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.