I‘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.