is also given an education. He becomes essentially a member of the family. 


The first part of the story concerns those earlier times, before the war, and leading up to independence. The second part is about the war itself, when everything goes to hell, so the characters are on the run from the Nigerian military, which is murdering and raping civilians, particularly the Igbos. Between the stories, there are affairs, illegitimate children, and other interpersonal drama. I won’t go into all of the plot details, but the book very much blends the personal with the greater societal events - like all our stories, particularly in turbulent times, everything matters.  


I thought that Adichie did a great job at portraying the dehumanizing effects of war. When you are starving, or when your ethnic group is being murdered, or when your plight is desperate, you do things you never thought you would do. The trauma of finding your family has been murdered pervades the book - there is so much death, and Adichie is definitely not exaggerating. If anything, the limitations of 500 pages and a focus on just a group of people means that the reader has to just imagine the horrors multiplied a million times. 


The psychological drama is also fascinating. As in Purple Hibiscus, Adichie masterfully writes about family dynamics, and all the complexities inherent in them. In this case, there is the conflict between parents and children, with mothers in particular determined to sabotage romances they disapprove of, and even pimp their daughters out for political favors. There is also the question of adultery, and the “revenge affair.” 


And, most uncomfortable of all is the scene where Ugwu, at age 13 impressed into the army, participates in a gang rape because of peer pressure. It haunts him the rest of the book - and indeed, the ending hints that it is Ugwu, not Richard, who eventually writes the definitive novel, telling his own story, and is sure to confess his part in the violation of a young woman. 


On the most personal scale, the scenes between Olanna and Odenigbo’s mother are pretty horrifying too. She hates Alanna, and does everything she can to destroy the relationship. Her objections are many, but one of them is based on class. She wants Odenigbo to marry a more “traditional” girl who will properly obey and serve him. And serve his mother too, of course. 


“Too much schooling ruins a woman; everyone knows that. It gives a woman a big head and she will start to insult her husband. What kind of wife will that be?”


Mama (I don’t think we learn her name, actually) goes to an even greater extreme, though. When Olanna is absent, she gets Ugwu too drunk until he passes out (and thus cannot interfere), gets Odenigbo drunk and a bit high on aphrodisiacs, and forces her house girl Amala to have sex with him. Amala gets pregnant, which is the point, of course. Had Amala had a son, then Mama intended to raise him as a “replacement” for Odenigbo, assuming she couldn’t force him to marry Amala. But because the child is a girl, Amala rejects her completely. It is left to Olanna, who may be furious about the whole thing, but can’t bear to see an innocent infant pay the price, to adopt the child. And for Ugwu to take on the role of a third parent. 


I love this line about Olanna’s complicated relationship with Odenigbo. 


For a brief irrational moment, she wished she could walk away from him. Then she wished, more rationally, that she could love him without needing him. Need gave him power without his trying; need was the choicelessness she often felt around him.


I have often said that my wife doesn’t need me. But she wants me. Big difference. And I imagine it affects the power dynamic in our marriage, although since I really don’t prefer power, I can’t say that I feel any loss. 


I should talk about my favorite bit of dialogue in the book. This one comes as it becomes more and more clear that Biafra is going to lose, and the international community is going to look the other way. The hypocritical preacher (who looks the other way as another priest rapes young girls) invokes the divine in favor of the war. 


“Holy Jehovah destroy the vandals with holy-ghost fire! Holy Jehovah fight for us!”

“God is fighting for Nigeria,” Alice said. “God always fights for the side that has more arms.” 


Unfortunately, this has a core of truth to it. Which is why we humans need to stand up for the vulnerable, not wait for the big sky daddy to do it for us. 


Another thing struck me about this. Nigeria exists, like so many countries around the world, as a creation of the British Empire. The tactics are so familiar, from places like Iraq, India, and most of Africa. Draw arbitrary boundaries that ignore lines of ethnicity, language, religion, and culture. Then, set the different factions against each other, stoke ethnic and religious hatred. Then, be the only “legitimate” power, the one who can “keep the peace.” Unsurprisingly, when the colonialists finally withdraw, they leave all those tribalist hatreds they fed behind. And things fall apart. 


In the case of Nigeria, the Brits, looking for a different way to exploit Africa after the slave trade ended, cobbled together no fewer than 250 ethnicities, 500 languages, several religions, and innumerable variations on culture. It is no surprise that after the Brits left in 1963, the country went through nearly 40 years of coups, wars, and instability, before finally establishing a mostly functional democracy in 1999. (And even then, it is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, so…) 


The legacy of colonialism lives on as a zombie that still preys on flesh. 


One final thought. The title refers to the flag of the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Its imagery pervades the book - the sun was a symbol of a bright future just emerging. And I think that Adichie captures that spirit of optimism, and, even in her frustration with her native country, she still feels that hope of a future, a better world that can come into existence if we work to make it happen. Ultimately, that is why such a brutal and horrifying story, with losses that can never be recovered, lives that cannot be restored, and a society that had everything to rebuild felt hopeful. Building a better world is never easy, but the goal is noble and good and inspiring. 


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