Excerpted from Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright © 2006 by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chimamanda 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 U.S. and Nigeria.
Q: What led you to write a book about the Nigeria-Biafra war?
A: I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because the war changed the cause of Igbo history, because “Biafra” is still an incredibly potent word in Nigeria today, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, and my mother has never spoken at length about losing her father, because almost every Igbo person alive in the 1960s was affected by the pre-war massacres, because colonialism makes me angry, because the thought of the egos of organizations and men leading to the unnecessary deaths of children makes me angry, because I think we are in danger of forgetting.
I have always been fascinated by Biafra. I have always wanted to write about it. It was not just because my parents told so many stories of how they lived through the Nigeria-Biafra war but because I realized how central Biafra was to my history. Because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra.
Q: Given that, at the time of the war, you hadn’t yet been born, what sort of research did you do to prepare for writing this book? Was it important to you that you get all the “facts” of the war correct for this work of fiction?
A: My parents’ stories formed the backbone of my research. And I read a lot of books about the war. I talked to a lot of people. In the four years that it took to finish the book, I would often ask older people I met, “Where were you in 1967?” and then take it from there. It was from stories of that sort that I found out tiny details that are important for fiction.
As far as adhering to the facts, I invented a train station in Nsukka, invented a beach in Port Harcourt, changed the distance between towns, but it was important that I get the facts that mattered right. All the major political events in the book are “factually” correct. But what was most important to me was emotional truth. I wanted this to be a book about human beings, not a book about faceless political events. For research, I have a lot of research notes that I did not end up using because I did not want to be stifled by fact, did not want the political events to overwhelm the human story.
Q: You say you think “we are in danger of forgetting.”Can you talk further about how the war is treated in Nigeria today?
A: The war is still talked about, still a potent political issue. But I find that it is often talked about in uninformed and unimaginative ways–people repeat the same things they have heard and often don’t know the full story. It also remains–surprisingly–very ethnically divisive. The (brave enough) Igbo talk about it and the non-Igbo think the Igbo should get over it.
There is a new movement called MASSOB, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, which in the past few years has captured the imagination of many Igbo people. MASSOB is controversial; it is reported to advocate violence and its leaders are routinely arrested and harassed by the government. I am not exactly sure what the group stands for but I think that they have managed to capture the imagination of so many Igbo–no matter how inchoate their objectives–because there are a lot of unaddressed issues that the country may have officially swept aside but which continue to live in individual hearts.
Q: The book focuses on the experiences of a small set of people who are seeing the conflict from very different points of view. When we step into their individual worlds, one at a time, we don’t learn their every thought–the narrator who follows them isn't omniscient–but rather we have a partial, or selective, understanding of them. Can you describe your narrative style and why you framed these characters the way you did?
A: I have always been suspicious of the omniscient narrative. It has never appealed to me, always seemed a little lazy and a little too easy. In an introduction to Giovanni Verga’s novel, it is said about his treatment of his characters that he “never lets them analyze their impulses but simply lets them be driven by them.” I wanted to write characters who are driven by impulses that they may not always be consciously aware of–which I think is true for us human beings. Besides, I didn’t want to bore my reader to death, exploring the characters’ every thought.
Q: The character of Richard is a British white expatriate who considers himself Biafran, drawing a certain amount of criticism for his self-proclaimed identity. Another key narrator, Ugwu, is a thirteen-year-old houseboy who seems to react rather than act. Each is and interesting choice of character for the narrator to “shadow.” Why did you pick them?
A: Ugwu was inspired in part by Mellitus, who was my parents’ houseboy during the war; in part by Fide, who was our houseboy when I was growing up. And I have always been interested in the less obvious narrators. When my mom spoke about Mellitus, what a blessing he was, how much he helped her, how she did not know what she would have done without him, I remember being moved but also thinking that he could not possibly have been the saint my mother painted, that he must have been flawed and human. And I do think that Ugwu does come to act more and react less as we watch him come into his own.
Richard was a more difficult choice. I very much wanted somebody to be the Biafran “outsider” because I think that outsiders played a major role in the war but I wanted him, also, to be human and real (and needy!).
Q: There is a conflict in this story between what is traditional and tribal versus that which is modern and bureaucratic. How has the conflict played itself out? What is the mix today?
A: Cultures evolve and things change, of course. What is worrisome is not that we have all learned to think in English, but that our education devalues our culture, that we are not taught to write Igbo and that middle-class parents don’t much care that their children do not speak Igbo.
Q: This is an exciting moment for Nigerian writers; who are some of your favorites, and why do you feel this worldwide resurgence in popularity for Nigerian writers is happening now?
A: Tanure Ojaide writes beautifully. Sefi Atta has a delicious wit. Chris Abani is wonderfully astute. I didn’t know there was a worldwide popularity in Nigerian writers. I hope there will be.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: The next book, and graduate school in the African Studies program at Yale.
From the Hardcover edition.
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?