A blazing sun: The story teller returns

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Note: Reproduced here for archival purposes only. First published in 2006.

I write this for James Meredith, the distinguished first black student of OLEMISS, and for John Hawkins, the distinguished first black Cheerleader of OLEMISS. Courage counts for something. Yes!

My time is no longer mine and I miss my Muse running alongside my railroad tracks urging me to say something, anything. In between stealing sideways glances at my Muse and struggling mightily to satisfy demons born of my life’s choices, I have managed to hold on to just one passion – reading. I just finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, Half of a Yellow Sun and if I don’t read another book for a long time, memories of this epic tome will keep me warm in the hibernation of the coming winter. But first, before I slink off into the trenches of my own doing, I must rise to salute Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the finest story tellers to come out of Africa in a long time. Out of the seething, smoldering ruins of our collective horrid judgment, a giant Phoenix is born, worthy prodigy of the master Phoenix Chinua Achebe. Achebe lives! Adichie lives! Hurrah for the resilience of the human spirit. Chimamanda, I celebrate the mystery of you, and I luxuriate in the reassuring warmth of your gift. I salute you, silent witness to a story that never left, that won’t go away. I salute you, insistent bugler of yet another coming.

This book starts out being about Nigeria in the sixties and the Biafran war. Ultimately, it is about our collective destiny in that failed state called Nigeria. A delightful cast of well-formed characters carries the burden of this book rather effortlessly: The cast is led by a set of twins; the vivacious Olanna and the enigmatic, mysterious Kainene, renaissance women, well schooled, and well traveled. A boy Ugwu arrives from the village to be a houseboy to “Master” Odenigbo, a university don and we witness the growth of the boy and Biafra’s dreams (and demise) through his awe-struck eyes. There is also Richard an English man loitering in Nigeria as a writer who also becomes Kainene’s lover.  It is an expertly written book, professionally edited, one that raises the bar for how great books should be written. In Half of a Yellow Sun, we see mature relationships, strong men and women comfortable in their individual roles within relationships and actually enjoying themselves. There is the liberated Olanna who actually turns down marriage proposals from her long-term lover because she is enjoying the relationship. Refreshing.

When I think of this book, I think of words like, awe, admiration. And envy. Envy at such a beautiful product. Adichie manages to cobble together several complex stories and she carries out this feat with amazing, unceasing, unrelenting grace. In writing the book, Adichie makes the point eloquently that we are the sum of our experiences. Harrowing is another word that will not let go of me – the ethnic cleansing, the inhumanity of it all and you ask, for what purpose? Everything is scarce; joy, food, sex, and when it comes, it is devoured in joyful song. What is it about sex and war? The sex when it happens is luscious and the reader’s lungs and loins erupt in unadulterated joy. Adichie brings together all of the principal characters for a day of reckoning. Well, almost all the principal characters. Unless I missed it, I did not read any mention of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe. You can almost forgive Adichie for not mentioning Azikiwe, Awolowo in this epic. They probably deserve to be deleted from memory, who knows…  Besides, this is a novel. Go write your own if you are that enamoured of those two figures.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a muffled collage of courage, grace, rage, injustice, horror, and the resilience of the human spirit. Breathtaking, simply stunning is how I would describe the experience of reading Adichie’s literary salvo. Reading this book was akin to taking an unforgettable field trip, an eclectic tour through the dainty halls of several eclectic minds. It is hard to believe that only one human being wrote this epic. And yes, in my humble opinion, this book is the first epic to come out of Nigeria since Chinua Achebe’s trilogy of books: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God. This book is so good, it is easy to forget that this is the product of research, of a most unjust war, a pogrom that came and went many moons before this story teller was born. I have to admit that I bought the book expecting it to be contrived – after all I thought, Adichie was not there during the war, what can she tell me about the war? I was pleasantly disappointed that my expectation was roundly rebuffed by this writer’s formidable strengths.

