The Plot (contains spoilers)
Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Nzgozi Adichie centres on the lives of two Igbo intellectuals, Olanna and Odenigbo and their houseboy Ugwu. It is set amidst the civil war between Nigeria and secessionist South Eastern Nigerian state Biafra, a war and subsequent blockade that occurred from 1967-1970, and which was considered at the time by the Red Cross as the greatest humanitarian disaster since WWII.
The first section of Half of a Yellow Sun details the halcyon period before the war (1962-1963) when revolutionary academic Odenigbo falls in love with the wealthy, Oxford-educated Olanna, who leaves her privileged lifestyle to live with him. They are joined by Odenigbo’s new houseboy Ugwu, a clever youth from the bush who exhibits an innate talent with words. At the same time, an aspiring writer and Englishman, Richard Churchill, becomes the lover of Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. The narrative then jumps to the beginning of the bloody conflict between the Northern side of Nigeria (mainly comprising of the Muslim Hausas) and South-Eastern side where the ethnic tribal group, the Igbos, and the intellectual elite of Nigeria reside. The lives of Ugwu, Olanna, Odenigbo and Baby (Olanna and Odenigbo’s young daughter) are thrown out of equanamity by the war, but also by a series of unexplained personal tragedies. Olanna witnesses the massacre enacted on the Igbos by the Hausas to revenge the assasination of Hausan politicians. She is severely traumatised and temporarily paralysed by the event. We discover that Olanna and her sister Kainene have not spoken for some years. Olanna and Odenigbo joyfully celebrate the seccession of the South-East from wider Nigeria and the creation of a new nation-state: Biafra.
The book then returns to the years 1964-1966 and explanations for the mysterious conflicts between the characters soon emerge. Olanna discovers that Odenigbo has impregnated his mother’s servant Amala. In retaliation she sleeps with Kainene’s lover Richard in a desultory one-night-stand. Olanna decides to adopt Odenigbo and Amala’s child, Chiamaka who she calls Baby.
In the final third of the book (1967-1970), we see in visceral detail the destructive and nihilistic forces of the Biafran-Nigerian conflict. Odenigbo and Olanna are forced from their luxurious home in Lagos to a decrepit compound. Odenigbo is soon disillusioned by the Biafran state and becomes an alcoholic. Ugwu is conscripted as a soldier for Biafra. He survives the experience, but at great psychological cost. We discover that the excerpts of notes for a book titled The World Was Silent When We Died that are interspersed at the end of several chapters have been written by Ugwu. He plans to dedicate his book on the Biafran war- with a certain degree of irony- to his master, Odenigbo. After witnessing a violent death first hand, Kainene- who has profited from the war as an army contractor-builds a refugee camp and reunites with Olanna. By the end of the novel, more tragedy befalls the sisters whilst Nigeria bleakly rebirths itself.
Gender: belonging to yourself alone
By Gabriella Edelstein
If you’ve listened to any pop music in the last two years, then you know the voice of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She was propelled into headphone sets all across the Western world when Beyoncé sampled her 2012 Tedx talk “We should all be feminists” on “***Flawless”. You may have danced to her during an R&B night at a club (I have). Little did I know at that point, Adichie had published three books before Beyoncé picked her up, and she had also won the esteemed Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) for Half of a Yellow Sun in 2007. In this novel, gender determines the characters’ lives and identities; indeed, the novel asks us to consider whether the characters can act without the heavy weight of gendered expectations pushing down upon their lives.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a book organised by dichotomy: war/peace, Nigeria/Biafra, city/bush, black/white, man/woman. The central pairing in the novel is that of Olanna and Kainene, twin sisters who are delineated according to what the other is not. They are characterised by two opposing types of femininity: Kainene is ostensibly a cool and enigmatic femme fatale, whilst Olanna is generous to the point of self-abnegation. The novel makes clear that the women are able to play out these types of femininity because they are in a position of financial security and have been gifted with an overseas education. Due to their privileged backgrounds, they are lucky enough to explore what it means to be a woman in a time of social upheaval seeing as they have the means to self-indulge in questions of identity. This is most certainly the case when it comes to marriage. At the beginning of the novel, Olanna is certain she doesn’t want to marry Odenigbo because she doesn’t feel like she has to. Whilst this is noble and revolutionary for her context, Olanna forgets she can only do this because of her class. A conversation Olanna has with her cousin Arize elucidates this crux:
“So you are moving to Nsukka to marry Odenigbo, Sister?” Arize asked.
