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 coming 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 actually 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 enamored 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. Breath taking, 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.