Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Another 'comment' deserving of a post all to itself. This review was left on my blog on November 28. Read on...

Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun
By Amanta Usukpam Ukpaghiri

I finished reading Half of a Yellow Sun and was left with a lingering sense of sadness at having completed the novel too quickly. I wished it continued and that l continued to read it, perhaps, for a very long time. It is a masterpiece of a work, destined to be a classic; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has trod where many others have feared to tread. She has taken the pain and suffering and horror of a people – the Igbos -- and given them novelistic prominence, and by so doing, asked historical questions that still demand answers. She, in effect, stands athwart the current amnesia in Nigeria and requests that the country comes to terms with the Igbo sub-nationality and either accept it as a full member of the polity -- or leave it alone to its own devices. Admirably, she is (as she said in an interview) “insistently and consciously” Igbo – and unlike several economic climbers in today’s Nigeria, is never shamelessly apologetic that she is Igbo.

This book is truly more than a novel – although even as a novel, it is extremely well crafted, brimming with characters that come alive and leap off the pages and embody events that unquestionably took place in the history of Nigeria. Indeed, this book is a form of historical narrative that tells the story of Igbos’ vibrant engagement with Nigeria in the 1960s before the civil war, the massacres of tens of thousands of Igbos following military intervention in politics, and the period of the civil war itself from 1967 to 1970.

Chimamanda has achieved several noble things with one stroke. She has furnished literature with simple, elegant and sharp sentences and a (albeit horror) story beautifully woven together in paragraph after paragraph. She has also written a history of the Igbos during a certain period of time. Finally she has presented a literary monument to love and relationships and hope and human dignity. Her characters - - their lives, their triumphs, and their failures – speak to the enduringness of love and truth and the dominance of the human spirit.

It is simply amazing that Chimamanda is only 28 years’ old -- she was born 7 years after the war ended. Yet she tells her story with a level of insight, maturity, compassion, knowledge and deftness that belies her age. It is abundantly clear that her writing is the product of tremendous research on her part of the events that led up to and including the civil war. This is fiction based on facts – or “faction.”

Chimamanda’s characters are seen in every day life in Nigeria. Ugwu exists in several houseboys in Nigeria with ambition and intelligence who continue to rise by dint of application of their brains and hard work and focus to attainment of lives of accomplishment. Ugwu’s sense of ownership of his Master, Madam and Baby is quite widespread among faithful houseboys. Odenigbo – the professor of mathematics at University of Nigeria, Nsukka -- is the quintessential intellectual, perhaps, with his head caught up in the clouds with numerous ideological constructs and deconstructs. Kainene and Olanna are extremely human characters whose sisterly relationship with each other ironically blossomed in the midst of the war – and became warmer as they came to experience the horrors of the civil war together. Richard comes across as familiarly tragic – wanting to belong to and in Biafra and never belonging or never accepted as belonging.

Which brings us to the concept of belonging. It is a concept that Chimamanda explores in her novel. Miss Adebayo was never seen as belonging; and of course, neither was Richard. Indeed, the Igbos who had lived in the Northern part of Nigeria for several decades were never seen as belonging. Nor were the Igbos who had lived in Lagos: Chinua Achebe escaped death in Lagos during the massacre of Igbos by a hairsbreadth. The parallels between Igbos and the Jews are really striking. Belonging is a potent concept; witness the current acrimonious debate raging in the industrialized countries over immigration, which is inextricably linked to who belongs and who does not.

This is a story that has universal applications even as it is largely set in Igbo land. It tells the story of political conflict and war and love and hate and betrayal and oppression and human affirmation that is contemporary and resonates with the human condition.

It will be eminently interesting to see how this “transcendent novel” in the words of Publishers Weekly – which has been received with great literary acclaim in the United States and Europe – will be received in Nigeria. It is safe to predict that it will be seen in certain quarters through dogmatic lenses that will uncritically seek to brazenly question the novel’s premises. But this will be largely besides the point – because Chimamanda has rendered a classic and has told a story about a historical necessity – the defense of and by a people from being wiped out from the face of the map.

Just a few quibbles. It was 20 and not 50 pounds that was vengefully decreed by the Government of Nigeria as the amount to be (and which was) given in exchange for all the money held by each former Biafran. Before the war, Cross River Igbos would have been referred to as Bende people and not Imo people. And the settlement in Port-Harcourt would have been called Umuokirisi and not Rumuokirisi – that came after the war. But these are mere quibbles and do not affect the historical accuracy of the novel regarding the lives and times of the Igbos before and during the civil war.

Chimamanda has rightly been described as the 21st-century successor to Chinua Achebe, and she indeed displays the same sophisticated simplicity in her writing and similar deep historical insights laced with philosophical wisdom. Indeed, Achebe describes her as being “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers” and asserts that she “came almost fully made.” The serious bent of her writings is to be widely applauded. There surely is a literary ferment afoot among young Nigerian writers in the diaspora. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is at the crest of that ferment. To end with Achebe’s words: In writing Half of a Yellow Sun, “Adichie knows what is at stake and what to do about it.”

Amanta Usukpam Ukpaghiri

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