Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My Book Should Provoke A Conversation —Chimamanda Ngozi
In her latest novel, Half of A Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2006) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 29, bravely takes on the subject of the Nigerian Civil War, encountering the ordinary people who lived through the tragedies of that dark era of Nigeria's history. After her highly successful debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003) - which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award 2004 (Best Debut Fiction Category); Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2005, Best First Book (Africa Region); Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2005, Best First Book (overall); short-listed for the Orange Prize and long-listed for the Booker Prize - Adichie's new work will re-confirm her place as one of the fresh, but strong, voices emerging from the African literary firmament. In these e-mail exchanges with WALE ADEBANWI, TheNEWS contributing editor and Bill and Melinda Gates Scholar in Cambridge University, Adichie, who is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in the United States, discusses why she took on the difficult subject of the Civil War, the Nigerian tragedy that preceded and succeeded the war and the textual dynamics of her engaging narrative
Q: It is interesting to read Half of a Yellow Sun (HYS), a narrative of the Civil War by someone who was born seven years after the formal surrender. But there is no doubt that your life as an Igbo and as a Nigerian was already conditioned, in particular ways, even before you were born, by what led to that war and the consequences. As a daughter of the post-war era, why do you think it is important to tell this story which constitutes an indirect "witnessing'', if you will, to a history that remains traumatic?
A: I did not choose this subject; it chose me. Both my grandfathers died in Biafra. My parents survived Biafra. I grew up in the shadow of Biafra. I grew up hearing 'before the war' and 'after the war' stories, all the time knowing that the war had divided the memories of my family. I had to write this book to digest for myself this legacy that I carry. Half of a Yellow Sun is fiction based on fact. I state in the author's note that I took some liberties for the purposes of fiction which means that I played with small things – I invented a train station in Nsukka, for example. But I did not play with the big things. I did not let a character be changed by something that did not actually happen. All the major political events in the book are factually correct.
Q: You seem to provoke or invite some harsh criticisms in this narrative from both the Igbo, and particularly, the non-Igbo interpreters of the Civil War. Was this deliberate?
A: It is really sad that there is such a thing as an 'Igbo' interpretation and a 'non-Igbo' interpretation of a history that is supposedly common to all. I don't think anybody ever sets out to invite harsh criticism. I set out to write a story that deals with the realities as I understand them. I am a fiction writer, a teller of human stories, and this implies that I grapple with the good and the bad. I have also learned that one cannot please everyone and one should not try. I do realise that people have strong ideas of what the narrative of the war should be but if this novel pushes some out of their complacency, then it is a good thing. I want this book to provoke a conversation. We need to talk about a history of events we too often minimise or dismiss or speak of in meaningless clichés. We need to talk about it honestly.
Q: There are some topics that would seem to be taboo topics about the war, at least publicly, among Igbo intellectuals that you seem to raise here. For instance, there is the whole question of the official assurances that "No power in Black Africa can defeat us!" which Colonel Madu dismisses as he realises that there are no arms stockpile as expected. What gives you the courage to raise these questions? Fiction?
A: My courage, if we can call it that, comes from a need to tell a human story. I was interested in portraying that time as it actually seemed to have been. That bit was inspired by Biafran Army Commander General Madiebo's book, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. I'm not convinced that the subject of Biafran propaganda is taboo among Igbo intellectuals. I think propaganda is a war tactic that has been used in all wars; it is the psychological equivalent of bombing and shooting. The Biafran leadership possibly over-relied on propaganda because they were not as well-armed as the Nigerian side. The official assurances you refer to were intended to do for Biafra what, say, Winston Churchill's broadcasts to the English people during the Second World War did, even when the actual prospects of victory were dim for the English. Propaganda buoyed and encouraged people and kept them sane. Propaganda also resulted in needless death and suffering because people were not always prepared to flee their towns when they fell.