“I don’t know about marriage yet. I just want to be closer to him, and I want to teach.”
Arize’s round eyes were admiring and bewildered. “It is only women that know too much Book like you who can say that, Sister. If people like me who don’t know Book wait too long, we will expire.”
Whilst Olanna sees her cohabitation with Odenigbo as a radical position, Arize points out that is a posture taken by those lucky enough to have options outside of marriage. Back in the bush village, Arize cannot not get married simply for the reason of ‘existence’ – in both the existential and realistic sense of the word. Adichie is making two points here: education is a necessity which extricates women from being marshalled into marriage, but also that those who have escaped their previously predestined fates can forget how class has inflected their life choices.
It is these choices that create the emotional world of the novel; specifically Olanna’s continued commitment to Odenigbo despite his obvious shortcomings. One does get the feeling when reading Half of a Yellow Sun that Adichie is making a point about the modern woman, that she should not be dependent upon a romantic relationship for self-definition. After Odenigbo betrays Olanna, she falls into a deep depression and is unable to even conceive of herself outside of the romance narrative structure. She is offered a piece of life advice by her aunt:
“You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?… Your life belongs to you and you alone, soso gi”.
Soon after, Olanna’s friend Edna questions why it is that she cannot conceive of herself outside of Odenigbo:
“Look at you. You’re the kindest person I know. Look how beautiful you are. Why do you need so much outside of yourself? Why isn’t what you are enough? You’re so damned weak!”.
Whilst Odenigbo can be accused of solipsism, Olanna is unable to exist without a male other. Olanna lives according to a set of rules that require women to put the emotions of someone else first, and constantly questions whether she is making other people happy.
Despite this, Olanna’s emotional generosity, hope, and her self-abnegation at moments of great difficulty only lead me to admire her. In effect, she is the character who ensures the survival of her family through the War (in this regard, Odenigbo is rather useless). The reader is reminded to be grateful to Olanna when Odenigbo says unexpectedly near the end of the novel, “You’re so strong, nkem”, and we’re rudely awakened by the free indirect discourse through which Adichie narrates the novel that “Those were words she had never heard from him”. At great cost to herself, Olanna’s position as a woman ensures that she has the nurturing role. Nevertheless, it is this subject-position that makes her such an honorable character. Adichie effectively troubles our perception of the role of women by offering this duality: we are meant to find Olanna’s emotional oblation problematic, and yet, we can only respect her for it seeing as it is this feminine instinct that begets and extends life. Adichie’s highly nuanced explorations of what it means to be a woman allows the audience to question gender roles whilst also sympathising with her character, which is a delicate balance to manage. Adichie’s representation of women, is in many ways, “***Flawless”.
—Gabriella Edelstein, November 2015
The True Storytellers: Race and Class in Adichie’s Biafra
By Gabriella Edelstein
Throughout Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie explores how racism structures Nigerians’ lives. Seeing as it is a novel about the disastrous consequences of British colonial policy, it is no wonder that the plot of the novel fills in the adumbration of race and class. Racism is most obviously embodied in the repellent Susan, who insists that the Igbo people had it coming “with their being so clannish and uppity and controlling the markets. Very Jewish, really. And to think they are relatively uncivilised…”. If Susan is the extreme end of colonial racism in the novel, Richard is at the softer side of the scale. Coming to Nigeria out of love for its traditional earthenware pots, Richard comes to imagine himself as a citizen of the new Biafra, “He would be Biafran in a way he could never have been Nigerian – he was here a the beginning; he had shared in the birth”. Richard fails to realise that even if he is present for the birth – and death – of a nation, it does not mean that he isn’t guilty of usurping the culture of a people that he ultimately considers other. As Kainene says to Richard, “It’s possible to love something and still condescend to it”.
