Half of a Yellow Sun

An up-and-coming Nigerian author revisits the war that shaped her country.

| Tue Oct. 24, 2006 3:00 AM EDT
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote Half of a Yellow Sun, she wasn’t planning on authoring a sweeping political epic about the promise and devastation of sovereignty in the postcolonial world. “For me, I’m writing a story about human beings, love, and family,” she says. But, she adds, “Somehow, politics comes in.” Adichie’s recently published novel begins in the early 1960s in newly independent Nigeria and follows a group of middle-class intellectuals through military coups, genocidal killings, and the secession of the doomed Igbo state, Biafra. To simply focus on the novel's sweep, from the pre-war hope and idealism of the '60s to the twisted reality of international interest (and lack of interest) in Africa, doesn't do it full justice. It’s also a great read—character- and plot-driven, and without the oppressive symbolism or exoticism common to novels by young authors from so-called third world countries.
Adichie’s first novel, 2003’s Purple Hibiscus, was a critical success and with Half of a Yellow Sun’s release, there is renewed speculation that Adichie is poised to inherit the mantle of fellow Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Currently enrolled at Yale University, Adichie will earn a masters degree in African Studies, “if I survive the program,” she says. MotherJones.com recently caught up with the author-slash-scholar via phone.
MotherJones.com: Your current book is about the Nigerian civil war. Why did you decide to take up this topic?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Considering how central it is in Nigerian history, there aren’t many people who have talked about it or written about the people who actually went through the war. But whether or not there had been other books about the war, I don’t think it affected my decision to write about it. I wrote about it because I felt it was something I had to do. My grandfather died in the war, my family went through the war, and it affected my parents in really profound ways. I’ve always wanted to write about that period—in some ways to digest it for myself, something that defined me but that I didn’t go through.
MJ.com: Growing up, how much was the war and the idea of Biafra a part of your family’s collective consciousness?
CA: Profoundly. This was not just my family, it was the case for many families, many Igbo families, particularly. Because the war wasn’t the Nigeria-Biafra war, it was mostly the Biafran war—the people who were in that region that felt the war. When I was growing up, I knew that Biafra was something that had happened—something bad. It was the reason I didn’t know my grandfather, because he had died. My parents really didn’t talk about the actual details of the war. We all knew it had happened, but we didn’t know exactly what it had meant. As I got older, I started to read about it and started to ask questions.
MJ.com: You grew up in a middle class, intellectual home, similar to that of the book’s main characters. Your father was a statistics professor; one of the main characters, Odenigbo, is a math professor. How much of the story in the novel is inspired by your family’s history?
CA: I did a lot of research before writing the book, talked to a lot of people. But it’s really my father and his experience that formed the backbone of my writing. I haven’t recounted what happened to him; I’ve sort of fictionalized things. But quite a bit of the book is based on what he went through, and a lot of the details really came from him.
MJ.com: Near the beginning of the book, many of the characters’ conversations revolve around the idea of fashioning some sort of collective identity in the disarray of post-British rule. They talk about whether they consider themselves Nigerian, or more tribally identified, or pan-African—and then those who are Igbo become Biafran nationalists. Where do you come out of that?
CA: I think that identity shifts. My identity shifts; it’s is a constant issue for Africans. I’m here in the U.S. now, so I’m “African” or “black.” If I went to another African country, I’d be Nigerian. When I’m back in Nigeria, I would primarily be seen as Igbo. And for me, really, it depends on where I am. At the time when Nigeria was just becoming independent, for a lot of intellectuals, it was really important to define themselves against what the British had done. In other words, they wanted a very clean cut—Nigeria for Nigerians, rather than an identity that was defined as a creation of the British. I don’t think ethnicity was in play at first—Igbo, Yoruba, whatever—I think they wanted to see that it was a country they were running for themselves, for their interests. And it’s funny, because the first government was seen as an imposition—it wasn’t popular with intellectuals at all.
{publish-page-break} MJ.com: Sticking with the colonial theme, there’s a incident where Odenigbo, asks his houseboy, “ If I tell you to go outside and beat a woman walking on the street with a stick, and you then give her a bloody wound on her leg, who is responsible for the wound, you or me?” That’s a reference to Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese prime minister who was gruesomely assassinated by Congolese troops at the behest, it seems, of Belgium. Seeing how this theme of empire and complicity runs through your book, who do you think is responsible for the Biafran war?
