Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor (2007), Paperback, 543 pages
An important and moving novel about fear, loss, and survival in Biafra’s unsuccessful struggle for independence from Nigeria in the 1960s.
Great literature is both particular and universal. It depicts a specific time, place, and people, even ones totally new to a reader, while at the same time revealing its characters’ universal humanness allowing the reader empathizes with them. Adichie’s novel does just that. I knew little about Nigeria’s civil war beyond the extreme level of suffering which occurred. Yet reading Yellow Sun, I learned not only facts about the war, but more importantly I was drawn into the lives of various participants and felt something of their emotions and resilience. This book is an example of why we needed storytelling, not just information, if we are to reach across the experiential gulfs that divide us.
In Yellow Sun, Adichie interweaves several plots and subplots. The most obvious stories are the lives of two couples. The wives are twin sisters, educated and affluent, caught in a love-hate relationship with each other that is central to the book. One husband is a revolutionary professor and the other an Englishman, disillusioned with his own country and its continuing colonial policies. The other core figure is a young boy, Ugwu, who comes to the home of the professor as a houseboy and remains with his family as the story progresses into his adolescence. Seeing Ugwu’s initial reaction to the professor’s home and family and his gradually expanding understanding provides insight into the wide differences among Nigerians.
Having just finished the Real Help reading group about African-American women as domestic servants, I was particularly sensitive to Ugwu and his position as houseboy. While not quite “one of the family,” his position was much more positive than theirs. I am still not sure I understand why. Ugwu was not equal to his Master and Mistress; he was obedient and hard-working. He served meals rather than shared them. The fact that he and they shared allegiance to the Igbo tribe lessened the distance between them. From the beginning his master was determined that Ugwu get a good education and encouraged him to dream of being like the professor someday, something less possible if he had been a girl. Perhaps most importantly, he had no strong lingering responsibility for the family he left behind, nothing but some regret. Unlike the African-American women who divided their loyalty between the family who employed them and their own children and husband, Ugwu had no other focus in his life. And there was no possibility of pregnancy interrupting his commitment to the professor’s family. Race and gender both worked to his advantage.
Adichie is a fine author to be able to accomplish so much in this book. Her book has an amazing coherence for one so filled with various individuals and events. Virtually all her characters were clear and understandable to me, despite their unfamiliarity. (The older man who was the Englishman’s servant and had a family was the most incomprehensible figure in the book for me.) Given all the violence and pain, this could have been a depressing book, but with Adichie’s skill it was not. Scattered throughout were verbal gems that caught my breath.
The book’s title, Half a Yellow Sun, is a reference to the emblem on the flag of Biafra. It reminds me of a comment of Benjamin Franklin at the convention which wrote the US Constitution. Looking at a chair with half a sun carved into its back, he remarked that he wasn’t sure if the sun—and the new nation–was rising or setting. For Biafra, the sun never fully rose. Adichie would have us remember the bravery and the loss in its attempt at independence. And the fact that “The World Was Silent When We Died.”
I am grateful to other bloggers whose praise for Adichie lead me to track down this book.
I recommend it highly to a wide variety of readers.