I’d never heard of Biafra. It was a country that existed for only 3 years (from 1967) and inhabited mostly by the Igbo people. They led a secession from Nigeria, declaring themselves an independent country and causing the Nigerian Civil War, or Nigerian-Biafran war, a war that resulted in them suffering terribly.
Though I don’t know enough on the subject to be critical on the subject of authenticity, as a historical novel, this has all the best features of the genre. It transports you. It moves you. It soaks you in the sights, smells and sounds of another place and time.
Its main impact on me was that it gave such a vivid evocation of this tiny country, a miniscule part of Nigeria, which was able to bring such emotion to people – not only those who fought and died for its existence, but also to the author and to me, reading a fictionalised account written 40 years later through the eyes of a modern Nigerian woman born seven years after the country’s lifespan was over.
What an amazing thing, I thought, this tiny country that only existed three years, motivating people to give their lives to its cause. I’m amazed by people who feel this committment to seeing that the horrors of history don’t go silently into that good night. Perhaps they feel a sense of responsibility towards their fellow human beings, or to history itself, or to the memory of those who died.
In this sense, Adichie has done her job and made me imagine a country that in my 20th-century Gen-Y ignorance I had never even heard of. She has made me mourn for it, made me think and look up information and try to understand what it was all about.
Is this enough for a work of fiction? Does it do anything that a very well-written non-fiction book could not? Perhaps not, unless you argue that I might never have read the book at all if it were non-fiction, which is a valid point. Adichie has reached a larger audience, and broken into the chick-lit genre with its love of weepy stories with colourful covers.
However, as a work of fiction Half of a Yellow Sun falls short of being as riveting and devastating as it could be. The comparison that leaps to mind is Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things. Though a good writer and artistic at times, Adichie fails to pull you in as inexorably as Roy does.
Maybe it is unfair or ignorant to compare the two, but to my mind they aimed for similar ends. To highlight history through experience, show the human face of tragedy; expose our beauty and our cruelty; use beautiful language to describe ugly things; to sear them on the mind of the reader and force them to feel for another people, to care for a history not their own.
That’s the point of a “historical” novel. To make history come alive, to make you think about the facts, how they have been and can be interpreted. Half of a Yellow Sun does this, certainly, but ” literary masterpiece and a classic” as one reviewer enthused, is an overstatement. It ultimately fails to transcend the ‘historical novel’ genre to the point where you could give it to anyone and tell them that it will change their life if they give it a chance. I will lend Roy to anyone who will take it. I will not be pushing Adichie, though I would recommend it without hesitation to someone already interested.
It has moments of greatness but not magnificence. It’s well written, very much so, but fails to be a genre-buster – my favourite kind of read, a genre novel that becomes so much more than the type of book it is and therefore can be given to anyone regardless of whether they enjoy that type of novel or not.
“Historical fiction” has always been a problematic idea to me. I’m often uncomfortable with “genre” fiction which seems to voluntarily exclude itself from “literature” when it seems to me to be an unnecessary sacrifice. Margaret Atwood, for example, never makes this sacrifuce but still remains exciting and accessible. Books like hers, that use yet transcend their genres, are my favourites.
After all, if you are writing to move people, why only write a novel that will move only a select group? It seems to me that pigeonholing your work reduces its audience. This is partly the fault of hackneyed cover design and marketing. But is it possible to make everyone interested in Biafra with the sheer power of brilliant writing?
I think so.
Perhaps I feel there is something pretentious or profiteering about historical and war novels as a genre, especially ones that deal with war. As though they are an attempt to mine history for its scary stories that we think are educational but are really just sophisticated forms of schadenfreude that titillate us in the comfort of squashy armchairs, and feed obsession with how much better/more exciting/more meaningful everything used to be.
But I don’t suggest Adichie sets out to give vicarious thrills to middle-aged women. She seems to want people to remember, nothing more, and must use shocking detail to achieve the end and justify the telling of the story. It’s the motivation of publishers and readers that is murkier. Adichie has, however, made us remember. On her website, she says that she grew up in the shadow of Biafra and that the novel is her “re-imagining of something I did not experience but whose legacy I carry”.
I will remember this story because small details and not so small events brought it home to me, the kwashiorkor, the woman reusing her filthy tub of water, Olanna finding the bodies of her family, Kainene’s disappearance.
These details are what prompted me to research and care about Biafra and the war I had never heard of. Is this why the excitement and horror you derive from hearing these horrible stories is (in some cases, if done well enough) worth it?
The thing I liked about Half of a Yellow Sun is a much more abstract notion lurking behind the premise of “show-tell-understand-remember-appreciate”. It’s the idea of solidifying a place that no longer exists, of showing Shadow Lines, as Amitav Ghosh called them. Memory and anecdotes crystallise and exert their influence. Every reader makes the idea of Biafra stronger and more enduring by incorporating it into their living minds, and thus make it continue to exist.
Surely a country that has been fought for in living memory and is being written about by a descendant is still a country by virtue of this remembrance. It’s part of humanity’s mental landscape. As much as it exists in the past and in memory it exists as a future country too, a having a power of potential like kinetic energy, a power perhaps even stronger because of this limbo status, its place in mythology and literature.
And how strong is a love that causes someone to write about something that is dead and gone? Who loves the loser? What’s the point? Why must people remember? Is it a good thing to remember something that was only a tragic waste of lives that achieved nothing, as those would say who oppose the veneration and idealisation of Gallipoli? Or is it our duty to remember innocent people who had no choice and who died?
Any book that makes you ask so many questions is probably worth a read, and if you have plenty of time and some generosity of spirit, I think you’ll get into it.
If you’re after a horrors-of-war story to move you while you sit on the couch, with the extra punch that comes from knowing it all actually happened, I recommend it for that too, although with a twinge of conscience for the turning of human life and death into entertainment.
But I guess that’s what entertainment’s all about.