CA: I think it’s a question of shared responsibility. We cannot talk about the kind of war and conflict that often erupts in Africa without engaging with our colonial past. In the case of Lumumba, people will say, “Oh, but Congolese people were also involved.” For me, it’s not about the foot soldier, it’s about the general who gives the command. In the case of the civil war, I don’t think it would have lasted as long as it did and ended the way that it did if it didn’t have active participation of the U.K. and Russia, and if the U.S. would have done more. The U.S. really didn’t do very much—they had the opportunity to, but they just didn’t. They were distracted in Vietnam and whatnot. But I do think that a lot of things that happen in Africa are really a question of shared responsibility. Nigeria was not set up to succeed. But then, of course, Nigerians contributed to it because they went along and let Nigeria fall apart.
MJ.com: What was the role of the British in the war?
CA: Well, there are two sides. There are the ordinary British people who were very concerned about starvation in Biafra and very deeply wanted to help, and did help. On the other side, the official British position was that Nigeria had to be kept whole at all costs. At the time, I suppose some people knew it was about oil, but I think only recently has it become very clear how much the British focus was on oil. They were uncomfortable with the oil region being under Biafran control—nobody knew what the Biafrans would do. And so they armed Nigeria. I think that because of the British, a lot of countries didn’t recognize Biafra. A lot of places might have, if they didn’t think Nigeria had the might of the British Empire behind them.
MJ.com: Do you see any sort of overlap between Biafra and, say, Sudan today? The Middle East?
CA: The areas are different, the peoples are different, even the geography—I think geography really plays a role—and that’s often different. But when you create a country and govern it, and then leave a country and think that all will be well, it goes against common sense. Especially if you, while you were ruling that country, had a divide-and-rule system where you encouraged people not to get along so it would be easier for you to rule them. Of course, when you leave, it’s just not going to work. I don’t think that in Nigeria that our problem is that we are so diverse. Diverse people can live together; I just think that it’s because when you favor one group over the others, split people, and then encourage that kind of thinking. So when something goes wrong, the people in control say, “Oh, it’s because of the Igbo.”
MJ.com: That’s what happened in Rwanda and other places as well. So how much of the war is still going on today? And what about persistent ethnic tensions?
CA: I don’t think the war is completely over, I think that we don’t like to talk about it. There are injustices that happened that nobody wants to address because there are people for whom it would be very uncomfortable.
But there is still ethnicity. It will always be there; it was politicized from the beginning. But I think for most Nigerians, they don’t care who their president is as long as he doesn’t steal. They want a good leader, they really don’t care where he comes from.
MJ.com: What does it mean that the same man, President Obasanjo, who accepted the Biafran surrender and was in power for a while after, is again back in the presidency?
CA: It’s very strange. It’s not just him—all the leaders we’ve had, they’ve all been involved in the war. I am looking forward to the elections and a lot will depend on what happens during the elections. It’s the first time we’re having real elections, from a democratic government to another democratic government. It’s worrying because we have a former dictator who wants to run and people are talking about it as if it’s perfectly fine. And that’s worrying. And that former dictator, by the way, was also quite active in the war. There’s a cycle—we recycle people.
{publish-page-break} MJ.com: So what do you see as the role or responsibility of the United States and Europe in Africa today?
CA: I find it kind of exhausting how Africa is always this basket case of chaos and war and starvation. If you depended on the American media for a portrayal of Africa, you would end up thinking, “These people are so stupid, how do they get themselves into these things?” One thing that never pushes through is a view of Africans as entirely human. On the one hand, the West recognizes that we’ve had really horrible leaders. On the other hand, the money that the leaders steal from our countries is stashed away in the West. And we’re lectured on free trade by the same countries whose governments very often subsidize things like their farmers and such. I’m also really uncomfortable with the focus on aid. I don’t like the idea that somehow Africans are people that we have to keep giving out gifts of money to. I feel that one has to make it easier for Africa to participate in global trade. I mean, it’s so complex, but I just get so uncomfortable watching Africa portrayed like this.
MJ.com: Right, the “Save the Children” commercials.
CA: Right. And I sort of think to myself, “God, if I were not African, I wonder what I would think about these Africans.” You know?
MJ.com: So where do you see yourself in the great tradition of Nigerian political writers? Are you a political writer?
CA: For me, I’m writing a story about human beings. But then, when you’re talking about the Biafran period in our history, you can’t write without it becoming political. There are some countries where politics doesn’t really play a direct role in the life of people, so people can carry on without really knowing what’s going on. Nigeria isn’t that kind of country. I think the U.S. is becoming more and more like that too, where more and more people are interested in what’s going on than before. Now that there’s Iraq and there’s 9/11, people are more in tune. In Nigeria, people are more like that. Young people who are 15 talk about politics and know about politics and know the name of the ministers because it’s so important—the things that happen affect them. If the government doesn’t fund education, which they often don’t, students are going to stay home and not go to school. It affects them directly. But I’m really not interested in writing explicitly about that. I’m really interested in human beings, and in love, and in family. Somehow, politics comes in.
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