I finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun a day before April 14, 2016, which marks the 2nd anniversary of #BringBackOurGirls. Back in 2014, the militant group Boko Haram kidnapped about 276 Nigerian schoolgirls from the Chibok Government Secondary School in the middle of the night. Over the weekend, Pope Francis also arrived at the isle of Lesbos in Greece to show support to the Syrian refugees. To date, there are 4.6 million refugees from Syria, with 6.6 million displaced within the country after civil war broke out in 2011.
With the news cycle and a heart-wrenching experience with the book, all of these things were on my mind.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel set in Nigeria in the ’60s — before, during and after the country’s independence, followed by a brutal civil war. The twins Olanna and Kainene are two of the story’s main characters, whose lives shift dramatically at every turn of event that rocked the country’s political, economic and social stability.
The twin’s lives are intertwined: Olanna leads a life with Odenigbo, her “revolutionary lover” as Kainene calls him, along with a group of intellectuals they drink and opine with in the cool evenings; Kainene opts to run their family businesses along with her lover, an aspiring British writer, Richard Churchhill.
“This Odenigbo imagines himself to be quite the freedom fighter. He’s a mathematician but he spends all his time writing newspaper articles about his own brand of mishmash African socialism. Olanna adores that. They don’t seem to realize how much of a joke socialism is,” said Kainene to Richard.
Out of all the books I read this year, I stayed with this the longest. There’s really nothing like historical fiction to pull you in and Adichie has the ability to immerse you gradually into the story’s drama. My introduction to her work was through a later novel, Americanah, of which I truly loved. I still remember the couple that the book centers on as if they were my own lovers. Ifemelu, Obinze.
After a little less than two weeks of reading Half, I didn’t expect to weep at the last page. It was almost midnight and the sudden disappearance of Kainene was too swift, too abrupt for me. I reread the last few pages over again to be sure that I didn’t miss any detail. But just like Olanna and Richard’s devastation, her disappearance was something I had to accept. It was here that I witnessed Adichie’s powerful prose and storytelling once again, the same kind that left me pining for nonexistent yet very real people.
…it’s wrong of you to think that love leaves room for nothing else. It’s possible to love something and still condescend to it. (Kainene)
In addition to the twins and their partners, the story unfolds with the perspective of Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu, who hails from a poor village. Together, the characters weave the narrative of Nigeria — the tribal conflicts, its garri, the pro-independence rallies, the bore of unbroken happiness, Biafra.
I’m finding it hard to whittle down the knowledge I gained from the book, but what little I can is worth noting. My lens and perspective are limited, confined to my own experience as a Filipino immigrant in the Bay Area. In addition to Adichie, I’ve also been drawn to the work of another Nigerian writer, photographer and art historian, Teju Cole. I read his book Every Day is for the Thief about two years ago, marveling at the similarities of our home countries, how his and mine greet each day in parallels. He writes about everyday life in Lagos, how easy it is for policemen to create conditions that would cause one (or many) to look away. A quick fix here, a slip of cash there. I remembered Manila.
Perhaps it is the nature of third world countries to be fated the same, unfortunate way. How the colonizers leave a lasting kiss, the curse of an “independence” proclaimed desperately. Just as Spanish did with the Filipinos, the British left the Nigerians in a state that left them even more vulnerable.
We are living in a time of great white evil. They are dehumanizing blacks in South Africa and Rhodesia, they fermented what happened in the Congo, they won’t let American blacks vote, they won’t let the Australian aborigines vote, but the worst of all is what they are doing here. […] They are controlling us from behind drawn curtains. It is very dangerous! (Odenigbo)
Six years after the country’s independence from the United Kingdom, the country was thrust in back-to-back military coups caused primarily by economic, cultural and political differences between the country’s major ethnic groups: the Hausa people from the North, the Igbo people from the East, and the Yoruba people from the West.
The main characters of Half were all of Igbo descent. Because of mounting tribal conflict specifically against the Igbo people, the Eastern region of Nigeria decided to secede from the country. They called themselves Biafra.
This is where the life of the twins come into focus even more, as they live each day as refugees. Thrust in a world where their survival meant the ire of the Northerners, they had to flee their homes several times. The details of everyday life during those times were illustrated with a painful clarity, and Adichie filled each scene with both hope and despair. The intermittent rations, the powdered yolks, the blocked roads, the scarcity of soap, how people turned to both alcohol and religion — these things were enough to understand the brokenness, the alarm that consumed their lives.
And yet, Olanna and Kainene managed to illuminate each day with a profound light, each in their own way: education.
He [Ugwu] took over her class the next day. He loved the light of recognition in the older children’s eyes when he explained the meaning of a word, loved the loud way Master said to Special Julius, “My wife and Ugwu are changing the face of the next generation of Biafrans with their Socratic pedagogy!” (Odenigbo)
The civil war ended, but not without a sweeping change on the physical and emotional landscape of the story. Grief became a norm, even stronger than fear. It is in this context that my mind drifts to the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, as well as to the Chibok school girls.
Last year, I read an article on The New Yorker about Ghaith, a Syrian refugee who crossed ten borders to get to Sweden. The article details the life and journey of the law student as he sought passageways as a refugee in Sweden, having to pay several bribes to smugglers and surviving failed attempts of sailing the rough Mediterranean Sea with other migrants.
I also think about the 219 Chibok girls who have been held in continuous captivity, even as a few have managed to escape. Recently, a proof-of-life video was released showing 15 of the captured girls. It was alleged that it was already in the hands of the Nigerian government, as negotiations between them and the parties representing Boko Haram continue.
I think I came to read Half at a time that magnified two of the world’s most pressing crisis for me, rendering these issues as beyond evening headlines and Twitter hashtags. That behind these stories are worlds within their own, and that there aren’t any simple solutions to the complex situations.
At one point, General Madu, a high-ranking official in the story asked Richard if he could write for Biafra. Richard was hesitant, until General Madu explained:
Look, the truth is that this is not your war. This is not your cause. Your government will evacuate you in a minute if you ask them to. So it is not enough to carry limp branches and shout power, power to show that you support Biafra. If you really want to contribute, this is the way that you can. The world has to know the truth of what is happening, because they simply cannot remain silent while we die.
For now, this is my own humble contribution.
Book Reviews Fiction #BringBackOurGirls Americanah Boko Haram Book Reviews books Chibok Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Everyday is for the Thief Half of a Yellow Sun Hausa historical fiction Igbo libromance literature longreads Nigeria Pope Francis Syria Syrian refugee crisis Syriza Teju Cole Yoruba
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.