Awareness promotes understanding, and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie raises awareness of a critical time in Nigerian history in her powerhouse of a second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Awareness also promotes tolerance when it reveals how discrimination can lead to destruction on an immense scale. When the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria were murdered in mass numbers in the 1960s, a revolution for independence was sparked, lives began to unravel, normalcy for many became a thing of the past. And, as so often remains the case, the international community turned away as innocent men, women, and children were butchered, bombed, or left to starve.
Sound familiar? It’s happening now and will happen again. I read Half of a Yellow Sun and was reminded of the movie Hotel Rwanda and the slaughter of innocents and lack of international assistance documented there. In a Yellow Sun scene in which one of Adichie’s main characters meets two American journalists who’ve arrived to report on the war, Adichie notes "the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person." I heard this from black American civil rights activists recorded for the Eyes on the Prize documentary. I heard this in a recent interview with Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager portrayed in Hotel Rwanda. And I’m fairly sure many others — like the people of Darfur, Sudan — feel the same way. I read Half of a Yellow Sun and despaired.
The Igbo sisters in Half of a Yellow Sun, beautiful Olanna and tough Kainene, recall their Grandpapa’s belief that "it gets worse and then it gets better. O dikata njo, o dikwa mma." By the time the sisters arrive at this particular discussion, they have witnessed and experienced significant amounts of suffering, and it’s about to get worse before it gets better. Adichie organized Half of a Yellow Sun in four parts: the early sixties, the late sixties, the early sixties, and the late sixties, in that order. This device keeps readers intrigued as they wait to see exactly what happened between Olanna and her sister’s white British lover, Richard, but might turn some readers off as they attempt to tackle this 433-page work. The challenge is worth the effort, however, as Adichie’s series of strong characters work their various ways through the tensions leading to Biafra’s struggle for independence and then through the three-year war itself — while also struggling with personal challenges, treasons, doubts, and demons.
Readers are not coddled as Adichie draws upon research of the war as well as family stories she’s heard since childhood regarding the war and its many injustices. Details are specific and grim, and describe everything from the aftermath of a massacre in a northern town to the terror of air raids targeting civilians to the atrocities of makeshift refugee camps. Adichie is not maudlin in her descriptions; her characters live through these nightmares and react to them in utterly believable, human ways. I found Adichie’s descriptions of the "Dark Sweeps" that torment Olanna fascinating; they offer a very personal look at the potential effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Olanna’s ability to overcome physical as well as multiple emotional traumas made her one of the book’s most memorable characters.
But there’s a whole cast of those. The story begins with Ugwu, a houseboy for Odenigbo (a revolutionary and university professor whom Olanna eventually marries) on his first day at work. Ugwu ultimately ties the entire story together; he is a simple village boy whose thirst for knowledge leads him to overcome any actual or assumed shortcomings and become much more than anyone would have predicted. I believe he symbolizes the potential of the poor when they’re given proper food and shelter and, eventually, tools for learning. (A little trust, respect, and affection go a long way, too.) Odenigbo lives with books scattered everywhere, and he habitually hands books of interest to his houseboy, who devours them. Odenigbo also sends Ugwu back to school, insisting he go. Ugwu learns and reads and learns some more. He also becomes a fine cook as well as an intrigued observer of the various intellectuals who frequent Odenigbo’s home on a regular basis. Richard, a writer, is one of those guests.
When Olanna moves in with Odenigbo, Ugwu feels threatened at first, but eventually allows her proper English and kind ways to win him over. When Odenigbo’s mother descends on the household, however, Ugwu sees signs of evil which eventually result in tumultuous times for the household, but also lead to the arrival of Baby, a beloved addition. The day the small family is forced to flee their home, Ugwu agonizes about what to bring. They leave with very little and eventually live with even less as they are forced to move into a decrepit building in which they share a single room. Here they meet many other refugees who’ve lost everything and yet hang onto the hope of a brighter future as proud Biafrans.
I read Half of a Yellow Sun and marveled, too, at the disconnections Adichie so expertly explored: the separations from family; the emotional crises in a marriage; the loved ones lost to the military or to bombings or to brutal massacres; the loved ones simply lost. And yet hope prevails, because where there are disconnections there are also struggles to reconnect, and sometimes — even for a brief while — those efforts make a difference. The extent to which people often are forced to go — or choose to go — to establish connections (or to bridge the painful void when a disconnection is forced upon them) says something about our innate need to bond and draw strength from one another. All this is mined throughout the pages of Half of a Yellow Sun. While revealing intimate details of individuals affected by war and personalizing war in a creative, memorable manner, Adichie lays it all out — the despair experienced when a loved one is lost to us, the rage that overwhelms when a loved one is taken from us — and insists the international community acknowledge wrongs of the past and address the suffering that persists in Africa and elsewhere.
In her Author’s Note at the book’s conclusion, Adichie reflects on the way her father "ended his many stories with the words agha ajoka," which she translates as "war is very ugly." Adichie notes that "he and my defending and very devoted mother…have always wanted me to know, I think, that what matters is not what they went through but that they survived." So many survived, and so many will survive the conflicts of today and tomorrow. The fact remains that we as a world continue to fail to find peaceful resolutions to what ails us. It’s this simple, confounding fact that makes books like Half of a Yellow Sun weighted with meaning and crucial to our feeble attempts to comprehend the human condition:
The siren did not go off early in the morning, and so when the fierce wah-wah-wahsounds of the bombers appeared from nowhere, as Olanna dissolved corn powder to make Baby’s pap, she knew this was it. Somebody would die. Perhaps they would all die. Death was the only thing that made any sense as she hunched underground, plucked some soil, rubbed it between her fingers, and waited for the bunker to explode. The bombing was louder and closer. The ground pulsed. She felt nothing. She was floating away from inside herself. Another explosion came and the earth vibrated, and one of the naked children crawling after crickets giggled. Then the explosions stopped and the people around her began to move. If she had died, if Odenigbo and Baby and Ugwu had died, the bunker would still smell like a freshly tilled farm and the sun would still rise and the crickets would still hop around. The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life.
The original version of this review was written for the Third Day Book Club hosted by author Patry Francis on her blog, Simply Wait. Refer to Patry’s November 3, 2006 archived post for links to many other lively and insightful discussions of Half of a Yellow Sun.