Adichie sets Richard up with Ugwu as one of her novel’s pairings. In her essay on writing within Half of a Yellow Sun, Claudette discusses the novel’s framing device of a novel within a novel, The World Was Silent When We Died, which the reader believes is written by Richard. She is right to criticise Richard for appropriating the role of Biafran storyteller. Ugwu is ultimately revealed as having the true writer’s identity – both in the sense that he is the writer of the book and also because his writing is legitimised by personal experience that Richard lacks. Namely, he is a Nigerian and Richard is an Englishman. Richard does not realise that he comes to Nigeria in a position of privilege and thereby isn’t the appropriate person to tell its stories. Adichie said during the BBC World Book Club programme that if she is making any salient point in this novel, it’s that Africans should be writing their own stories. The framing device not only provides explanations of the historical context of the Biafran War, but also by the end of the novel, it made me wonder why we don’t question authoritative voices. Seeing as Richard discusses his writing processes, we immediately assume the writer of the novel is Richard. Our own involvement in the implicit structures of racism is exposed here, seeing as we expect the history and story of Nigeria to be told by a white man.
Adichie is particularly skilled at revealing the grey zones of ethical positions, especially in her characterisation of Odenigbo, a character that looms large in Half of a Yellow Sun. Much of Olanna and Ugwu’s internal narration (also known as ‘free indirect discourse’ – it’s the writing style pioneered by Jane Austen) focusses on their relationship with Odenigbo. Both valorise him for his great intellect, his proud deportment, and moral stance on colonialism. In the eyes of the reader, however, Odenigbo’s personal relations quickly undermine his work towards freedom. Odenigbo ostensibly labours towards disestablishing hierarchies and traditional structures, which is reinforced by his repeated snaps at Ugwu to “Call me Odenigbo”, instead of Master. His ideals, however, are undermined by his lack of empathy towards Ugwu and his positioning of himself as the superior intellectual force. So if race isn’t an issue in their relationship, class certainly is. Similarly with the construction of gender in Half of a Yellow Sun, education comes to bear on the characters’ relationship to class. Whilst Odenigbo insists that Ugwu should not use the language of submissive deference, he continuously asserts his position as a member of the educated class. Odenigbo does not think to alter his language when talking to Ugwu. It would be a bit of a stretch to interpret this as Odenigbo treating all people equally; he doesn’t consider that Ugwu doesn’t speak much English when he first arrives at the house:
Ugwu appeared from behind the door. “Sah? I can plan the herbs in a small garden. To cook more stews like this.”
“A garden?” Master stopped to sip some water and turn a journal page. “No, no, no. Outside is Jomo’s territory, and inside is yours. Division of labour, my good man. If we need herbs, we’ll ask Jomo to take care of it.” Ugwu loved the sound of Division of labour, my good man, spoken in English.
I think one of the ways that Adichie distances the audience from Odenigbo is through his use of language (besides his awful treatment of Olanna). Firstly, in this moment in particular, Odenigbo insists on using English in a context that is beyond Ugwu’s education. By saying it in English in the first place, Odenigbo asserts his position within an educational and cultural hegemony (ironically, one which he constantly tries to distance himself from). Secondly, the phrase “division of labour” harkens back to a long and specialised history of political and philosophical thought that would go right over Ugwu’s head. Not surprisingly, Ugwu goes and plants the herb garden anyway. To be fair to Odenigbo, he does enrol Ugwu in school and exposes him to ideas and journals and arguments which bourgeon into Ugwu’s later writing career. Through Odenigbo, Adichie shows her readers a highly nuanced realisation of the nexus of class, race, and education. Though I think she reveals how the fight for equality is brought to its knees when those of the educated classes recreate the structures of inequality within their own personal lives.
