To Whom Does a Story Belong?

Ihalf-of-a-yellow-sun‘ve been reading Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun for the past few weeks and finally finished it the other day on the train. I really enjoyed it over all, and I think it’s an important book for the story that it tells of the experience of a particular group of people during the Nigeria-Biafra war.

Having read and been profoundly moved by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which tells the story of an Igbo village at the onset of British colonialism, I was interested to see that Half of a Yellow Sun focuses primarily on characters of Igbo ethnicity as well. The book takes place much later, however, during the 1960’s and the time period before, during, and after the Nigeria-Biafra war. The main characters are mostly middle-class and university-educated, and though fictional their experiences are reflective of Adichie’s own family history.

Half of a Yellow Sun is an extremely well-written and thought-provoking book, and as I finished it I found that one aspect of the story, in particular, left me with a lot of conflicting feelings.  It has to do with the character of Richard, an Englishman who comes to Nigeria before the outbreak of the war. He is initially on a quest to find out more about ancient Igbo art, with which he has become fascinated. As he falls in love with the country and its people and feels more at home there than in his native England, he decides to stay.

Richard is a writer, and over the course of the book he starts several manuscripts, including one inspired by Igbo art and later one based on his wartime experiences. The latter work he entitles “The World Was Silent When We Died,” and Adichie uses the novel as a device to give information about the war to those readers who may not be familiar with the details. Both manuscripts are eventually lost for different reasons, and at the end of the book we discover that the account of the war that will survive is actually written by the character who comes from a traditional Igbo village–the family’s educated houseboy, Ugwu.

My edition of the book included a Q&A with the author in which Adichie is asked about the effect she wanted this ‘book within a book’ to have on the novel. Her answer, in part, is that she “wanted to make a political point about who should be writing the stories of Africa”. This quote has been running around in my brain ever since I put down the book, and I don’t feel that I’ve come to terms with it yet.

I can understand why Adichie feels that it’s important for Africans to tell their own story, and I agree with her completely on that point. The factors leading to the Nigeria-Biafra war are numerous and complicated, including ethnic, tribal, and religious considerations–and those are just among native Nigerians. Add in the lingering effects of colonialism and the continuing influence of Britain and other nations with a stake in Nigerian politics, and it made for an extremely volatile situation which could easily discredit an account of it given by an ‘outsider’.

But. I can’t help but feel that she is giving Richard short shrift. Yes, he is British, but his personal affiliations are all with the Igbo and, later, Biafra. Whether or not he could easily leave during wartime (as another character in the book insists), he never contemplates it, considering himself to be Biafran and committing himself to the fledgling nation’s independence. No, he is not a native African, but it is his adopted homeland and he feels a connection to it that he never seems to have felt for the land of his birth. He lives through the same devastation and deprivation as other Biafrans, albeit somewhat tempered by his partner Kainene’s social status.

Yet Adichie seems to feel that Richard does not have the right to write a story of Africa. I can’t help but think of her wonderful TED Talk on the danger of a single story. Whether or not Richard is Biafran, as he implies by entitling his manuscript “The World Was Silent When We Died,” he does have a story of Biafra to tell–and in fact he helps the war effort by telling it to the outside world through his newspaper articles. Following on the point that Adichie makes in her talk, isn’t a narrative strengthened by being told by as many diffferent voices as possible?

I don’t have a clear answer to this question, and I have a feeling I will be considering the issues that Adichie raises surrounding ethnicity, identity, power and affiliation for a long time.


7 thoughts on “To Whom Does a Story Belong?

  1. Pingback: 2014 Africa Reading Challenge | Too Fond

  2. Bettina Grissen

    I have been wanting to read this book for a while now, and after reading this, I think I will read it soon. I find it very interesting what you mention about who has the right to tell the story, that is a difficult questions I think.

    Kind regards,

  3. Heather

    I haven’t read this yet, but it’s on my TBR pile. I’ll try to get to it as soon as possible so I can weigh in on this. There are things I want to say based upon your thoughts, but not having read the book yet, I don’t want to comment without knowing all the details. Great post.

  4. Bree @The Things We Read

    Sounds like an interesting thought provoking book. I loved Things Fall Apart and could talk for hours about it. It was one of the few books I read in my English teacher education classes that I really enjoyed. I found it fascinating that the rest of my peers did not enjoy the book at all. I was totally absorbed in the story and the thoughts it provoked. I may have to read this book as well.

  5. Pingback: April Wrap-Up and May Reads | Too Fond

  6. Brooke

    Her quote about who should be writing African stories is interesting. It’s an issue as old as time. Can we write sincerely about a thing or perspective we aren’t wholly a part of? Men writing women; white people writing black people; non-Africans writing Africa. It’s one of the biggest criticisms of Out of Africa. I think most of Adichie’s sentiment comes from the fact that so much we read about Africa, fiction and non-fiction, comes from somewhere other than Africa itself. This is a valid criticism.

    However, it doesn’t mean that really honest things aren’t written by non-Africans. particularly those (like Richard) who live and love the land. And it’s such a fascinating argument. We want more diversity in our literature, but then we criticize someone for writing from a perspective we think they don’t have any right to.

    Ultimately, I liked that Ugwu ended up writing the story. So did everyone in my book club, but I can see your side of things as well. Richard isn’t a bad person, but he’s (perhaps unfairly) still representative of the British colonization. I can understand why Africans wouldn’t want a white British man telling their story in the direct aftermath of decades of oppression.

    I don’t think any of that made any sense and I babbled on for far too long. And it was mostly incoherent. Lots of things to think about and you wrote a lovely discussion. I wish my book club had delved more heavily into this issue. Maybe I’ll bring it up again next month!

  7. maamej

    I had completely forgotten that aspect of the book, although I remember that I really enjoyed Ugwu’s story and I was disappointed that he didn’t make it into the movie. Ironic, considering the theme of who tells the story. Thanks for a thought-provoking review.


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