Q: Let's talk about textualities. What precisely are you trying to say with this work and how would you want it interpreted - even though you have no absolute power over the interpretation? Your project is obviously beyond mere fiction - if there is anything like that, in the first instance. That's a difficult subject you chose. It is possible to do a double reading of this: At one end, you can say this is an affirmation of a particular identity, a beleaguered identity, indeed, one that was savaged in a particular context of history. But, there is the other side of the book that says to that identity that it has got to do more to account for itself and its inherent, if disastrous, contradictions. You veil the grounds for the second reading - as Edward Said said, the text is always hiding something; but by unveiling the first reading, you already provided the possibility of unveiling or revealing the second reading. How do you think the Igbo would react to this?
A: I have no power at all over how this book is interpreted. I realise that many people will come to it differently. I hope that it will be judged first as a work of art, a human story, a story about love above all else, and that readers will keep their preconceived notions aside and enter the world that the book creates. As for how the Igbo should react to this, I don't think there will be one 'Igbo reading.' We Igbo after all are infamous for our distaste for uniformity. Perhaps it might make the Igbo interrogate their history and ask questions about how the civil war has affected their general psyche. It seems to me that it is the Igbo in general, among the larger Nigerian groups, who have the least sense of a cultural identity. The indignities that came after the Biafran defeat clearly contributed to this.
Q: When Chief Emeka Ojukwu published Because I am Involved, which many thought would be "the book", but which turned out to be an indulgent narrative where, among others, a beauty queen was praised - long before the world knew why - I remember a senior colleague publishing, in a newspaper, a short story entitled, Sandra, in response to Chief Ojukwu. It was about a young Igbo woman who was personally devastated by the war. It was to say that this is the true face of the war, those who were "really involved". I kept thinking of Sandra as I read about Olanna and the other women in HYS. These characters perhaps speak to us more honestly and more clearly than the key actors in the war - and their memoirs. Is this reading plausible?
A: Yes. In Chinua Achebe's Girls at War, he writes of true Biafran heroism often happening "below the eye level of the people in this story, in out of the way refugee camps, in the damp tatters, in the hungry and bare-handed courage of the first line of fire." I believe that the true war heroes are the ones about whom nobody writes books, and especially the Biafran women who showed remarkable bravery in keeping families together. I think the reason that the ordinary person's story is more engaging is that it is in those lives that we see the real effects of war – the indignity of starvation, the struggle to hold on to their humanity.
Q: Much of the emerging literary works in the new generation of Nigerian writers – and poets – have as a central theme social anomie – as occasioned by historical, socio-political and economic conditions that we, the "(Anti-) SAP Generation", faced from the early 1980s Nigeria to this period. They deal with these conditions in different ways; from Helon Habila's Waiting for an Angel, Chris Abani's Graceland, Sefi Atta's Everything Good Will Come to Akin Adesokan's Roots in the Sky, and your Purple Hibiscus, among others. You seem to have left this subject a little aside to deal with the Civil War which you must imagine is core to the crisis of the last two decades of devastations wrought by military rule and the attendant democratic struggle. How does HYS relate to these works that I have mentioned and others in that category?
A: I don't think Nigerian writers of my generation necessarily set out to address social anomie in that overt way. As story tellers we set out to reflect our lives and our lives, unfortunately, are circumscribed by social unrest and this invariably emerges as a theme. I think you are right in suggesting the connection between our present and our past. We cannot begin to make sense of our present and of our future until we have engaged properly with our past. Many things that are politically important today, from the concept of geopolitical regions to the question of oil revenue allocation, are better understood (and perhaps resolved?) if we take into account the years before and during the civil war.
Q: When I finished reading this book, I kept thinking of James Baldwin, the African-American author of The Fire Next Time – among other great works. He is my favourite African-American writer, by the way. Baldwin was provoked in one of his books to describe the African-Americans as a "bastard people" in the context of their history and what they had made of that history. Isn't that what we have become, against the backdrop of your narrative and what we witness daily in our fatherland – if we can still call it that? Look at what we have made of the stupendously-endowed country that Nature gave to us. What is the matter with us as a people?
