Memory, Witness, and War

Half of a Yellow Sun BY Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor. Paperback, 560 pages. $14.

The cover of Half of a Yellow Sun

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie never expected to reach a US audience with her second novel, the 2007 Orange Prize–winning Half of a Yellow Sun (just released in paperback by Anchor). The novel depicts the lives of a thirteen-year-old houseboy who serves and is educated by a revolutionary university professor; the professor’s girlfriend, a sociology instructor from an elite family; and an aspiring Biafran—an Igbo-speaking Englishman—during the Biafran War (in which the Igbo people, who reside in southeastern Nigeria, attempted to secede). She wondered, “Why would Americans be interested in an African war that happened in the 1960s?” So she was pleasantly surprised when her exhilarating, intertwining narratives of love, betrayal, violence, and enlightenment during one of the most tumultuous chapters of Nigerian history earned her critical praise and a wide readership. It certainly redeemed her decision ten years earlier to leave medical school and pursue her literary ambitions. Raised by a math professor and a university administrator in a house once occupied by Chinua Achebe, thirty-year-old Adichie—who divides her time between the United States and Nigeria—is struggling to balance book promotion with graduate school at Yale in African studies (this would be her second master’s degree). It’s a quandary she is proud to find herself in. I spoke by phone with Adichie—she was funny, brilliant, and gracious—in early October about growing up in post-Biafran Nigeria and about the devastating process of confronting and unpacking the brutal, ravaged history of her family and her country, even as both her relatives and her fellow Nigerians have resisted doing it themselves. —KERA BOLONIK

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006.

BOOKFORUM: How can a person write so personally about the Biafran War from such a distance of time and place?

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: The reason I could write this book is because I didn’t experience the war. But writing the book was an intensely emotional experience, so I became acutely aware of how the war is very much a memory for me. I would write a section and be happy with it, and then later I would cry thinking about what happens to these people. It was a strange experience, because I’d never written anything like it before. Sometimes I have a sense of detachment from my work. But not with Half of a Yellow Sun.

BF: Are the people of Nigeria still grieving and processing this war?

CNA: A lot of people haven’t dealt with it at all, in part because we haven’t dealt with it as a collective nation. Nobody learns about Igbo culture in high school. You’re told that a war happened and nothing else. Igbo people have a sense that we’re supposed to pretend nothing happened. Now there is a new Biafran movement that’s been going on for about ten years. Mostly, it’s the poorer people in Igbo villages and rural areas who adopt things from Biafra and fly the Biafran flag. When I told people I was writing about the war, they thought I was crazy. They’d say, “You are just looking for trouble, you are encouraging violence.” I still get a few angry e-mails from people who feel I shouldn’t have written about that war. But then I do get pleasantly surprised by the many people who are asking questions about that period because of the book, people whose parents had been through the war and never said anything to their kids. Sometimes I get stupidly emotional. I did a reading in Nige­- ria, and a woman came up to me and said, “Because of your book, I can finally talk about what happened to me, and I thank you.” And then I start crying [laughs].

BF: Were your parents able to talk with you?

CNA: With my mother, it was much easier for her to talk about the things that she’d lost—her china and books and piano. I talked with her many times while writing this book and was interested in every little thing. I wanted to know what she did with her hair—back then, every middle-class woman in Nigeria was wearing wigs. She lost her wig, and she mourned. But she just couldn’t talk about losing her father—he was in a refugee camp, and she couldn’t go there because the roads were occupied. My father also lost his father. And he lost all of his books and other things. He talked about how he missed his graduation gown from Berkeley.

BF: Do wartime resentments still fester among the Igbo and Hausa peoples?

CNA: Yeah, that’s still there. I think it’s less so with my generation. In Nigeria, there are people who believe that the Igbo want to “dominate and take things from us”—that kind of thing. But I’m hopeful. My generation is not as interested in ethnic resentments, although we are aware that they exist.

BF: Do you feel a sense of displacement, being educated and celebrated abroad?

CNA: No. My friends tease me about being a rock star in Nigeria. I’ve never felt, and I know I never will feel, American. I am a Nigerian who spends time in the US.

BF: How did you balance history with fiction in writing Half of a Yellow Sun?

CNA: I didn’t want to have too many “real” people. I have Professor Ezeka, who’s modeled on the Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The character Okeoma is based on a bril­liant Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo; he goes to war and dies, just as Okigbo did. Maybe Half of a Yellow Sun is a war book, but I wanted the war to be secondary. I wanted to write about the characters and the way they are changed by the war—changed in the little ways, the ways that you eat and the way that you look and the way you love.

BF: The Englishman, Richard—who desperately wants to be regarded as a Biafran—witnesses a massacre, and the character Olanna encounters a woman on a train carrying the head of her baby in a calabash. Olanna literally becomes para­- lyzed from the trauma of all that she’s seen, while Richard becomes disturbed by the lack of impact the experience has had on him. You write, “He felt more frightened at the thought that perhaps he had been nothing more than a voyeur. He had not feared for his own life.”

CNA: I imagine that it must have been like that for someone like him. He doesn’t quite grasp that being a white Englishman who makes a choice to be Biafran is quite different from someone who doesn’t necessarily have that choice. The British were so active in that war and unpopular in Biafra, I wanted Richard to be sweet but also exasperating, and the kind of person who’s never belonged anywhere, but one who desperately wants to belong someplace. Researching the war, I read haunting stories about women who carried parts of their murdered children in their bag. It was their last desperate act of mourning. To me, it’s just . . . so difficult. I felt so vulnerable writing that scene.

BF: Is there a character with whom you felt a particularly deep connection?

CNA: I love all my babies [laughs]. I think the character I most admire is Olanna’s sister, Kainene. I think if I’d have told the story from her point of view and gotten more in her head, she would have been less of an enigma, and perhaps I would admire her less. I only saw glimpses of her and thought she was sort of my ideal woman, living life on her own terms. But in the end, I think Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu, is my favorite. He was the easiest to write, so in some ways, he’s the one I most identified with. He is so different from me, of course, the poor little houseboy, but he’s the most inquisitive, the best observer, possibly the smartest. He’s incredibly curious about the world and has a sense of humor. I really wanted him to be the soul of the book, the character that holds everyone together.

BF: You evoke the spirit and the meaning of the Igbo language without expressly translating it. Did you struggle with the language barrier?

CNA: I guess so. I think most if not all of my characters are Igbo people, and it’s important for me to remind my readers. I’m always negotiating both languages. But I am also writing about people, who, like me and many other Nigerians, talk both languages at the same time. My generation of Nigerians, for example, speak Igbo like Spanglish. We can’t say three sentences entirely in Igbo—we usually throw in an English word. And I wanted to capture that.

BF: Were you worried when you were writing Half of a Yellow Moon about how it would be received internationally?

CNA: I was terrified. I was thinking, “Nobody in the US will buy the bloody book because they won’t understand it; it’s not about Darfur [laughs]. And in Nigeria, people will be furious because I’m writing about the ’60s, and the subject’s still so fraught.” I was constantly calling my editor and saying, “I need to do one more revision.” At some point, she said, “Chimamanda, that’s it. You just need to let go.” And because the book had consumed me for four years, when I finally finished it, I became hopelessly depressed. Just distraught. I didn’t know what to do. I’d just wake up and mope. I was crying when I wrote the book. I really was surprised by the depth of my sadness.

BF: Does art has a moral responsibility?

CNA: To me, literature and art are ultimately about humanity. I want to close a novel having learned something or having something hitting me on the head, talking about what it means to be a human being on earth. So if that’s morality, then yes.