Review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun offers a heart-wrenching account of the Biafran War (1967-1970), beautifully wrapped in a story of love, loyalty, betrayal, resilience, and hope. She places a human face on a war that has been far removed from historical memory outside of Nigeria. As a result of the massacre of the Igbo people in the predominantly Muslim Hausa North, Igbos of the South sought to establish their own state: Biafra. In response, the Nigerian government declared war against Biafra, unwilling to allow the oil-rich south-east to secede. The war was catalyzed by the remnants of British colonialism, which created fragmented national boundaries and provoked ethnic tension between the two groups. Although the book is a work of historical fiction, it is based on very real accounts and exhaustive research of the Biafran War and continuing conflict.
Moreover, separatist sentiment lives on through the Indigenous People of Biafra, a movement led by Nnamdi Kanu, who was arrested by Nigeria’s Department of State Services in October 2015 on “treasonable felony” charges. His arrest has sparked pro-Biafran protests and violence between security forces and civilians, while Kanu remains in detention. In light of this, Adichie’s book is all the more relevant today, as the wounds of the war are still fresh for many Nigerians and the fight for Biafra’s independence continues.
Through Adichie’s prose, we are offered a glimpse into the lives of several very different and multifaceted characters who are all determined to survive in the Free State of Biafra. One of the main characters, Odenigbo, is a math professor at a university in Nsukka, a revolutionary thinker and an ardent Biafran who struggles with the psychological impact of war violence. Olanna is Odenigbo's wife; she is of the Nigerian elite and attempting to cope with being thrust from her comfort zone while striving to keep her family intact throughout the war. Richard is a shy English expatriate who falls in love with Olanna’s fraternal twin, Kainene. Throughout the novel, he seeks to identify as Biafran, in order to break away from a colonizer identity. However, he soon realizes that his love for Kainene and his passion for Igbo art neither absolve him from his colonialist past nor make him Biafran. Ugwu is Odenigbo's house servant, who transforms from a wide-eyed, village-bred boy to an intelligent young man who is forced to grapple with the “casual cruelty” that surrounds him while struggling to maintain his moral conscience. We watch as the once normal and relatively privileged lives of these characters are shaken and overturned by war.
The author manages to intricately weave divergent perspectives and aspects of the war into her story. She forces the reader to confront horrific scenes of rape, indiscriminate killings, constant air raids, famine, displacement, children’s bellies inflated by malnutrition, and the image of a little girl’s decapitated head with discolored skin and rolled-back eyes. Yet simultaneously, she juxtaposes these harrowing scenes with moments of forgiveness, generosity, sacrifice, and love. Adichie presents a story that is thorough and complex—spanning the politics of race, gender, colonialism, culture, corruption, nationhood, and the fragility of human relationships—while also highlighting the international, historical context of the setting, as seen through references to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and the Cold War.
The novel is a testament to Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story. She does not present an isolated narrative of terror, nor one of a victim and perpetrator. Rather, she provides a nuanced account of the Biafran War, and as a result, she empowers and humanizes her characters. A recurring mantra in the novel—“the world was silent when we died”—refers to the global inaction in light of the Nigerians who fell prey to starvation and disease, or were slaughtered by military forces on either side.
Biafra was an abandoned and unrecognized state, which only caught the attention of Western journalists and photographers who, for the most part, wished to reassert the image of Africa as a continent riddled with disease, poverty, and violence. However, this book gives voice to the survivors and causalities of the war. Half of a Yellow Sun provides the reader with an experience that humbles, informs, and ensures that such stories are not lost in history. It is a tale that eloquently demonstrates what it means to be human, to confront your own mortality, to fight for a cause, to be vulnerable, and to be at war with oneself in the midst of political turmoil.
1. Colin Freeman, Telegraph, Jan. 21, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/21/man-fighting-independence-tiny-west-african-nation-biafra-council/.