Discussion on Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
On Words with Wodcke this week we discussed Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun. In 2014, I read this book for my book club discussion, and many of the women in our group had lived in Nigeria for a period. It was fascinating to learn about their experiences while discussing the Nigeria that Adichie wrote about. In my life at this time, my husband travelled regularly to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, for work. It was the perfect time for me to read it.
Set in Nigeria before and during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s through 1970, during the short-lived period when the Republic of Biafra existed, the novel gives so much insight into the complications in Nigeria. Set in wartime, the book’s focus is more on the complications and importance of relationships. However, war and its devastation is also a continuously present theme throughout the novel; touching on the loss of loved ones and everything one knows, the poverty and starvation that comes with war, the trauma of witnessing terrible acts of violence, as well as the mental health issues brought about by war.
It is the story of Olanna, a Nigerian woman of Igbo ethnicity: her story, her relationships with her lover, her sister, her family, her ‘house boy’, and others who are in her life. It is about the complications of these relationships, war, colonialism, racism, social positions, education, and betrayals, and is full of subtle references to these topics.
Adichie beautifully develops Olanna’s personality throughout the novel and the reader
realizes her strength of character and respects Olanna. Adichie herself was born in Nigeria and went to University in the United States and is a citizen of both countries. Her father was a professor at The University of Nigeria and her mother was a registrar. She came from an educated family and was surrounded by academia. While reading the book I wondered if Olanna and her life with Odenigbo in Nsukka is based in part on Adichie’s life.
Adichie provides brief glimpses into the life and politics in Nigeria. At one point the main character Olanna is offered by her parents for a contract deal and it makes one wonder; does this really happen in the wealthier families in Nigeria? At one point Olanna lifts the shirt of her pregnant aunt and puts her face to her aunt’s belly. Is this a normal interaction between two women in Nigerian culture? The married men, it seems, have either a second wife or a mistress, and they accept this mostly as normal. It was fascinating reading this book and the moments that have become part of the way I think life may be like in Nigeria.
One of my favourite characters is Ugwa, the ‘house boy’. He arrives in the house oblivious to the life of constant access to food and education. He can speak a little English, but not well. Odenigbo gives him the opportunity to be educated and both Odenigbo and Olanna help him with his English and cooking skills. His character development is fantastic and one grows to love him and his loyalty to the family. As Shantel suggests in the podcast, he was like a potted plant. He had no room for growth, but then Odenigbo and Olanna gave him a much bigger pot to grow.
Another powerful theme is love and the importance of family. The main character Olanna has a twin sister. The novel covers the relationship between the two, both with their parents, the men in their lives, and the support they ultimately provide to each other regardless of the betrayal of one sister by the other. It represents the truth that all sisters know, no one really knows you as a sister does.
Throughout the novel, British Colonialism in Nigeria comes up. As a person from a Common Wealth country, it is interesting to read this through the eyes of a Nigerian, and a country that already had a substantial population prior to the British arrival. The discussions of how one goes to school to learn a ‘white man’s’ history of Nigeria, but in reality, the history of Nigeria started long before the British arrived. How starvation in Nigeria had parents throughout the world telling their children to eat their food because children are starving in Africa. In Nigeria starvation was named Harold Wilson Syndrome, after the former British Prime Minister, as food was considered a weapon of war.
Photos from Port Harcourt, Nigeria
One of my favourite things about this book was the endless beautiful quotes. Almost every chapter has at least one. I’ve posted a few throughout this blog, but it was hard to narrow them down.
This was such a well-written novel, and I learned so much about Nigeria while reading it. Sophia mentioned in the podcast that Adichie herself has stated how surprised she was on her first visit to Mexico and how it wasn’t what she had read about. I think this book has put Nigeria in that light for me. Adichie has sparked my interest in visiting Nigeria someday, a place I never imagined would be on my ‘want to travel to’ list. As well, the novel has put Adichie on the top of my list of ‘must read’ authors.
Have you read this book? If so, I would love to hear your opinion. If not, I highly recommend it.