It appears to me that it is only when Ugwu takes up the pen at the end of the novel that Adichie signals to the reader that healing can begin, that the racial and class structures of the past are beginning to be broken down. It is only when the true storytellers begin to give their accounts that history can gesture towards a future.
—Gabriella Edelstein, November 2015
“Clay pots fired in zeal”: The Writer in Half of a Yellow Sun
by Claudette Palomares
In Things Fall Apart—the great, luminous Nigerian classic—author Chinua Achebe writes: “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”. This notion that a love of language is embedded within the very fabric of what it means to be Nigerian—and specifically, what it means to be Igbo—pervades Adichie’s novels too, from the star-crossed lovers of Americanah who meet-cute over a shared passion for obscure proverbs, to Uwgu, Odenigbo’s precocious houseboy from the bush in Half of a Yellow Sun. Indeed, Half of a Yellow Sun bristles with lovers of language in all iterations: from Odenigbo and his coterie of academics who wield Marxist verbiage like bon mots, to Okeoma the poet whose words: “Clay pots fired in zeal, they will cool our feet as we climb” become the cry of the Biafran nation; to the barrage of Western journalists that flood Biafra in search of political gossip and Kainene’s lover, Richard, who harbours ambitions to become a writer.
Yet no other figure in the novel so exemplifies the love for words quite so much as Ugwu does, a boy who describes words he hears as “musical” and “sonorous”, who loves the word sah for its “crispness”, and who devours anything remotely resembling a narrative that comes his way. The clearest example of the essentialness of the written word in Ugwu’s life—much more than a mere love for words—comes in the form of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself, a book that he discovers when he is—by all intent and purposes—enslaved as a conscript in the Biafran army. Douglass’ autobiography becomes a totem, a sacred object by which Ugwu sustains his sanity amidst the abject horror that surrounds him. When another soldier, Hi-Tech, sullies Uwgu’s book, ripping the first page in order to assemble a joint of weed, he in effect destroys the last remnant of Ugwu’s equanimity, leading Ugwu to enact the darkest, most desperate action he will ever likely commit in his lifetime. Yet if the physical destruction of the written word erodes a part of Ugwu’s soul, so too does the creation of words revive and renew it. By the end of the novel, Ugwu begins to write “a small thing”: scribblings on any bits of paper that he can find. On the final page of the novel, we realise that the author’s notes interspersed between the novel’s chapters—for a book titled The World was Silent When We Died—is not authored by Richard as the novel implies, but is in fact written by Ugwu. By the novel’s end we see Ugwu as the inheritor of the poet Okeoma’s legacy, a “voice for Biafra”. Furthermore we develop the impression from his judiciously crafted notes that, unlike Okeoma, Ugwu’s words will be clear-sighted and true, not merely—“clay pots fired in zeal”.
