Sunday, June 29, 2008

Encounters with "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Jo Hunter Adams

(My recommendation of an amazing book, and one that gives the reader infinite opportunities for thought, and new ways to think about Nigeria in the 1960s)

"There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable"

Half of a Yellow Sun describes the lives of three people in the midst of the Biafran war of the 1960s.

Adichie readily acknowledges that this is firstly a novel, and only second a snapshot of an actual historical period, one of the most painful and poorly understood wars in African history.

Historians often ask: "what is the best way to teach history?" It's clear that history books that are only read by a few people have an important place, particularly if the process and multiplicity of voices leads to truth and spirit that filters down into our daily life (our response to our histories) and literature (and vice versa). But what if these accurate books never gain traction? If an imaginary history is lived as reality and passed down for decades, does that history get power despite not representing truth? Absolutely! Lies and truth are quickly mixed together, and are used to empower those who control it.

I mention this because there is a tension between representing history in depth for a few people, and representing history in the form of a story, for the masses. In a way, the second relies on a deep level of comfort with the first (the ways that people are juggling different sets of facts).

Adichie uses her talents powerfully to make one dimension of the Biafran war accessible to those far removed. I am not sure whether the history in Half of a Yellow Sun is fully accurate, but what if the history that we need to understand most is the history of relationships in the context of the war? If so-- and I believe it is-- then that is the most potent part of this story.

I recommend the book for a specific reason, also. It's very difficult to understand what changes when someone is displaced (or what doesn't change). I have spent a lot of time with refugees (with the qualification that a "lot of time" is very relative to my age), but I have never known someone before they were forced to move, during and afterwards. A fictional character can never be completely animated, but Adichie's words allowed a longitudinal view of individuals, in a way that is incredibly challenging to do in real life.

Perhaps this was most powerful because the three main characters, and their relationships with one another, did not seem too far removed-- history that makes us understand one another might always be better than history that makes us alien and exotic to one another.