Perhaps I’m just becoming more cynical in my old(er) age, but I think a lot of people read novels like this one for one of two reasons: they feel they should, because it’s written by an African woman; or because they think they’ll get brownie points for reading something as exotic as an African woman writer. And knowing that this book was quite popular when it came out, I was expecting a good, but not great novel, about how hard it is to be a woman in Africa. Basically, I was expecting something not covering any new ground. Turns out I was way off.
Civil war is brewing in Nigeria. It is the 1960s, and southern separatists are wanting to secede, and start afresh. Ugwu is starting a new job as a houseboy. Olanna is moving in with her partner, both lecturers at a university. And Richard has come from deepest, darkest England to Nigeria to report. As the political and social situation in the country deteriorates, these three very ordinary people are caught up in a war that will change their lives forever.
Adichie’s portrayal of Africa is refreshingly unique. We are not subjected here to dismal descriptions of the slums of Nigeria, of the hordes of people suffering from HIV/AIDS, or from repression from the white colonial powers. Here, we get middle class Nigeria, full of intelligent, witty people, who are truly trying to make their country better. And this is the Africa that we just don’t see often enough, whether in the news or in literature. Of course these things happen – Africa is a troubled continent. But for Adichie, who was brought up in Nigeria by middle class parents, but university educated in America, this is just as much “the real Africa” as any other experience.
Indeed, this novel isn’t even really about the Nigerian civil war. It is, of course, an ever present menace, particularly in the latter stages of the novel, but I don’t think the focus is there. The focus is on what people do when forced to make difficult situations, when their comfortable, everyday lives are stripped from them, and they have to fend for themselves. Of the three main voices, it is Olanna who struggles the most with this upheaval. But it’s not just the war that’s affecting her – it’s her husband’s infidelity, and indeed, her own. It is the human relationships that maintain focus here, not the war.
This is not to say that the war is sidelined in favour of crappy soap-opera style adultery among the cast. For someone like me who has no background in African history, there is an interesting lesson to be learned here. Nigeria, like so many of the postcolonial, created countries of Africa, has internal conflict brought about by several different tribal groups being forced to coexist. And the civil war that is borne out of it, that is the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun, is an important part of history, and one that should be investigated and discovered by people who aren’t Nigerian.
The spectre of colonial power is not as strong as one might find in other African literature. The only white character, Richard, is not what you would call a cultural imperialist. He is deeply empathetic, to both individual people, as well as the Biafran cause itself. His subtle rejections of white African society, and his eventual willingness to be identified as Biafran, are portrayed here as kind. He is not a strong man; instead, he is a frustrated writer, a passive man who goes with the flow, yet there is strength underneath. Above all, he is fallible, and his own infidelity is something that also shapes the way these characters deal with the war.
For a long time, I think, Western readers’ views of African literature have been too closed-minded. Whose fault this is, I don’t know – the publishers for not publishing things that can’t be easily marketed as “African literature”, or the readers who simply read these things because they feel they should. Don’t read Half of a Yellow Sun because you want to read an “African novel”. If I say it’s much more than that, be aware I’m not trying to put down the vast numbers of African novels that have come before it, and done so much to educate us. But this is, hopefully, the beginning of a new kind of African novel – where people deal with situations that are not necessarily uniquely African, but more universal.