A: I wish I knew the answer to that. There are times when, observing Nigeria, I am filled with both despair and disgust. We set such low standards for ourselves. Politically, there is much that is cyclic about Nigeria. The same things (and people) are repeated over and over again. But we also have to look at ourselves and our culpability – we are a country of people who complain that the roads are dirty and yet throw rubbish out of our car windows. I am a James Baldwin fan, too, by the way. I especially admire his novel Another Country.
Q: We can leave textualities behind and consider eventualities. At the close of the HYS there is the euphoria that the war was over. Some understandable relief in the collapsed Republic of Biafra, given the horrendous, and indeed unspeakable, suffering. But, when one reconsiders things in the context of our post-Civil War experience, one might like to suggest, without being irresponsible, that the euphoria was misplaced. Is the war really over? Compare and contrast, if you will, the decapitation of the fleeing body of Ikejide, Kainene's steward, by shrapnel in your narrative of war with the beheading of Gideon Akaluka in December 1994 by Muslim fundamentalists in Kano, who then placed their victim's head on a spear and danced around Kano chanting, "Allahu Akbar". And you say the war is over? Take some of the key elements who assassinated General Ironsi and his host, Col. Fajuyi, in 1966, thereby provoking the conditions that produced the genocidal rage in the north. Some of these elements were to feature prominently in the now regrettable recruitment of General Obasanjo - a Civil War hero who received the Biafran surrender - to head a collapsing enterprise in 1999, thirty years after. After seven years of a scandalous presidency, complete with the massacres of Odi and Zaki-Biam, do you still say the war is over? Think of the Tarok-Fulani war; the war that OPC has levied against the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo or the Ijaw in Lagos, which President Obasanjo had to describe at a point as "total madness". Not to even talk of the cruel derision that the idea of "Igbo presidency" provokes in the inner recesses of certain quarters, even as MASSOB leader, Ralph Uwazuruike, languishes in jail for re-raising the Biafran flag. And they say the war is over?
A: This is a great question - and answer - Wale! I think it is clear that in a metaphorical sense, we are still at war. What amazes me about Nigeria is how willingly and easily we forget, or pretend to forget our recent history. I have always believed that we Nigerians can live together but it is (sometimes artificial) scarcity that politicises identity. Remember that it was the idea of the Igbo 'taking over everything' in the event of a unitary decree that was partly used to fuel the massacres of Igbo people before the war. If we had a real middle-class, if jobs and security and energy were things we could fairly take for granted, then I think the conflicts that masquerade as ethnic or religious would reduce. But of course I realise that there will always be identity-based conflict. Religious fundamentalism is a dangerous thing that is sweeping not only the North but the South of Nigeria. I suspect it has a lot to do with uncertainty, with a country that seems to be spiralling out of country. Ours is a country in which the individual is abused and made to feel helpless by the state – old pensioners fall down and die while pleading to be paid their well-earned and meagre pension, for example – and so it is not surprising that Christianity has become a prosperity-preaching enterprise, that we constantly talk about God, but do very little to act what we say. This religiosity worries me very much because it shuts off debate and makes it impossible for people to take responsibility. People steal money and say 'We thank God." Our planes crash because of a substandard aviation and we say 'It was God's will.' Disasters happen and instead of public officials demanding accountability, they say we need to fast. Churches spring up everywhere and yet corruption remains the order of the day. We should ask our politicians never to mention God but to work in such a way that we citizens will see what they have done and attribute it to God. I hope that Uwazuruike and leaders of other so-called ethnic militias will be released. Dissent is not treason. Problems only fester if we suppress them. We need to ask why these groups exist in the first place, why MASSOB has such wide grassroots support for example. If people are disenfranchised, they will look for alternative ways of political expression. And history shows us that the strategy of using might to deal with issues of justice is doomed to fail.
Q: Still on Ikejide's Head (of State), if you can call it that. It is said that, "His body kept running and it didn't have a head", until it eventually collapsed. Is the slain steward a metaphor for our country?
