By Mia Bains
“Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future,”Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Although I wrote this review a while ago, I wanted to share it to encourage as many of you to give this book a read or share your own book reviews!
Set in 1960s Nigeria, the novel follows twin sisters Olanna and Kainene during the Biafran War following the independence of Nigeria. Both of them find love but war casts a looming shadow over their newfound joys, at once strengthening their passion and breaking them apart…
Context: What was the Biafran War?
The Biafran War was a civil war that took place between 1967-1970 and caused the death of over one million Igbo people. It stemmed from ethnic tensions (between the Hausa and Igbo populations) The Igbo people wanted to create a separate state they ruled over in the west, but the Hausa opposed this. The Igbo success of declaring Biafra an independent state from Northern Nigeria was short-lived as surrender occurred in 1970 due to mass starvation when food supplies were cut off. As somebody who had never heard of the Biafran war before reading this novel, it is very informative and offers a more human perspective on the event, one not offered in highly factual books or news articles.
Throughout, the Biafran War is explored not only as a political consequence of post-colonialism but as the consequences it had on the people of Nigeria. By following the journey of the two main characters from the start to end of the war, we watch both the plight of their country and the plight of their own hope. When reading about the Biafran War online many articles can stoically tell you how many soldiers perished and plainly say how many children died of starvation. Yet, none of these articles have as profound as an effect as reading the tormentingly emotional and starkly human descriptions of this book. This book shows that fiction can be one of the best ways to record and understand history as it lends humanity to dates and facts.
Triple narrative frame
One narrator, Olanna is a scholar married to the opinionated Obinze. Her chapters focus mainly on finding her own power, voice and willingness to continue through adversity. Olanna is presented as more fragile than her sister and her looks are often valued over her intelligence in the patriarchal society. Her own parents even try to capitalise on her beauty, and throughout the novel it acts as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes her more popular and admirable yet on the other it creates tension, jealousy and underestimation. Although this book was published in 2006, this issue is still prevalent today with the recently coined term “pretty privilege” being explored widely on the internet.
The novel begins with narration from Ugwu- a naïve boy who is enamoured by the gilded lifestyle of his master-and ends with his narration-this time we see Ugwu as a solider, tormented by guilt and plagued with the horrors of his past actions. The fleeting nature of his innocence in times of war makes the reader truly understand the gravitas of the war-the fact that it can push a previously good-natured boy to kill and to rape. Within his soldier mentality he caves into pressure and loses sight of his morals. The book deeply explores the consequence of war on the human psyche through this, and highlights the psychological damage of violence.
Adichie critiques the portrayal of the Biafran War through the character of Richard who as an Englishman reads the war from a dual perspective, one of the English newspapers and the other is his judgement from the destruction he witnesses all around him. Richard chooses to stay in Nigeria because he falls in love with Igbo culture, art and people, this is a privilege that he can exercise as a man who is free to admire the bounties of the country but also free to return back to safety. He writes about the Igbo people, but ultimately does not finish either of his books. Adichie said that she used Richard’s character to show that “it’s time Africans began writing about Africa”
Action vs Thought- The intersections of academia and reality
“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.”Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The novel follows both the observations of the academics and the reality of the situation. At the start of the novel, angry debates are held over politics, with very intelligent and complex opinions portrayed. Those who are too slow to participate, like Ugwu, feel ridiculed and begin to idolise the shiny intelligence of their opinionated masters. Yet, when war comes it is Ugwu who has to fight for the vision of Biafra dreamt up by the academics. Olanna and Obinze who are both professors struggle with their physical participation in helping causes as they are more equipped with haughty ideas than practical methodology. In the book, Adichie questions how academia should be used to its best effect. She also explores several characters who are academics throughout the novel and she explores how quickly they flail without debates and books, and how they must apply this passion instead to other more pressing causes.
Why is the novel so powerful?
As humans we find it very hard to fully empathise with a situation if is presented in a way that is so starkly different to our own life situations, because we can put an emotional barrier between us and them. Yet, in Half of a Yellow Sun the characters are not put into categories of “suffering” and “not suffering”, they all experience deep pain and suffering but also strong love alongside mundane struggles. This helps the reader to humanise the situation in a way in which we are then forced to acknowledge the gravitas of this situation. The impact of colonialism is a topic which is still quiet within the western world, but it is with novels like these that bring the issues of colonialism to the forefront of social discourse that will both educate and cause serious moral reflections.
The novel ends on a cliff-hanger, with the reader not knowing if one of the key characters is dead or alive, Adichie does this to show that even after the Biafran war ended the suffering, pain and confusion it caused ripples through the generations and supersedes itself even into the twenty first century. This is very powerful because often we look at events that happened long ago in isolation and we do not always think of the looming shadows they can cast into the future.