A Literature of Their Own: Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I found myself thrilled and enthralled with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk.  She spoke about models in literature, and because I use an Alice Walker essay about models for my composition courses, I felt immediately connected to her ideas.  I even ran back to my class the next night and made them watch part of the talk.  It’s fascinating.  If you are interested in literature, stories, and models at all, don’t miss it.   And Adichie is beautiful, intelligent, and eloquent.

from Wikimedia Commons

In her talk, she spoke humorously of her first attempts at writing stories.  Her work featured white children who drank ginger beer.  The books she had access to as a child were British children’s literature.  She also describes the wrongheaded idea we all have of a single story.  She admits her own guilt in this, for she often thought of her houseboy growing up as poor, and that was it.  She was surprise to visit his home once to find that he had a family who read books and joked with one another.  They were human, not just poor.

She suffered at the hands of this easy stereotyping when she attended school in the United States.  Her roommates were surprised to find how complicated Africa truly is, and that a single story about Africa as poor, war ravaged, uneducated, or simple-minded is simply not true.

The next action I took because of Adichie’s talk was to read her work.  She’s a Nigerian author, so I was pleasantly surprised when my county library had copies of her books.  As soon as I had her second book, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), in my possession, I began to read, voraciously.  The novel sucked me right in.

Half of a Yellow Sun is about Nigeria, and in turn Africa as a continent, writing its own history, especially in the wake of colonization.  Nigeria was occupied by Britain in the 1800s (exact dates are sketchy due different places being conquered at different times), and in the 1960s, there was a civil war in which the Igbo people seceded and declared their territory to be the country of Biafra.  The new country lasted from May 30, 1967 to January 15, 1970.  Of course, the Biafrans lost the war, and Nigeria is still intact today.

The story is about this new Republic of Biafra and opens with Ugwu, a village boy sent to be a houseboy for a young, revolutionary academic, Odenigbo.  There is a sharp contrast between the learned city man and the young village boy, most poignantly depicted by Ugwu’s taking roast chicken to bed with him in his pockets in order to save the meat for his sisters.  As the years pass, Odenigbo generously educates Ugwu, who remains loyal as a houseboy and takes care of Master’s live in girlfriend Olanna and their child Baby.  They are a happy family, but Olanna and Odenigbo fight, and Olanna fights with her sister Kainene.

Kainene is Olanna’s twin, and her live-in boyfriend is a British man symbolically named Richard Churchill.  He’s a writer, but he never writes anything of consequence.  Once the civil war starts, Richard begins to write what he thinks will be his masterpiece, The World Was Silent When We Died.  Excerpts of this book, about the Biafran war in Nigeria, are sprinkled throughout the larger novel.

However, at novel’s end, we realize that the book (and the writing) belongs to Ugwu.  Richard admits this when after the war is lost he finds Ugwu’s writings, scribbled on scraps of paper.

“Are you still writing your book, sah?”

“No.”

“‘The World Was Silent When We Died.’ It is a good title.”

“Yes, it is.  It came from something Colonel Madu said once.”  Richard paused.  “The war isn’t my story to tell, really.”

Ugwu nodded.  He had never thought that it was.  (425)

This scene succinctly and accurately declares a truth that should have been acknowledged long ago.  It is a truth that is always forgotten in war, for the conqueror always writes history.  Yet the story isn’t theirs to tell, and in a larger sense, Adichie is establishing her own right to tell the stories of her country, a right that she shouldn’t have to establish.

Her character, Ugwu, then writes feverishly of his survival of conscription, famine, and the guilt of his conscience.  As a reader, I was moved by this symbolism.  Of course a Nigerian boy who survived the war should be the one to write the book, not a white, British outsider who fancies himself a writer.  However, Richard is not all bad.  He becomes fluent in Igbo, has an interest in Igbo art, and of course becomes Kainene’s companion. However, early depictions of this relationship portray him as impotent, just more of a metaphor for colonialism and its usefulness (which is to say not at all) in modern Nigeria.

The inspiration for Ugwu happens to be Frederick Douglass, an American slave who educated himself and earned the right to be free.  Douglass established a successful newspaper and his memoirs are a true inspiration.  Ugwu finds The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and reads it over and over again during his forced service in the Biafran army.  Douglass is his model, and although Douglass is not Nigerian, Douglass is a man who overcame much opposition in the face of oppression.  Douglass is an excellent model for young Ugwu, and because I have been moved by Douglass’s writings, I easily understood why Ugwu would be, too.  He even becomes angry when a fellow soldier rips parts of the book, for the book has become a part of him.  And in a larger sense, books become a lifeline for many of the characters during war.  Olanna is relieved to get a copy of Pride and Prejudice during their time in exile.

Half of a Yellow Sun is not for everybody.  There is a lot of sex, although it is not graphic.  There’s also a lot of disturbing violence, including rape, severed heads, bombs, air raids, starvation, illness, disease, adultery, the stark reality of refugee camps, explosions, and burned books.  But it is a novel about civil war, so all of this is necessary and realistic to the vision of the story.

In addition to the war chapters of the novel, Adichie writes about peacetime leading up to the war.  She explores themes of wealth, education, poverty, family, sibling strife, forgiveness (described as swallowing “a sparkling sliver of light” (345)), religion, tribal traditions, ignorance, cooking, love, relationships, academia, poetry, music, crime, privilege, ethnic strife, race, colonialism, politics, modernity, and feminism.  (Aunty Ifeka says, “You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man . . . Your life belongs to you and you alone” (226).)  I could go on and on.  This book is about everything, similar to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and it is truly a literature about Nigeria and for Nigeria, which is why the symbolism of Ugwu writing the story of his country’s war is so poignant.  Ugwu’s actions are Adichie’s actions.

I can’t wait to read her first book, Purple Hibiscus, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004 and won The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2005 for the Africa category and the overall category.  She’s a talented young novelist and storyteller, and I anticipate having my one story of Africa expanded by her insightful work.  I’m a better person for having discovered her.

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