Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rising Sun of a Writer

Half of A Yellow Sun
by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie was profiled in Vanity Fair's Africa issue last summer and given praise as an up and coming African writer. After reading Half of a Yellow Sun, it is easy to see why. Adichie is a Nigerian woman who teaches at Princeton University and divides her time between the US and her home in Nigeria. My hope is that her work will become very well known in both her homes and across the world.

Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about Nigeria's history. Adichie's novel traces the devastating effects of British colonialism on Nigeria, especially the way the English fueled ethnic and tribal mistrust among the Nigerians so that they would be easier for the British to control. Not long after Nigeria gained independence from Britain in the early 1960s, there was a terrible massacre of people from the Igbo tribe, whom other Nigerians thought were trying to have too much control in the new government.

The Igbo responded to the slaughter of their people by seceding a part of the southeastern territory of Nigeria and attempting to form a new country called Biafra. Most of the book focuses on the bloody civil war between Nigeria and Biafra that took place between 1967-1970. Eventually, Biafra was defeated and once again became part of Nigeria. For people who lived through that horror, though, I suspect that the grudges and pain of that time remain firmly lodged in their hearts.

Adichie's book not only illuminates history for us, it also draws us into the life of one Biafran intellectual, upper middle class family. One of Nigeria's weapons of choice, the one that finally broke the Biafrans, was starvation - the Nigerian army blocked trade routes and bombed relief planes so that the Biafrans would not get the food, medicine, and other supplies that they needed. As this one family struggles to survive, and even shares what little they have to alleviate the suffering of neighbors, we come to understand just a little bit of the tragedy of that time.

Half of a Yellow Sun is not a new story. Sadly, there are similar stories from all over the world and from all of recorded history of people who do unspeakable things to each other. The ostensible reason for the clash may be religious, ethnic, or economic, but the outcome is no less horrible whatever the reason. It is astonishing how quickly the oppressed become the oppressors, the bullied the bullies. This is not new but it is told well. Adichie does not spare us the gore and the brutality, but she also lets us see instances of reconciliation and the small acts of kindness and grace that must make survival in such a situation possible or even desirable.

Adichie does not divide people into "us" and "them," the "good" and the "bad." Even the best characters in the book have their demons to fight. Some of them do cowardly or even terrible things (kindhearted Ugwu's participation in a gang rape comes to mind, as does Odenigbo's struggle with alcohol). Half of a Yellow Sun shows the depths to which a person can sink, but also the gracious acts of which we are capable. We have some choice as to which impulses to follow and surrender to. At any given moment, any of us can be better or worse than we are.

This is an important story for people who want to understand Africa's history and the implications that that history has for this world in our time. The book is also beautifully written - it would be worth reading even if the writing was not good, but the fact that it is so well done is a major bonus. Adichie is a writer to watch - I hope she continues to illuminate her continent's history as elegantly as she does in Half of a Yellow Sun.

Reverent Reader


At 2/28/08, 8:42 AM , Blogger LeAnn said...

Thanks for the tip! Sounds like a book I will check out.


At 2/28/08, 11:17 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

She has written another one called "Purple Hibiscus" that I am curious about. It was her first one.

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