I’ve only read two books by Chimamada Ngozi Adichie: Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun. I read Americanah because that was the choice my book club had made. I read Half of a Yellow Sun because Adichie is now one of my favorite writers. The two books I’ve read are hard to describe: in Americanah the Nigerian protagonist goes to school in America and returns to Nigeria. She has a number of relationships. In Half of a Yellow Sun, the book is mostly about two sisters and their relationships with men and other surrounding people in Nigeria during the 1960s.
Adichie is one of those brilliant writers who creates full lives for her characters, writes entire worlds that allow the reader different perspectives of the same characters. They are wonderful and flawed and complete. Her books are filled with a myriad of people and yet they aren’t confusing. (As I wrote previously about Tom Wolfe) she too introduces characters with enough description that they stick. Some authors introduce characters too quickly and they all become jumbled in my head. Adichie creates multiple plots in different cities without any confusion.
I have listened to hours of interviews with her: she’s a feminist, a fan of classic literature, and speaks of the dangers of a single story. Half of a Yellow Sun is filled with stories: that of a beautiful sister named Olanna that her parents try to prostitute for a better government contract, that of the intellectual teacher Odenigbo whom she dates and lives with but will not marry; that of his boy servant Ugwu who grows into a man; that of a less attractive sister, Kainene, who capably runs multiple businesses; that of British Richard who moved to Africa because he is obsessed with Igbo-Ukwu art and falls in love with Kainene; the British-obsessed houseman that serves him; a British woman, Susan who loves Richard and lives in Nigeria (why I could never figure out but I believe that is an intentional character flaw) who sees “black women [as] not threatening to her, [they] were not equal rivals (68), and so many others. These characters’ stories happen during the Nigerian Civil War but it happens so slowly, so subtly, it is in the background for roughly the first third of the book. It moves from drunken intellectual conversations to sober fears of what is to come. “The conversations no longer ended in reassuring laugher, and the living room often seemed clouded with uncertainties, with unfinished knowledge, as if they all knew something would happen and yet did not know what.” ( 179)
Adichie’s focus on the hunger and poverty of war allows her to build up horribly memorable scenes so we see the results of the war before the actual war. At first, it’s a potential mob scene, in which Olanna is in another city and pretends that they are not Igbo. Meanwhile, it is a way of making money for Kainene and their parents (169). However, the parents have no allegiance and will follow the money and lucrative contracts (and abscond to England when things get dangerous). Kainene, on the other hand, makes money off contracts but attempts to help those who have become needy. Because Richard is fluent in Igbo he becomes a journalist. Olanna and Odenigbo live as refugees and eventually Ugwu becomes a soldier.
Half of a Yellow Sun is such a beautiful work of art. This blog post has taken a long while for me to write because I couldn’t decide how to write about it. And I’m still not happy with it nor does it feel complete. The problem is that it seems such a monumental work that I cannot think of what to say within the confines of a blog post.
This book is about a moment in history: I could easily see it used in classrooms. The character development is intense: Adichie’s characters are not flawless and often times they do things you disagree with and sometimes they do reprehensible things. I’ve only read two of Adichie’s books, but both of them contain a number of fully developed characters that are interacting with one another, experiencing the same things but reacting differently. She is giving us different voices, perspectives, and stories.
I do not regret my choice of Salman Rushdie for my MA thesis. But I must admit that if I had discovered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in grad school that I would have definitely considered devoting my thesis and months and months of research, reading, and rereading to her.