A: I don't consciously use metaphors in my writing. I suppose it could be read as that. For me, it was simply Ikejide's body running without a head. It was a story told me by an acquaintance in London whose family had left Nigeria after the war. He had not been back since but he said he was haunted by this image: he was a little boy and his town was about to fall and there was an air raid and he and his family members were running when he saw a man beheaded by a piece of shrapnel but the body kept running for a while before it fell. It broke my heart, imagining a little boy seeing this.
Q: Let's talk about the "goat sound" that one of the key leaders in the First Republic is said to have made while begging the soldiers not to kill him in 1966 and the ways in which your characters seem to enjoy telling the story over and over again. It reads like one of those unforgivable things we say across ethnic groups in Nigeria about one another. Don't you think we have been, in part, cruelly sundered by such grotesquely malicious statements? "A goat begging not to be killed: mmee-mmee-mmee". Did we not all become, in the end, goats begging not to be killed by either General Buhari, Babangida, or Abacha and the murderous soldiers who seized our country?
A: Not all the characters enjoy telling this story and I think it is important to note that. It is also important to note that for the people who did enjoy it, it was an admittedly sad way of voicing their resentment about their political exclusion when Igbo children were not allowed to go to Northern schools and the Igbo Union had to start its own school. It is a shame, however, how we seem to delight in ridiculous stereotypes of one another. What colonialism has done is that it has made us ashamed of our tribal identities. I find it risible that our politicians talk of being de-tribalised. It really is a meaningless word in that context because the dictionary definition is that one does not belong to a tribal group. Rather than demonise tribe, our politicians should accentuate fairness, honesty, meritocracy. It does not matter to me where my president comes from as long as the president does not steal, can read, listens to people and cares about the lives of ordinary citizens. I do understand that ours is a history made fractious by politicised ethnicity. But it is not tribe that ruined us. It is injustice. It is corruption. The fact that ethnicity has been used in politicised ways in the past should not be a reason for us to deny who we are. A Korean friend recently spoke about how being Americanised and not speaking proper Korean was considered a faux pas in Korea. I was impressed. In Nigeria, we would be admiring people who did not speak their native languages. Our self-confidence is so fragile that it is frightening. My version of an ideal Nigeria is one in which we celebrate who we are, in which the Ijaw and Hausa and Tiv teach their children to speak their languages, in which we learn our culture and history first and then possibly that of other groups, in which Nigerians don't keep trying to prove how European they can be, in which we understand that English and our native languages are not mutually exclusive. I have often been asked why I identify so strongly as an Igbo woman. It is a question that baffled me because it assumed that I shouldn't identify as Igbo and therefore had to explain it. Shouldn't the presence, rather than the absence, of that identity be the norm? I would not be who I am today if I had not grown up in an Igbo-speaking family, surrounded by Igbo norms and values.
Q: The image of Chief Ojukwu - who you call "His Excellency" in the book - that comes out of HYS is not all flattering. But, Chimamanda, what you do is to make your fatal jabs at "The Leader" so subtle that one could miss it. Of course, there is no denying the gallant efforts of standing up to mass murderers and those who shielded them and benefited from the edifice of blood, and the sheer mass appeal of Ojukwu's elocution in that era... The narrative recognises all that and does not gloss over them. Yet, in interesting ways, we are also told that "His Excellency" was also "His Excellen-Sleaze" - my word! Chief Ojukwu was having a ball, literally and metaphorically, while thousands perished! Remember the talk in the book about "His Excellency" taking a ranking soldier into detention because he wanted to sleep with his wife? This is fiction, no doubt – and perhaps it has no relation to actual living persons! However, one is struck by the capacity of leaders for the most capricious acts that were raised here. For me, it may have been someone else and not Chief Ojukwu, but to have had a ball in the middle of all that suffering could only be the preserve of "The Leader". How do you react to my reading?
