Snigdha Rani Dutta
Half of a Yellow Sun is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s attempt to expose the impact of a political crisis in the condition of living during the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran war). Adichie, while exploring the personal conflicts among the characters, reveals the conflicts of the nation in a larger context.
The novel is an extremely engaging and engulfing narrative that encompasses the period before and during the Biafran war – the Early sixties and the Late sixties. The structure of the narrative is such that it cycles back and forth in these two time periods. The structure allows the reader to view the characters as real people. It is impossible for the reader not to get connected emotionally with the sufferings and hardships of the characters. The most important aspect of the novel is that even though the novel is loaded with historical elements – a great plethora of information, it never feels as if Adichie has pushed these information as an agenda.
Adichie has researched the Biafran war very closely – “I am working on a second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, set before and during the Nigeria – Biafra war and told from the points of view of a university instructor, her houseboy and an Englishman. I have done a great deal of oral research because I find that many of the books written about that period are more interested in the larger and grander narratives than in the small things that make up day-to-day life. I very much want the reader to feel what Biafra was like for ordinary middle-class men and women. Ultimately, however, I hope it will be a book about that stubborn, unreasonable love that holds people together. It will be published in 2006.” [ “Author Profile: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”. The Word Literature Today, Vol. 80, No.2, Mar-Apr. 2006, pp. 5-6. JSTOR, www.jstore.org/stable/401588”].
Adichie is a brilliant writer and skilled at imparting information and context into her books. The title of the book indicates the flag for the country called Biafra that had wanted to exist out of Nigeria in the 60s. This book basically voices that process in a fictionalised way. This novel can be called as trauma fiction as well as historical fiction. Adichie has intertwined the historical events with the domestic lives of the Nigerian people. She has voiced the traumatic events and their effects on people during the Biafran war which is also known as the Nigerian Civil War. The secession of the Igbo people from the Southern region after the Nigerian independence has caused the three years’ Nigerian Civil War. The Igbo secession demanded and declared the Southern Nigeria as Biafra. The powerful blending of psychological elements and historical events makes the book more impactful. The book is very much informative. It is extremely praiseworthy for Adichie for her level of research and her dedication at attempting to create fictional characters living at the time of Biafran War, the period to which the author herself does not belong and for achieving huge success in portraying a realist picture. Adichie writes from the perspectives of the characters. She crafts incredible characters. Her characters are complex and yet, she has a control over characters in the sense that how they are presented in all their complexities. The complexity and authenticity of the characters are carried throughout the novel, which makes it more engaging and compelling.
There are five main characters, Olanna and Odenigbo, a couple living in Nsukka, both professors at the University. Odenigbo was very passionate, full of rhetoric and thought a lot about the country. Olanna had a non-identical twin sister, Kainene. She was blunt and it was implied that she was not as beautiful as Olanna, therefore, she used to make up for getting what she wants through hard works, without relying on others. Kainene’s lover was the white British man Richard, who was interested in Igbo-Ukwu art. He was in Nsukka, for he was planning to write a book, a book that he had no idea what it would be about. Ugwu, the most important character, was the houseboy at Odenigbo’s house. He developed an interest in literature and tried to educate himself. The characters were viewed in new light from Ugwu’s perspective.
The characters drifted apart not only because of the war, but also because of certain advances leading up to the war. They struggled, compromised and transformed from the quite privileged people because of huge political turn of events. The unfolding of the narrative shows how the things had started falling apart. The “ethnic cleansing”- a painful execution of Igbo people in the North of Nigeria had stirred the cause for the Baifran secession. We find Odenigbo declaring, “Secession is the only answer. If Gowon wanted to keep this country united, he would have done something long ago…. It is as if our people who were killed don’t matter.” ( Adichie 157 ). The book inside the book, The World was Silent When We Died gives the insight to what was awaiting in the near future against the idyllic setting of the first part of the novel. Surprisingly, we find at the end that the author of this book within a book is not Richard but Ugwu. The boy had grown up emotionally within the three years’ period of war. This book also gives an idea how the things broke apart. How the hatred amongst the tribes and religions worked rigorously to enhance the conflicts between the North and South of Nigeria after the Nigerian independence. Ugwu writes, “At independence in 1960, Nigeria was a collection of fragments held in a fragile clasp”. ( Adichie. 195)
Adichie exposes the brutalities against the Igbo people and its impact on the characters. Kano was the place where the ethnic cleansing of the Igbo people had started first. Adichie had seamlessly described the scenes of horrors from the perspectives of characters. For instance, we find Olanna under huge trauma after she had experienced the violences done against the Igbo people in Kano. “Olanna’s dark swoops began the day she came back from Kano.” ( Adichie. 156). She was haunted by the woman with the calabash that she had encountered in the train and the nicely plaited head of a child inside the calabash. “That night, she had the first Dark Swoop: A thick blanket descended from above and pressed itself over her face, firmly, while she struggled to breathe.” (Adichie. 156). Olanna was heavily traumatized by the events that took place in Kano. The experience had made a deep impact on her psychology.
Adichie narrates the military brutalities at the airport in Kano from Richard’s perspective, “He stared at himself and wondered if it really had happened, if he really had seen man die, if the lingering smells from shattered liquor bottles and bloodied human bodies were only in his imagination.” (Adichie. 153). Richard’s experience at the airport had left him bedraggled. Richard happened to witness the merciless killing of those who were Igbo at the airport. The customs officer, Nnaemeka, with whom Richard had chatted a while ago, was shot to death in front of his eyes. He could not believe his own eyes.
Adichie very carefully infuses into the text the personal conflicts in the lives of the characters along with the larger political conflicts. The novel shows the conflicts in marriage, relationships alongside political conflicts. The effects of the traumatic events on the domestic lives of civilians were immense. The novel voices the trauma of the massacre of the Igbo, the civil war and the death and starvation of more than a million Nigerian people. Adichie has emphasised the unflinching hope among the Southerners throughout the novel. The novel ends with Kainene lost somewhere in the North and Biafra’s defeat. If we wish to see we will find in Olanna a hope for the return of Kainene that also may indicate the hope for the re-emergence of the Biafran state. However, Adichie implies it or not remains a question.
The things have started to fall apart and Adichie has very carefully and very satisfactorily given detailed exposition of what has happened, why it has happened and how it has changed a whole lot of things and led to the circumstances that give birth to the Biafran state; and at the same time, how it has affected both the political scenario and the domestic scenario. She has brilliantly exposed the horrors of persecution, massacre and starvation – the consequences of the Biafran war, She has exposed the political hypocrisies and how it has affected the lives of people. The people living through the war, were deprived of political and economic power to improve their condition. However, Adichie gives the implication that the horrors of the massacres, air-raids and destruction of all kinds had united the Igbo and made them Biafrans.
(The reviewer is a faculty in the Dept. of English, North Gauhati College. Her e-mail i.d. is: firstname.lastname@example.org)