Diversifying your bookshelf: ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ is a masterpiece detailing the Nigerian Civil War. Throughout the novel, race is a defining theme – but not an open discussion. The divisions of race are not explicitly detailed in the novel. Adiche uses the downfall of the State of Biafra to explore the differences and divisions between races and cultures.

Race is a defining theme – but not an open discussion.

The novel tells the story of three protagonists: Odenigbo, Ugwu and Richard.

Odenigbo is a radical university professor, who hosts parties for other intellectuals where they discuss Nigerian independence – discussions which later become embodied in the creation of Biafra. Ugwu, Odenigbo’s servant, finds this intellectual discussion far removed from his own understandings of the world.

Each chapter ends with an excerpt of an unspecified book. We presume the words are Richard’s. Richard is a white Englishman who has secured a literary grant to write a novel whilst living in Nigeria. However, he struggles to find something to write about, with his thesis constantly changing. During the Civil War, his white privilege becomes evident: he can easily travel across Nigeria with American reporters, whilst his Nigerian partner goes missing after crossing army lines in order to gain food. 

Adiche’s novel opens up discussion as to the suitability of a white person to write about racism.

As Richard lives and writes in Nigeria, he becomes more assimilated into its culture. He supports Biafran independence, and proudly claims to soldiers that he is ‘Biafran now’, in his ‘Igbo accent’. The contrast between his life and Odenigbo’s becomes increasingly evident. Richard and his partner remain able to freely travel with reporters. In comparison, Odenigbo and his wife live destitute in a refugee camp.

When the Civil War is declared over, Richard tells Ugwu that he is no longer writing his novel about Biafran independence. He states: ‘I didn’t think it was for me to tell.’ To this, Ugwu replies: ‘I never thought it was.’

In the end we learn that Ugwu had been writing the book all along. This clever revelation shows not only the literary development of Ugwu, but also Richard’s changing understanding of his place as a white man in Nigeria.

As Richard lives becomes more assimilated into Nigerian culture, he proudly claims that he is ‘Biafran now’, in his ‘Igbo accent’.

The revelation that Ugwu, an uneducated servant, is the storyteller is a criticism of the boundaries of literature overall. Adiche’s novel opens up discussion as to the suitability of a white person to write about racism. Traditionally, the literary canon has been dominated by white, male authors. Despite attempts to diversify the canon there is arguably still a lot more to do.

Kathryn Scott wrote ‘The Help’ (2009), a fictional novel depicting racism in the 1950s experienced by black maids who worked for white women. Criticism against the novel is strong. Scott’s own childhood family maid claimed that Scott had told the story without her permission. The film adaptation has also garnered criticism from its own cast; the main star Viola Davis has admitted regret for having acted in the film. Truly, the novel and film is that of white centring – racism experienced by black women is told from the perspective of a white woman, and the white voice overpowers those who have been oppressed.

Considering the criticism of Scott’s ‘The Help’, the discussion in Adiche’s novel as to the suitability of Richard as a writer of the Biafran movement mirrors this. The moment when he declares himself unsuitable to write about Biafra is a relief.  

Image: Suad Kamardeen via Unsplash

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