A: We often easily judge characters who have played major roles in historical events and condemn them in ways lacking in nuance. I do not at all think that Chief Ojukwu is an ogre who was having a good time while people died. I think he was a complex man who made mistakes and who, like most men thrust into war leadership, was unwilling to face defeat even when it was sitting beside him. I don't think he enjoyed the fact that so many people died but he, again like most leaders, was removed from day to day refugee camp realities. There is much I admire in Chief Ojukwu. I respect the idealism that he seemed to have in his younger days, when he made choices that went against his life of privilege. I admire the courage it must have taken to make the choices he did before the war. I understand – and to understand is not to excuse – his fears and uncertainties, which made it difficult for him to trust, as the accounts of ex-officers show, his own army. He was only a few years older than I presently am when he became the popular leader of a country of independent-minded people. Read Ntienyong Akpan's account of the war The Struggle for Secession. It is quite beautifully-written and is in some ways an obvious 'anti-Ojukwu' account, if not a self-exculpatory one, but it presents an interesting portrait of the man Chief Ojukwu was. There were rumours of his affairs during the war among the Biafran middle class and I wanted to portray how he was seen by the different characters – Kainene is cynical, Olanna and Odenigbo are respectful, Richard is adoring, Madu is contemptuous. But this is not a book that is concerned with the leaders of Biafra, it is concerned with how the choices these leaders made affected ordinary people. I'm pleased to hear that word 'subtle' because I am convinced that fiction, especially that based on historical fact, has to be subtle to succeed.
Q: In a way, your narrative can be described as part of the elaborate attempts by intellectuals to have a closure as regards the Civil War. But this seems a repeatedly failing enterprise. Take even the institutional attempts like the Oputa Panel. Some people took especial exception to Igbo claims presented to the panel; even the acrimony that ensued re-inscribed the whole social and political technology of injustice and inequities that, in the first place, predisposed the country to war in 1967. Can we ever have closure? And, are we not walking towards another cataclysm?
A: For me this book is not an act of closure, it is an act of remembering. I don't believe in the concept of closure. I think that the traumas we have experienced remain an indelible part of who we are; we carry it with us always. However, I do believe in constructive dialogue and reaching some rapprochement. I think that people who took 'exception' to the Oputa Panel as well as those who refused to appear, are people for whom their own personal interest trumps everything else. We should acknowledge what happened in Biafra. We should accept that injustices occurred. Often people have said, "but it wasn't only this group who suffered," as if we should somehow have a competing of injustice narratives or as if that means ignoring one group because others suffered too. There is room to acknowledge everyone and we should do so.
Q: You set much of this story in the University of Nigeria and university town of Nsukka, like much of Purple Hibiscus. Are you done with this much-beloved environment of your birth and upbringing or are there more coming from crazy academics?
A: Nsukka is a town I love and more important for fiction, a town I know well. It is easier to write about what you know. I am certainly not done.
There is Europe all over this book; either in the Walter Rodneyian How Europe Under-developed Africa sense or in the Bill Ashcroftian sense of The Empire Writes Back. Why are you counter-posing Africa to Europe? It sometimes reads like you are reversing Hegel, capturing Europe as the savage-Other. At other times, it reads as if you are deliberately encountering Europe through its abjected and derided Other – Africa.
A: I wanted to engage with the presence of Europe, perhaps not continental Europe but the UK. How can one write about post-independence Nigeria without engaging with the British presence? I believe firmly that independence, if we can call it that, set Nigeria up to fail. What we Nigerians have to take responsibility for is the extent of that failure.
Q: Let us talk about sexualities, adult-rated and sometimes adulterated in this narrative. I find it interesting the ways in which sex is under-scored in the book as people climbed the bed even in the middle of the war. In the end, our basic humanity survives even the most horrendous circumstances. One could read the exhibited sexualities as an affirmation of life in the middle of mass slaughter. How do you hope that it will be read - I mean, beyond the relief that the sex acts give the reader in this, for the most account, psychologically-draining and intense book?
A: Interesting word-play, Wale. I hope the sexuality in this book will be read as the characters' holding on to their humanity in the midst of death and uncertainty. It is also a celebration of love, particularly the complex, flawed love between Olanna and Odenigbo. It is also about the ability of love to transcend sexuality, in the case of Richard and Kainene. It is an atrocious violation, in the case of a war rape. It is central to what (and how) we are human and never more so, in my opinion, than in war situations when our very humanity is in question.
