Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Window on Biafra

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, got a thumbs up from every member of our book club at our meeting last night. The novel was discussed up and down and inside out after a lovely supper cooked by Shashi (though it did seem a little wrong to be discussing a book in which the characters are literally starving to death, with comfortable full tums.)

I think the novel profoundly affected all of us.

Renata and I who had grown up in Britain, remember the shocking footage of the war in Biafra shown on the television news, and especially the images of starving children with bloated bellies. It was the first time ever that such a thing had been shown. (Ethiopia ... Darfur ... haven't we just got so blase about the images of starvation since then?) Our Malaysian friends, and Naho in Japan who joined in our conversation via Skype (ah the miracles of modern technology!) had not heard of the war at all, or only heard it mentioned in the vaguest terms and so were grateful to learn about it.

I lived in Nigeria in the early '80's and can attest to the fact that the war was not a topic of conversation.*

I was living in the North of the country, so far away geographically from what was then Biafra, so perhaps that was part of the reason. One of my closest friends there was an Igbo - a physics graduate from Nsukka called Frederick, who was posted to my school as a "Youth Corper" - and a handful of the girls I taught were too, so I learned much about the culture of the Igbo from them. But I can remember only one person really talking about the Biafran war with me - a taxi driver who had been a soldier with the Nigerian forces during the conflict and who had returned home badly wounded.

Adichie gives the conflict a very human face by taking her time to create a cast of characters we really care about - especially the twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, and the houseboy Ugwu who comes to lives with Odenigbo, (an intellectual of revolutionary persuasion) and Olanna's love interest. (The group felt that Adichie had probably struggled much harder with the wimpy British journalist, Richard, Kainene's lover, who decides to throw his lot in with the Igbo people .) There are a number of very well realised minor characters including the twins' wealthy parents, and Richard's comic houseboy Harrison, who delights in concocting British dishes.

The main events are seen from the vantage point of these Olanna, Richard and Ugwu in turn.

"Unputdownable" was a word that was used rather a lot, last night. As I said before, I was a bit thrown initially by what I felt were strong similarities (probably imagined?) to Romesh Gunasekera's Reef, but was quickly drawn into the book by all the human drama - love, infidelity, sisterly rivalry, family tensions, black magic. Then, when the war came, for me the physical book in my hands melted and became an open door. I wasn't watching Biafra in black and white news broadcasts - I was there. Yes, there were of course harrowing scenes, but it is the story of day to day survival in the face of starvation that Adichie portrays so well.

You can read an excerpt from the novel here, and do check out Adichie's website. You might also like to revisit Janet Tay's excellent review of the novel from Starmag.

I was wondering how the novel (first published in the US) would be received in Africa, and was very moved by the comments left by Nigerians invited to tell their own Biafra story, particularly those who mention that reading the novel gave them their first opportunity to talk about their own experiences or to find out from their parents what really happened. This is an episode in Nigeria's past that very much needed to be written about and Adichie makes that history highly accessible.

(*It isn't in the school textbooks either.)


Janet said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Sharon! She really is a terrific writer. Definitely a rising star, if not one already. Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, is not too bad but lacks the sophistication of her second. Can't wait to read her subsequent books. Discovered her from a short story in The New Yorker! That fantastic mag has been the platform for so many good writers. Uwem Akpan is someone else to look forward to. I'll be doing his review next in June, when the book comes out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for including this into your blog, very informative, especially since I just read this book but couldn't make the book club meet.
Enjoyed the book lots.