Date completed: May 21, 2012
How I found this book: I first read about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Amazon.com. Turns out that if you search for one African author on Amazon, you will immediately be inundated with suggestions of other African authors. Her books sounded quite interesting, so when I happened to see them sitting on the shelf at my local public library, I grabbed this one. Having read this one, I definitely plan to read Adichie’s other books as well.
Some books are so good that you don’t want them to end. Half of a Yellow Sun was so good that I was relieved when it ended. During the week I was reading it, it took over my life. All sorts of chores got put off to give me more time to read. I went to sleep every night thinking about Ukwu and Odenigbo and Olanna. That wasn’t so bad for the first hundred pages where Half of a Yellow Sun is a pleasant, well-written novel about the middle/upper class lives of two sisters, their family, lovers, and servants. Later though, Nigeria descended into civil war and their lives were transformed. But it was too late. I already cared deeply about these people.
I hadn’t realized it before, but I think that when reading books that I know in advance will contain a lot of suffering (such as A Long Way Home or Behind the Beautiful Forevers), I instinctively distance myself a bit. I anticipate the suffering and I read with a wariness of impending disaster. Ultimately, I think the wariness helps dull the effect of the bad events. On one hand, this response makes reading easier, but it also reduces the emotional impact of the book. Because of the way it was structured, Half of a Yellow Sun got around my wariness and I found it especially powerful to read. (Of course, I’ve now weakened the effect for anyone who reads this blog post.) I wonder how common this defensive response when reading is.
In some sense, it’s almost unfair to count this book as representing Nigeria, when all of the main characters would consider themselves Biafrans rather than Nigerians. Biafra was a portion of Nigeria which seceded from the country in the late 1960s leading to civil war*. The title, Half of a Yellow Sun, refers to the rising sun on the Biafran flag. The civil war begins with a military coup by officers who are primarily members of the Igbo culture. The characters in Half of a Yellow Sun are mostly Igbo, and it is disturbing to see how they celebrate this coup- even the educated intellectuals laugh at the deaths caused. Their laughter soon ends however when Igbos around the country are massacred in retaliation. This sets the stage for the secession of Biafra and the ensuing civil war.
Much of rest of the book tells of the families’ lives during the war as life gets tougher and tougher in Biafra. The book is loyal to Biafra I think, overall seeing it as a worthy cause. But it doesn’t gloss over the terrible behavior that comes with war- the official propaganda, black markets and corruption, abuses by soldiers. There are also small acts of favoritism. While their circumstances are much reduced relative to pre-war times, Olanna and Odenigbo still have many connections with more powerful people that allow them to get more and better food than her neighbors have access to. It’s not right that officials should be biased like that and objectively it’s not right to accept these favors. But should their family just starve along with everyone else? How can Olanna be blamed for seeking out whatever she can to feed her family?
To move away from the war theme, another interesting aspect of Half of a Yellow Sun is its portrayal of an accepting stance of sex among unmarried people. Both sisters cohabit with their partners and while the sisters’ parents encourage them to get married, no one seems especially scandalized. The acceptance in this case and in others throughout the book particularly of young women having sex before marriage was surprising to me. I’m pretty sure that in the U.S. at that time cohabiting couples would have experienced at least some disapproving judgements. I wondered whether Igbo culture might be less conservative about sexuality, but based on some admittedly brief internet searching, this doesn’t seem to be the case. From what I read, Igbo culture is fairly conservative about sexual matters and women’s virginity at the time of marriage is considered very important. I wonder if the author made a deliberate choice to portray a different attitude.
* I had never heard of Biafra before reading this book, but apparently it was a popular left-wing cause in the U.S. in the 1960s. The Soviet Union supported Nigeria, but surprisingly the U.S. didn’t respond by supporting Biafra. Another interesting note, the NGO Doctors without Borders was started by French doctors who worked in Biafra and thought that the effectiveness of the Red Cross was undermined by government interference.