Critical Article: Half of a Yellow Sun
Critical Analysis of Half of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's luminous and formidable talent was first seen in Purple Hibiscus, her 2004 novel about a childhood devastated by a religious patriarch, which won a Commonwealth writers' prize and was shortlisted for the Orange prize. Her second novel, half of a Yellow Sun, takes its title from the Biafra period, the breakaway state in eastern Nigeria that survived for only three years, and whose name became a global byword for war by starvation. Adichie's powerful focus on war's impact on lives, and the trauma beyond the trenches, earns this novel a commonwealth writer’s prize. While reading this book, sometimes I’m introduced to a hidden gem, and other times I suffer through a complete dud. The one constant thing that makes everything worth my while is that I am continually exposed to material that would have otherwise escaped my notice. I tend to collect American literature; the scarlet letter, or books by Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw and many more fantasy and romance books. In this instance, Half of a Yellow Sun gave me the kick in the pants I needed to begin my foray into African literature.
I actually prefaced my reading of this book with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a smart move on many levels for me. Achebe is widely regarded as the first example of modern African literature; Adichie is commonly referred to as his literary daughter. Both Things Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun deal with pivotal points in Nigerian history (the introduction of colonialism and the Biafra war, respectively), and I appreciated how the issues raised by Achebe’s book helped to give a wider perspective to this novel.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictional retelling of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War (1967-1970) through the eyes of a small handful of characters. The particular selection of these characters was impressive, as they represented a broad cross-cut of experience: a houseboy raised in the tribal swamps of the Nigerian Delta; twin daughters of an African shipping magnate; a radical university professor; and a white writer whose love causes him to become entwined in the Biafran struggle.
The plot becomes quite upsetting, as many atrocities were committed on both sides in this gruesome war. It’s certainly not a read for the faint of heart. What makes this particular novel worth reading, though, is that it refuses to become a jeremiad. There is weeping and wailing, but the intent is not bitter lamentation. It unerringly remains an exploration of the human condition, a remembrance of an event which should not be forgotten.
In terms of story elements, among the protagonists are Odenigbo, or "the Master", a radical math’s lecturer at the University of Nsukka - in what became the secessionist Igbo land - and Ugwu, the village teenager who becomes his houseboy, but whom he enrolls at the university staff school. A novel that descends into dire hunger begins with Ugwu's devoted creativity in the kitchen, confecting pepper soup, spicy jollof rice and chicken boiled in herbs
One angle that quickly won me over was the character arc of Ugwu, the houseboy. He is introduced to us as a superstitious and naïve bumpkin with little experience of the world beyond his tiny village in the swamps of the delta. Adichie handles his character with wonderful delicacy, without ever demeaning or criticizing his outmoded cultural beliefs. His gradual development allows him to act as a cultural buffer between the modern sensibilities of the urbanites and the superstitions of his home village, providing the reader with an incredible window into what makes the hearts of the Igbo people beat.
Ugwu's domain is encroached upon by Odenigbo's lover, Olanna, the London-educated daughter of a "nouveau riche" businessman in Lagos, and the household is later disrupted by its links with Olanna's periodically estranged twin sister Kainene and her English boyfriend, Richard.
It might sound horrible of me to admit this, but I truly think that the addition of the white Western writer (Richard) to the cast of characters was a stroke of genius by Adichie in embracing a global audience. Through Richard’s character, I experienced a swell of emotions that hit me like a sledgehammer, between extremes of violent anger, stunned disbelief and impotent despair. I know that this book will stay with me whenever I think about the lack of Western attitudes toward African struggles. Adichie managed to strike a chord in me that I think shall never remain silent. While Richard identifies with Biafra and intends to write the history of the war, it is Ugwu who takes up the pen and the mantle. As Richard concedes, "The war isn't my story to tell really," and Ugwu nods. "He had never thought that it was."
I can also pretty much guarantee that once you find out why the book is titled Half of a Yellow Sun, the reason will be burned in your memory forever. And despite my complete ignorance of the relevant historical events, the simplicity of story and complexity of character made everything work for me on multiple levels. Many of the events recounted in the novel also have a ring of truth that could only have come from personal experience. Adichie was born well after this war ended, but you can tell that she is surrounded by living memory. These ingredients make for a compelling reading experience that remains highly accessible to a novice such as me.
By IsiborOdegua Elizabeth
© Copyright 2018 zybelle. All rights reserved.
READERS GUIDE“A gorgeous, pitiless account of love, violence and betrayal during the Biafran war.”
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation aboutHalf of a Yellow Sun, a richly imagined story of the disastrous war between Nigeria and Biafra, largely forgotten in the West, which won the 2007 Orange Prize in Britain and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
IntroductionHalf of a Yellow Sun returns to a critical moment in the modern history of Nigeria, a time shortly after gaining their independence from Britain when, following a massacre of their people, the Igbo tribes of the southeast seceded and established The Republic of Biafra. Three years of civil war followed as Biafra was slowly strangled into submission by violence and famine. Over a million people died, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s two grandfathers.
With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the war. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a pan-Africanist university professor full of revolutionary zeal. His beautiful girlfriend Olanna is the London-educated daughter of a tribal chief turned businessman, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for the charisma of her new lover. And Richard Churchill is a shy but handsome English writer in love with Olanna’s cool, sardonic, and less beautiful twin sister Kainene. As Nigerian troops advance and the characters must flee from murderous armies, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.
Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized,Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class and race–and the ways in which love can complicate them all. Adichie brilliantly evokes the promise and the devastating disappointments that marked this time and place, bringing us one of the most powerful, dramatic, and intensely emotional pictures of modern Africa that we have ever had.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Ugwu is only thirteen when he begins working as a houseboy for Odenigbo, but he is one of the most intelligent and observant characters in the novel. How well does Ugwu manage the transition from village life to the intellectual and privileged world of his employers? How does his presence throughout affect the reader’s experience of the story?
2. About her attraction to Odenigbo, Olanna thinks, “The intensity had not abated after two years, nor had her awe at his self-assured eccentricities and his fierce moralities” [p. 36]. What is attractive about Odenigbo? How does Adichie poke fun at certain aspects of his character? How does the war change him?
3. Adichie touches very lightly on a connection between the Holocaust and the Biafran situation [p. 62]; why does she not stress this parallel more strongly? Why are the Igbo massacred by the Hausa? What tribal resentments and rivalries are expressed in the Nigerian-Biafran war? In what ways does the novel make clear that these rivalries have been intensified by British interference?
4. Consider the conversation between Olanna and Kainene on pp. 130-131. What are the sources of the distance and distrust between the two sisters, and how is the rift finally overcome? What is the effect of the disappearance of Kainene on the ending of the story?
5. Discuss the ways in which Adichie reveals the differences in social class among her characters. What are the different cultural assumptions—about themselves and others—made by educated Africans like Odenigbo, nouveau riche Africans like Olanna’s parents, uneducated Africans like Odenigbo’s mother, and British expatriates like Richard’s ex-girlfriend Susan?
6. Excerpts from a book called The World Was Silent When We Died appear on pp. 103, 146, 195, 256, 296, 324, 470, and 541. Who is writing this book? What does it tell us? Why is it inserted into the story in parts?
7. Adichie breaks the chronological sequence of her story so that she can delay the revelation that Baby is not Olanna’s child and that Olanna had a brief liaison with Richard. What are the effects of this delay, and of these revelations, on your reading experience?
8. Susan Grenville-Pitts is a stereotype of the colonial occupier with her assertion that “It’s quite extraordinaryÉ how these people can’t control their hatred of each other. . . . Civilization teaches you control” [p. 194]. Richard, on the other hand, wants to be African, learns to speak Igbo, and says “we” when he speaks of Biafra. What sort of person is Richard? How do you explain his desires?
9. Adichie makes a point of displaying Olanna’s middle-class frame of mind: she is disgusted at the cockroach eggs in her cousins’ house reluctant to let Baby mix with village children because they have lice, and so on. How is her privileged outlook changed by the war?
10. The poet Okeoma, in praise of the new Biafra, wrote, “If the sun refuses to rise, we will make it rise” [p. 219]. Does Adichie seem to represent the Biafran secession as a doomed exercise in political na•vet? or as a desperate bid for survival on the part of a besieged ethnic group? Given the history of Nigeria and Britain’s support during the war, is the defeat of Biafra a foregone conclusion?
11. The sisters’ relationship is damaged further when Olanna seduces Richard [p. 293]. Why does Olanna do this? If she is taking revenge upon Odenigbo for his infidelity, why does she choose Richard? What does Kainene mean when she bitterly calls Olanna “the good one” [p. 318]?
12. How does being witnesses to violent death change people in the story—Olanna, Kainene, Odenigbo, Ugwu? How does Adichie handle descriptions of scenes of violence, death, and famine?
13. What goes through Ugwu’s mind as he participates in the rape of the bar girl [p. 457]? How does he feel about it later, when he learns that his sister was also gang-raped [pp. 497, 526]?
14. The novel is structured in part around two love stories, between Olanna and Odenigbo and between Kainene and Richard. It is “really a story of love,” Adichie has said (Financial Times, September 9, 2006). How does Adichie handle romantic and sexual love? Why are these love plots so important to a novel about a war?
15. The story begins as Ugwu’s aunty describes to Ugwu his new employer: “Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair” [p. 3]. It ends with Ugwu’s dedication of his book: “For Master, my good man” [p. 541]. Consider how Ugwu’s relation to his master has changed throughout the course of the story.
16. How is it fitting that Ugwu, and not Richard, should be the one who writes the story of the war and his people?
17. In a recent interview Adichie said, “My family tells me that I must be old. This is a book I had to write because it’s my way of looking at this history that defines me and making sense of it.” (She recently turned twenty-nine, and based parts of the story on her family’s experiences during that time and also on a great deal of reading.) “I didn’t want to just write about events,” Adichie said. “I wanted to put a human face on them” (The New York Times, September 23, 2006). Why is it remarkable that a woman so young could write a novel of this scope and depth?
About this AuthorChimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria, where she attended medical school for two years at the University of Nigeria before coming to the United States. A 2003 O. Henry Prize winner, Adichie was shortlisted for the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her work has been selected by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and the BBC Short Story Awards and has appeared in various literary publications, including Zoetrope and The Iowa Review. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and longlisted for the Booker. She now divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Suggested ReadingChris Abani, Graceland;Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; William Boyd, A Good Man in Africa; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave; Dave Eggers, What Is the What; Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines; Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter; Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible; Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters; V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River; Ben Okri, The Famished Road; Wole Soyinka, The Man Died.