At the risk of your accusing me of seeking for stereo-types in your stories, I think the image of the effeminate, under-sexualised white male is initially over-played here. Was this counter-posed to the thoroughly sexualised - and routinised – world of the black male (with a capital M)? Also, there is something distinctively feminist about the way you practically sanctioned some sexual transgressions in this work. I suspect that is why at least one scene of such transgressions by a woman and her sister's husband is a bit unreal.
A: Or, perhaps because you approached that scene with certain preconditioned ideas? I am happily feminist, but I never start my fiction with ideology. There are obvious suggestions in earlier sections about the attraction between the two characters and so the act is not entirely unpredictable. It is up to the reader to decide whether it was an act of revenge or not. Olanna is a character that is in many ways NOT a feminist, at least in the earlier sections. I don't think Richard is a stereotype. In the world of the book, we see that his diffidence comes from a keen search for identity. His being 'under-sexualised' says more about Kainene and their relationship than it says about him, really. I find the question of a 'stereotype' often problematic on the whole. Sometimes in running away from the idea of 'stereotype,' in a manic desire to be 'original,' writers produce completely contrived fiction. I can sense this when I read. Writing from a place of imagined and experienced truth is what I am interested in. A familiar image may result but it is the freshness that one brings to it that matters. Every story has been written before, anyway.
In HYS, the initial reluctance and eventual raping of the poor bar girl strikes me powerfully. War does not only savage us, it is also capable of making savages of even the best among us.
A: I think that one of the great horrors of war is how brutalising it can be to ordinary good people, how choices are reduced to the barest of minimums, how easily what we call 'civilisation' slips away.
Q: Olanna's earlier protests and protestations against marrying Odenigbo were based on avoiding the "prosaic partnership" that marriage flattens relationships into. It is a protest against the everyday-ness of things which eventually catches up with everyone, as it did Olanna. We can't hear her complain about that banality when she eventually settled into it. Did she grow up?
A: But we don't get a chance to see if it does become a prosaic partnership in peacetime. Remember that her decision was made in the context of the uncertainty of war. But Wale (and yes, I am needling you!), isn't she being stereotypical by agreeing to marriage? Isn't ascribing her ostensible peace with marriage to her 'growing up' too familiar and stereotypical? Perhaps my point is made.
Q: To be praised by the ultimate wordsmith, Prof. Chinua Achebe, must feel cool – excuse my lingo. You came almost fully made, says Achebe, in the blurb of the book. What's in that making?
A: I was so pleased, so grateful, to get Achebe's seal of approval. I've never met him. My editor in New York sent him the book and I remember the afternoon she called to say she had heard from him and that he could not believe someone my age had written this book. It was not just that he said something, it was WHAT he said that meant so much to me. What's in this 'making' he refers to? I think I have been blessed with a gift and that I made the conscious decision to work very hard to make something of this gift. I am an incredibly hard worker, perhaps a bit of a perfectionist – I will revise a single sentence fifty times until I am pleased with it. I have a singular commitment to my work and I am fortunate to have the support of loved ones, my parents, my sisters and brothers and close friends are an incredible source of support. An artist always needs to know that there is a safe place that one can turn to.
Q: You always play with cross-cultural marriages and relationships. I know you have a brother who is married to a Yoruba lady. Chimamanda, it will be interesting to see how you go yourself in real life – or how you are going already!
A: You forget my nephew, the wonderful, smart, adorable 13-year old Tokunbo Oremule, from my sister Ijeoma's 1'first marriage. Yes, it will be interesting to see how I go or how I am going in real life, indeed. As for playing with cross-cultural relationships in my work, I think it is my way of simply making a point about possibility. Relationships where both people are of a common culture are generally easier, but sometimes joy and love come clothed in a different culture and it is our responsibility to grab it. This is the only chance we have to live in this complex, wondrous world.