“Clay pots fired in zeal” could also describe Richard’s own efforts to become a legitimate writer. It is the documenting of Richard’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to become a writer that Adichie is at her funniest and most trenchant. Most acute is her presentation of Richard’s relationship with Susan, a fellow British expatriate and truly appalling human being, who is nevertheless, wholly committed to Richard’s literary success. In a wonderful passage, Adichie reveals the gaudy extent of both Susan and Richard’s pretensions—and delusions—about the process of writing:
Day after day, he sat on her leather chair and pored over books and bits of research material, looked out the window at the gardeners watering the lawn, and pounded at the typewriter, although he was aware that he was typing and not writing. Susan was careful to give him the silences he needed, except for when she would look in and whisper, “Would you like some tea?” or “Some water?” or “An early lunch?” He answered in a whisper too, as if his writing had become something hallowed and had made the room itself sacrosanct. He did not tell her that he had written nothing good so far, that the ideas in his head had not yet coalesced into character and setting and theme. He imagined that she would be hurt; his writing had become the best of her hobbies…
Richard soon leaves Susan for Kainene and yet his writing continues to be treated as “sacrosanct” and “hallowed” by others, most potently by his obsequious “houseboy” Harrison, who saves even Richard’s waste-paper from destruction. Richard’s writing is treated this way purely because he is a white man. The most obvious example of this is when Richard receives recognition and distinction for writing op-eds in foreign newspapers defending the Biafran state, which are only taken seriously purely because of his race and position as an outsider. Yet unlike Ugwu, Richard’s never fulfils his ambitions to become a true writer, he is too distracted by the affectations of what he thinks embodies a successful one:
He imagined himself as the young Winston Churchill covering Kitchener’s battle at Omdurman, a battle of superior versus inferior arms, except that, unlike Churchill, he sided with the moral victor. Now, weeks later, after more articles, he felt a part of things. He found pleasure in the new respect in the driver’s eyes, jumping out to open the door although Richard told him not to bother. He found pleasure in how quickly the civil defenders’ suspicious glances at his special duties pass changed to wide grins when he greeted them in Igbo, in how willing people were to answer his questions. He found pleasure in the superiority he adopted with foreign journalists, speaking vaguely about the background to the war—the implications of the national strike and the census and the Western Region chaos—knowing all the while they had no idea what he was talking about.
Only Kainene sees the truth, which is why she displays no visible compunction when destroying Richard’s first manuscript as form of revenge. She sees that Richard, for all his protests, for all his posturing as an author—he is frequently shown asking other characters if he might use their stories for his book—will never be the voice that Biafra needs. Richard’s love for Africa, as Gabriella explores in her essay on race in Half of a Yellow Sun, is not a real love—it’s a love distorted by condescension and self-aggrandisement. His ambition to become a writer shown by Adichie as similarly skewed, which is why he ultimately fails.
In her pertinent, acute portrayal of authorship, Adichie is perhaps presenting the author as a voyeur, and therefore, the ultimate outsider. Richard is at the periphery of the action, but is never within it. Even in the act of witnessing, he is never fully subsumed in the action: “sometimes he envied her [Kainene] the ability to be changed by what had happened”.
The act of writing is ultimately subjective, even when it presents itself as otherwise, even when it seems at its most prescient and revelatory. In an interview in the end matter of Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie speaks of her strong suspicion of the omniscient narrator (a narrator who is all knowing). It is the unknowability that is the allure of the narrative, even as we attempt to catch it. Ugwu, the most penetrating and discerning of all, sees this:
Ugwu thanked him and shook his head and realized that he would never be able to capture that child on paper, never be able to describe well enough the fear that dulled the eyes of mothers in the refugee camp when the bomber planes charged out of the sky. He would never be able to depict the very bleakness of bombing hungry people. But he tried, and the more he wrote the less he dreamed.
For Uwgu, to write is to act, to act is to dream less. Brought out of the stupor, Ugwu will succeed in a way Richard never will.
—Claudette Palomares, November 2015
The Bailey of Baileys?
An (utterly subjective) assessment of Half of a Yellow Sun’s newest accolade.
by Claudette Palomares
When I asked Gabriella why she suggested Half of a Yellow Sun for our first book review she told me that it was because it had recently won the “Bailey of Baileys”, an award for the book chosen as the best of the winners of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction from the past decade. She wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I was not unfamiliar with the novel, but I confess that—initially at least—I did not have much inclination to read it. This was because an interview between Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie revealed (spoiled) a salient part of the novel that made me believe that the novel would be too dark, too bleakly violent for me to enjoy spending a significant time with. My suspicions were not unfounded—it is one of the most violent, tragic books I’ve ever read—nevertheless, I found myself enraptured by the vitality and vividness of Adichie’s characters and the elegant simplicity of her prose.