Adichie pulls off the stunning feat of fully immersing the reader in a past that is more glorious than today’s quagmire, civil war or no civil war. She captures with unnerving clarity, the unctuous self righteousness of Nigeria’s ruling class and her conniving intellectuals – a cultural pathology that thrives to this day. In the book as in today’s reality, we witness the aping of alien values, the total lack of originality in anything the contemporary Nigerian embarks on, from creative writing to creative kleptomania. The most comical representation of our condition is Harrison the Nigerian cook proudly displaying his knowledge of western recipes, and ribald ignorance of Nigerian recipes: He proudly shows off one of his signature counterfeit productions – “a bean and mushroom soup, a pawpaw medley, chicken in a cream sauce speckled with greens and a lemon tart as pudding!” Graham Greene should be dying of laughter in his grave.

Half of a Yellow Sun is several complex stories, simply told. Hints of pulp fiction tug at the reader’s arrogance and it says to the reader, Get off your high horse – why must communication be obtuse? The style grows on you, surprises you like a charming lover in the night, grabbing you from behind, stirring your loins, startling you with brutal clarity and slashing a smile-gash in your happy face.  And there is beauty in the book’s simplicity. It is sheer pleasure to luxuriate in the poetry of pretty words strung together daintily like lace.  And the attention to detail is intimidating – weeks after reading this book, I can still smell the flowers and the men’s cologne. Adichie does have a thing for flowers and scents.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a messy journey narrated with neat precision, at times, told languidly, at other times, told with malaria-feverishness and sometimes you wonder where this is all leading, where is Biafra in all of this, etc, but then if it was a tidy story it would be an awful book. Life is a mess. This book is a mess. This is a good book, this is a great book. And sometimes, the book does drift, seemingly aimlessly. One of the main characters, Olanna goes to Kano to visit an ex-boyfriend. The purpose of this trip is not quite clear – why this restlessness other than to show that an Igbo once loved a Northerner? In any case, any seeming drift in the book is more than compensated for by the delightful story oozing from virtually every sentence. It is like sitting in a verandah in Lagos (choose your favourite Nigerian city) and reveling in raw street theater.  The book’s chapters move deftly back and forth between the early sixties and the late sixties, between a gathering fear (apologies to the poet Olu Oguibe) and a relentless pogrom. This technique is effective in keeping the reader fully engaged in an absorbing story. Reading the book, I felt like I was watching a gripping movie. This should be made into a full length movie for those who choose not to or are unable to read about our history.

And three decades after that shame of a war, not much has changed. The corruption is eerily the same; actually one gets tired of reading about these things, the past posing as the present tense. Only in Nigeria.  We see ourselves in virtually all of the characters – Chief Okonji – the Finance Minister is a sadly familiar caricature, not much different from today’s jokesters in Aso Rock. Refried beans must keep for ever. Too bad for Nigeria. Adichie says this book is about Biafra. It seems to me that this is more than Biafra. This is really all about the horrid fate of the long-suffering people trapped in that failed state called Nigeria. We see African intellectuals at their most unctuous and self-serving. We see them in their nakedness, aping rather uncritically Western values, trying so desperately to be white folks. Graham Greene would love this book. The intellectuals put together a babble-fest at every opportunity as they cry louder than the bereaved in alien tongues. Nothing has changed today; if anything, things have gotten worse. After all these years, Adichie’s book is eerily contemporary because the social and cultural pathologies that gave birth to the pogrom called Biafra are roaring alive today, very much alive and hungry for another death of a dream.

In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie adroitly exposes the near-myth of physical geographic boundaries and sews together new geographic vistas that are not necessarily contiguous, and she challenges the reader to think out of the box of traditional relationships. Yes, the world has changed since Biafra. The reader upon reading the book can feel the palpable and lingering frustration of witnessing the fraying of hurtful memories, of injustices wilting away on the bloodied picket fences of changing boundaries and allegiances. Enemies are marrying enemies, creating new allegiances and new enemies. We do not know our friends, alas.

Adichie may be accused of reaching too much for balance, for objectivity. She is not going to endure herself to Biafra die-hards. This book is definitely not an uncritical sentimental hagiography of Biafra; indeed some people would be displeased at the searing look into the perfidy, the moral and leadership decay within the rank and file of the Biafran army. Adichie exposes the hypocrisy and the self righteousness of those who convinced the populace to go to a war they had no business fighting. Good warriors negotiate from a position of strength. From my perspective, the Biafran war was an unnecessary turkey shoot and Adichie’s story spreads the responsibility for that pogrom to all, not just the Federal side.

Half of a Yellow Sun is perhaps not the definitive book about Biafra. Those interested in an extensive reading on Biafra may do well to also do their own research, starting with the useful glossary of books at the back of Half of a Yellow Sun. War is war, full of broken limbs, bloody calabashes filled with decapitated heads and broken dreams. Adichie is not able to tell us what sets this particular war apart from the others. She does not try to and in a counter-intuitive way, I see this as one of the book’s strengths. Adichie does not try too much to please. The good news is that there is not a shortage of books about Biafra. Dr. Daniel Awduche has compiled a great list here. The book’s one strength is that although it is marketed as a book about Biafra, the reader’s senses are assaulted by a panorama of images that envelopes just about every land that is trapped in that country called Nigeria. The book is an amazing journey that is best savored by actually reading it.  Regardless, Adichie does a great job of confronting the enigma that was Biafra – in my view, a tragically flawed reaction to a horrid injustice

Adichie’s book is likely to stoke the debate about the use of contrived English to perhaps improved readability in the West and reach a wider market, a debate that was started with the release of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation. In the book, the hapless character Harrison employs a version of English that is strikingly similar to Iweala’s experiment with rotten, I would say, contrived English in Beasts of No Nation: “You are not knowing how to bake German chocolate cake?” “You are not knowing what is rhubarb crumble?” (p 166) Contrived English trumps Pidgin English one more time. It is mercifully not as cloying, not as annoying as Iweala’s abuse of the technique and Adichie executes it quite well. In a sense, she may have bestowed some credibility to Iweala’s experiment. Regardless once senses that the African writer still struggles to reach a mass market in the West through the use of interesting techniques – for instance Igbo sentences are italicized and immediately translated in English: “Yes! Yes! Ojukwu, nye anyi egbe! Give us guns! Iwe di anyi n’obi! There is anger in our hearts! (p 171)

Adichie does not look back in anger, she does not look back with just a clinical detachment; she makes us look back at history galloping back in fast furious reverse to challenge our current condition. Our collective destiny is history, fast forwarded, in reverse. Adichie’s book challenges us to have courageous conversations and assign responsibilities for the pogrom to all parties so that we may never pass this way again. It is a crying shame that after all these years there are no fitting monuments, no usable museum to the memory of Biafra. Adichie’s book has put all of that to rest. The restless spirits of our victims rustle through the pages of Half of a Yellow Sun. Buy a copy of this epic, read, relax and await yet another coming of our collective poor judgment.

Half of a Yellow Sun hints at shades of everything the reader has experienced, indeed we are the sum of our experiences. There are strong hints of George Orwell’s Animal Farm as the revolution that was Biafra turns into a dog-eat-dog race for survival. In his stirring poetry, the character, Okeoma the poet-warrior bears strong hints of Chris Okigbo:

“Brown

With the fish-glow sheen of a mermaid,

She appears,

Bearing silver dawn

And the sun attends her,

The mermaid

Who will never be mine.” p 324

In Half of a Yellow Sun, the telling of our story breaks the reader into a thousand emotional pieces. It is like the story teller takes a wooden bat to all of your conscience and exposes you for the fake that you are. I have not felt this way since visiting the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Hector Petersen Museum in Soweto.  This book is a museum. And if you care about Nigeria, you must visit this museum.

 I salute you, Chimamanda.