Diverse December has been championed by Naomi at The Writes of Women and Dan at Utterbiblio as a response to the underrepresentation of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers by agents, publisher’s, book prizes and reviewers. You can read more about the initiative here at Naomi’s blog. A quick look through my TBR showed that while I had quite a few books by these writers, I clearly wasn’t in any hurry to read them. Does this show a bias in my reading? On a subconscious level, possibly, so by taking part in Diverse December I hope to go some way to rectifying that.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun takes its name from the emblem for Biafra, the secessionist state in south eastern Nigeria that existed from 1967 to 1970 and whose existence is seen as one of the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, which resulted in the deaths of millions through fighting and starvation. Adichie’s explores the existence and eventual demise of Biafra through the impact it had on ordinary people, bringing life to statistics, highlighting an often forgotten war and creating witnesses of us all.
The novel focuses on twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, members of the Igbo elite. The sisters are dissimilar in looks and in temperament, veering from mutual loyalty to distrust. Olanna is the mistress of Odenigbo, a university professor and intellectual while Kainene is in love with the shy Richard, a writer and English man who has fallen in with the Biafran cause. The novel opens with an exploration of the privileged lives the four lead along with that of Odenigbo’s impoverished but smart houseboy Ugwu. At first, the novel feels like a sophisticated campus tale, with romance, infidelity, protracted conversations about African politics and soft humour as Olanna and Ugwu adjust to academic life. Ugwu’s observations of his master and the visitors to the house provide the reader with the political background to the formation of Biafra and it is because of Odenigbo’s political leanings that he treats Ugwu with kindness and furnishes him with an education.
The smallest of characters are finely drawn, with warmth and a keen eye and we are given time to become familiar with them – they are not perfect, but they are all passionate. By the time rumours of war become all out conflict and their lives are thrown in to disarray in the most unimaginable ways we are invested in these people and their devastation is painful to witness.
Olanna and Kainene deal with the war in different ways. Olanna turns her back on the privileged lifestyle she has been brought up in, in favour of supporting Odenigbo and his social principles. They are both sorely tested by the chaos that ensues, but while Odenigbo retreats to drink and depression, Olanna finds an inner strength that helps her to survive the worst of what she sees.
If she had died, if Odenigbo and Baby and Ugwu had died, the bunker would still smell like a freshly tilled farm and the sun would still rise and the crickets would still hop around. The war would continue without them. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die.
Kainene is less principled than her somewhat naïve sister, realising that the war is not just a fight for independence, but a struggle for resources and her experience of running her father’s businesses allows her to use the ensuing situation to her own advantage.
Adichie captures perfectly the tenuous nature of nationality and self-actualisation, commenting that
At Independence in 1960, Nigeria was a collection of fragments held together in a clasp
These fragments split apart in the most horrendous of ways, as the characters witness massacre, death and starvation on a massive scale. By showing us the small details, Adichie in turn brings to life the bigger picture. Through literature she gives shape and voice to a now forgotten war.
The structure of the book switches back and forth in time, creating interesting moments of suspense and often asking the reader to reassess what has gone before. What we thought we knew is not the true version, we still have more to learn. Each chapter ends with the extract from a book written about the history of Biafra, presumably by Kainene’s husband Richard but this interesting book within a book device is deftly used as Adichie’s parting shot. Africa’s history is for the African to tell. The reader is still being asked to reassess what has come before.
Adichie writes beautiful prose with a clarity and a strength that creates unforgettable images. A woman on a train carries her daughter’s head in a basket, reminiscing about doing her braids. A body continues to run after being decapitated and a cheerful airport worker is shot down in the harshest manner.
Yet, despite the often harrowing subject matter, “Half of a Yellow Sun” is a beautiful book. Humanity is the constant light that shines through this narrative which is as often a testament to human compassion as it is to human cruelty. It is both historical and prescient, with echoes of Iraq and hints of what might come about in Syria. Adichie’s powerful achievement is to take her reader straight to ordinary lives laid waste by the manoeuvrings of dictators, multinational financiers and foreign powers. Half of a Yellow Sun may be a political story, but it is above all a story, told with grace, humour and beauty.
What will you be reading for Diverse December? If you want some inspiration, follow @DiverseDecember on Twitter or use the hashtag #diversedecember. I’m currently reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu and plan to read a few more, if Christmas doesn’t get in the way too much!
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 97
Number Remaining: 649