Uncivil legacy of a colonial past
Half of a Yellow Sun By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 4th Estate, 433pp, $ 32.95
WE tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion famously wrote. When it comes to civil wars there is a particular story the West likes to tell itself, especially about countries that were once part of the European empire.
As we watch them tear themselves apart, we prefer to believe they were uncivilised in the first place. Civil disorder is a return to old ways and thus their failure, not ours.
But, as postcolonial literatures have been insisting since the 1960s, ours are not the only stories. Sometimes, telling their own stories is a way to keep their cultures alive. It is exactly this task of historical intervention that 29- year- old Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes on in her second novel, the winner of this year’s Orange Prize. While Nigeria is reduced in the international imagination to a place of lawless violence, Adichie insists on showing us the ambitious and complex culture this chaos displaced. Half of a Yellow Sun tells the dynamic story — the tragedy — of the largely forgotten 1967- 70 Nigeria- Biafra war.
In the late ’ 60s southeast Nigeria, with its largely Igbo population, seceded from the Muslim- dominated north. But the story really begins much earlier when Britain created the country of Nigeria out of the many tribal and ethnic groups north and south of the Niger River. In a pattern that is sadly familiar from later conflicts, tensions flared after independence. A 1966 massacre of Igbo living in the north led to their retreat into the southeast and the creation of the separate republic of Biafra. This was followed by a war with Westernbacked Nigeria; mass starvation; the forced conscription of boy soldiers; and, ultimately, the purging within Biafra of perceived spies and other ethnic groups.
Adichie makes the significant choice of centring her narrative on the privileged of pre- war, early ’ 60s Nigeria. Half of a Yellow Sun , named after the flag of the Biafran state, tells the story of estranged twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, daughters of Igbo chief Ozobia ( although we later learn that precolonial Igbo were republicans and the title Chief is a colonial misnomer).
London- educated Olanna is beautiful in face and spirit; plainer Kainene is cool and secretive. Both are disdainful of their parents’ shallow snobbery. When Olanna falls for Odenigbo, a proud Africanist and social progressive, she goes to join him in the dusty university town of Nsukka where he lectures. Kainene remains near the family to run its businesses. But she, too, soon asserts her independence by forming a relationship with Richard, a gentle, white, intellectual drifter who has come to Nigeria to write about its rich 9th- century tradition of castiron pots.
The novel’s other significant character is 14- year- old Ugwu, plucked from his traditional village to work as Odenigbo and Olanna’s house boy. Highly intelligent and infatuated with his mistress, Ugwu is the eager bridge between colonial and new Nigeria. Through his eyes we see the pretensions and the glories of the soon- to- be- uprooted educated class. Although Odenigbo puts Ugwu through school, he also allows him to call him Master; at home among his books, Odenigbo is terrorised when his superstitious, village- dwelling mother stays and commandeers Ugwu’s kitchen.
It is this sense of its characters’ flawed complexity that makes Half of a Yellow Sun such a gripping read. This, and the internationally recognisable dilemmas of the middle- class novel: Olanna must deal with Odenigbo’s wandering eye; Kainene battles the envy of her sister.
This sense of familiarity is strategic. Adichie wants to shock the reader with the quick slip that follows from domestic routine to civil war. One minute these well- groomed lounge- room idealists are bickering about the future of their country; the next, Olanna’s fellow Igbo in the north ( perceived by their countrymen as a wealthy merchant class) are set upon.
When Olanna barely escapes a terrible massacre, things grow rapidly worse. Olanna, Odenigbo, their daughter and Ugwu find themselves on the verge of starvation, hiding from bombs in a grim refugee camp. Again, Adichie writes of these new neighbourhoods with such intensity that we care greatly about what will happen to the family and, by extension, the growing cast of characters around them. Ironically, war brings the twins together. But it is much- altered Ugwu, at the book’s ambivalent conclusion, who will act as ( partial) witness to its horrors.
The Orange Prize has been criticised as passe for coralling female writers into a special needs category. Certainly, it seems often to reward books that conform to a stereotypically feminine style and interests ( almost never showily clever or experimental). But Half of a Yellow Sun, while it is certainly a family saga, is smart and engrossing.
Adichie, a postcolonial scholar, has written a book in which the war and its consequences are made clear and memorable; yet her book goes further, putting a face and history to all refugees from civil wars. Readers will discover in Half of a Yellow Sun a very different country from that found in the works of fellow Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri, who tend to focus on village stories of magic and tradition; or to the Africa as terrifying puzzle invoked by writers such as Russell Banks ( The Darling ) or John le Carre ( The Constant Gardener ).
Instead, what Adichie does quite beautifully is to make a comfortable international readership pause to wonder what thin ice its own stability may rest on. Delia Falconer is the author of The Service of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers.