For my first Instagram readalong, I spent the last few days reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s certainly set the bar high…
After I posted about this book on Instagram, a new friend, Nadira, suggested doing a readalong. Having never done a readalong (and generally being terrible at reading books when I say I’m going to), I was apprehensive. A couple of weeks on and I’m now in a message group with Nadira and 12 other lovely ladies, and now understand why people join real life book groups! The general consensus seems to be that the first half is not the easiest, but as the first person to finish (so far!) I can highly recommend ploughing through. Let me tell you why:
“There are two answers to the things they will teach you about our land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass. You must read books and learn both answers.”
If, like me, you are a product of a white, Eurocentric education system, this is essential reading. It should be essential reading anyway, but particularly if your answer to “did you know Nigeria had a civil war?” is “huh?”. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie offers us a feat of historical storytelling, navigating the brutal massacres of the Igbo people, the short-lived Biafran state, and Nigerian the civil war, through the eyes of a small group of characters.
Before picking up this book, I had no idea that Nigeria had a civil war. I knew that the North and the South were quite different in that the North was predominantly Muslim, and the South predominantly Christian (among other differences), and that was only because I had met a Nigerian man who had told me so himself. At the time, it struck me as odd that two halves of a country could be so cleanly divided yet still be one country; now I have my answer: “In 1914, the [British] governor-general joined the North and the South, and his wife picked a name. Nigeria was born.”
This is my second of Adichie’s novels, and I’m now starting to understand her style. One of the readalong group said that they had read the Q&A at the back of their edition (before finishing the novel) and they couldn’t yet see the ’emotional truth’ that Adichie wished to present. There were moments where I agreed; horrible things were happening but I couldn’t feel it, how could I not be experiencing any kind of emotion? Having finished it, I realised two things. One: my lack of emotional connection reflected the characters’ shock and inability to grasp how their country had descended into war. Two: the novel was a slow burn, because the characters were a slow burn. People are often a slow burn.
Much like this novel, when reading Americanah, I struggled for the first half of the book because I found Ifemelu to be spectacularly unlikeable. Without liking the central character, the first half the novel was a bit of a slog in places. While I still didn’t like Ifemelu by the end, I certainly understood her better, and perhaps this is one of Adichie’s strengths. She can write characters who are not unlikeable because they are particularly ‘bad’, they are just unlikeable because they are real – not one of us likes every person that we meet! By the end of Half of a Yellow Sun, I still found Olanna quite irritating, and Odenigbo frustrating. Richard was naive and weak, but I loved Ugwu. However, it was Kainene that was the triumph. At the start of the novel I had written her off as an uninteresting side character, but if we are looking for emotional truth, it is found in her narrative and how that impacts the other characters.
“…my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe…I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
On the surface, Half of a Yellow Sun is not as explicitly about the Western idea of ‘race’ as Americanah. The persecution of the Igbo people and the tribal prejudices are the core theme; but Adichie doesn’t let the reader cast these politics aside as a natural consequence of a complicated country (read: that’s just what happens ‘over there’). The accountability of British colonialism underpins the entire novel, at times it’s subtle, but at other times it rises up and slaps you in the face; whether it’s through Susan’s casual racism (she was a vile character), or in the scenes where Richard hosts two American journalists who are covering the war:
“Richard exhaled. It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: Thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wanted to know if there was anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal to one dead white person.”
Half of a Yellow Sun is a shining example of educating through storytelling. Where I started with little connection to a part of history that was alien to me, I ended in tears.
Trigger Warning: This book contains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence