In her essay, “African “Authenticity” and the Biafran Experience,” Chimamanda Adichie lists the following as the guidelines she used to create the story:
1) “…the problem with stereotypes…particularly in literature, is that one story can become the only story: stereotypes straightjacket our ability to think in complex ways” (43).
2) “…[I] wanted to avoid making Biafra a utopia-in-retrospect, which would have been disingenuous. It would have sullied the memories of all those who died” (50).
3) “I was [also] determined to make my novel about what I like to think of as the grittiness of being human. A book about relationships, about people who have sex and eat food and laugh, about people who are fierce consumers of life. The only major aesthetic I had, if one can call it that, was the idea of writing “the kind of book that I like to read.” I was concerned with certain questions about what it means to be human.” (51).
And we see Adichie, like Achebe, wielding an ambivalence throughout Half of a Yellow Sun to achieve this.
One unique way that she achieves this objectivity is the manner in which she effortlessly moves from one voice to another throughout the novel. In just Part One, we move from Ugwu’s perspective, to Olanna’s voice, to Richard’s blunders, returning to Ugwu and then back to Richard. Through each character’s introspection we get, not only varying pictures of what it means to simply be alive and inhabiting that particular body and circumstance, but insight into the psyches of the three classes that would “negotiate” living in Nigeria during the Biafran conflict – the non-Western villager, the foreigner and the “bookish” Nigerian who fell midway on the scheme. For example, when Ugwu first observes his surroundings at Odenigbo’s house, he muses that “he had never seen any palm tree that short …It did not look strong enough to bear fruit, did not look useful at all” (18). After quibbling over which was “better” – the artificial or real flowers – Olanna says of Ugwu’s stance: “it came with never having had much…the inability to let go of things, even things that were useless” (59). And Richard spends much if his time confused about his “place” and may sometimes have felt like one of those “gods that the Igbo deposed” of when they “had outlived their usefulness” (90).
Adichie also develops characters as intellectual foils. Odenigbo, for one, believes that “the real tragedy of [the] post-colonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority [had] not been given the tools to negotiate this new world” while his mother is perfectly content believing that Olanna is “abnormal” because she “did not suck on her mother’s breasts” and is well-learned .ie. has acquired those very tools Odenigbo cherishes (122,129). Ugwu believes that life with his Master is the “real” life while Anulika reminds him that it is unwise to “forget where [he] came from,” insisting that he should not “become so foolish” to think the fine schooling he was receiving would suddenly transform him into a “Big Man” (151,154). Each has a different idea about what it means to be “authentically” Igbo – each has a different notion of survival.
On another level, the good humoured debates the multi-racial and cultural gathering have in Odenigbo’s living room offer the reader additional views into life in Nigeria.
I wonder, in what other ways does Adichie complicate the stereotypes of Africa that we bring to our reading of Half of a Yellow Sun?
Below, I’ve attached a TED.com video of Chimamanda Adichie discussing the dangers of a single story and “how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”