In the already mentioned interview between Smith and Adichie (that we highly recommend dipping into), Smith quotes George Orwell: “Good prose should be transparent, like a windowpane” and describes Adichie’s novels as splendid examples that embody Orwell’s maxim perfectly. It is true that Adichie’s work is crystalline, her works are immensely readable foremost because of the cleanliness of her prose. She also has a gift for imagery. Gabriella and I were both fascinated by the way Adichie uses the corporeal: images of the body and bodily functions, to evoke intensely felt emotion. So too did we feel intensely whilst reading this book—a unique position for both of us. I’m sure I speak for Gabriella too in saying that this is a book that leaves the reader emotionally bereft. Furthermore, in its representation of a historical event that I’m ashamed to admit I had never heard of, Half of a Yellow Sun is immensely captivating. I feel less unmoored, more clear-sighted—wiser even—from reading it. But is it the “Best of the Best”?
Gabriella and I tried to analyse our own feelings on this assessment—over cake. Stuffed with sugar, we looked over the list of authors that had won the prize since 2015. Included in this list of luminaries: Marilynne Robinson, Madeline Miller, Barbara Kingsolver and Zadie Smith herself. The list begins with Lionel Shriver’s iconic We need to Talk About Kevin and ends with Ali Smith dizzyingly brilliant novel How to Be Both—a novel which Gabriella writes so beautifully of here and one that both of us agreed was one of the most exciting books we had ever read. While we both loved Half of a Yellow Sun, and greatly admired Adichie, we could not say we liked Half of a Yellow Sun better than Robinson’s Home or Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. We did not agree with Orwell and Smith’s assessment that the best prose is always transparent as glass. On my part, the prose that I would say I like best is opalescent: mysterious and sometimes impenetrable, baroque, infinite in its variety, possessing flashes of wisdom—but is never didactic. As a result, there are other books written in the last ten years that I have read which inhabit this essence far more than Half of a Yellow Sun, and which I have, ultimately, loved more. If Half of a Yellow Sun seems largely conventional in form and prose in comparison to some of the other novels that have been awarded the Bailey’s Prize, what then accounts for its prominence in both critical and popular imagination, enough to secure the vote for the “Bailey of the Baileys”?
In both of our previous posts: Suffragette and Brooklyn, Gabriella and I complained of those texts’ narrowness of vision and ahistorical records of the past. Not so for Half of a Yellow Sun. I believe one of the biggest achievements of this book is the immense scope of Adichie’s vision, and the bravura of her ambition. To return to the theme of Orwell, George also wrote: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Though it was considered the greatest humanitarian disaster since WWII at the time, I suspect that most of my and Gabriella’s generation have largely forgotten, or have never heard of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War. Indeed, even in Nigeria today, countless efforts have been made to erase Biafra from historical records and from public memory, despite many attempts to revive the nation state. Biafra does not even appear in Nigerian school curriculum except as a historical footnote. Half of a Yellow Sun is a vastly important novel if only because it presents such a vivid yet eminently readable portrait of a war that still reverberates even in today’s vastly transformed geo-political landscape. This achievement seems even more remarkable by the very fact that this novel is written by a woman. Indeed, both Gabriella and I failed to come up with a current novel written a woman that shared similar breadth of ambition. Inaccurate as this sentiment may be, it is easy to feel that much of literature written by women seems to still be inescapably tied to the individual and the domestic. In contrast, Half of a Yellow Sun is sometimes sprawling in scope, but Adichie always achieves balance between the personal and the epic.
Will Half of a Yellow Sun become a canonical work, a work that will be remembered 30, 40 years from now? It would be spurious for Gabriella or I to claim a side either way. Yet I hesitantly put forward my vote that the odds are in Adichie’s favour. If Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the great archetypal African novel—a protest that seems all too relevant to our increasingly globalised world—then perhaps Half of a Yellow Sun is that book’s refrain: another landmark work in the ever-evolving Nigerian-Biafran narrative that urges us to remember and record the past, even as we hurtle headlong towards the exciting unknown.
—Claudette Palomares, November 2015
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Paperback, 448 pages, Harpercollins Publishers (GB), ISBN: 9780007506071