'My book is not just about people thrown into a war where we watch them die. It is about people who have full lives and how war changes them'. The award winning author of Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks to Charlie Kimber about her new novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran War.
Although she is only 29 years old, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has won wide acclaim. Her first novel Purple Hibiscus was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the Booker.
Her latest book, Half of a Yellow Sun, focuses on the Biafran War.
"I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, and in particular because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra," says Adichie. The book's title refers to the flag of an independent Biafra - a sun midway through rising. "Both my grandfathers were killed in the Nigeria-Biafra war, and I wanted to engage with that history in order to start a conversation about the war - which is still hardly discussed in Nigeria," she says. "It is a personal issue - my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp."
Friends of Adichie's dad gave him books because his had been destroyed during the war. "I would open one and I would see someone's name or stamp on it. Each had its own history," Adichie says. "Previously I've written short stories, poetry and a play about Biafra. I had to write a book I would be happy with." Half of a Yellow Sun is not only a personal account - in Adichie's words, "It's also a political issue. People who were prominent during the Biafra war are still powerful in Nigeria. Many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved today. The political context of the book is incredibly important. If there's such a thing as an anti-war book, this is it, but it must succeed primarily as a work of art."
Adichie recognises the way class powerfully affects people's lives - something unusual in much modern writing. One of the central characters, Olanna, is used as bait to lure her parents' potential business partner. Olanna knows that money talks: "She was used to this, being grabbed by men who walked around in a cloud of cologne-drenched entitlement with the presumption that, because they were powerful and found her beautiful, they belonged together."
Olanna's twin sister, Kainene, bitterly describes the post-independence rulers: "The new Nigerian upper class is a collection of illiterates who read nothing and eat food they dislike at overpriced Lebanese restaurants and have social conversations about one subject: 'How's the new car behaving?'" Adichie says, "I've always been interested in class and questions about class. In Nigeria, but also in other countries, it's very clear how class determines how people look at you. People treat their drivers or their servants as if they were not really human. In this book I wanted to show the way class shapes lives. But I also wanted to point to the possibility of different relationships. So the book's radical Professor Odenigbo treats his houseboy as a person and with kindness. He has respect for him.
"Then there are the questions of the way the rich, whichever side they were on in the war, were able to leave Nigeria or to have access to a good living in a way that was not possible for ordinary people. Even at times of great crisis, class still determines what happens. In the Biafran army officers had good food, uniforms and entertainment while the men had no uniforms and perhaps just one meal a day."
Modern African history is the result of the intersection of pre-colonial societies, the colonial experience, the actions of post-independence leaders and the continuing pressure of the multinationals and the great powers. The book includes powerful passages explaining some of the historical background: "The first time the Igbo people were massacred, albeit on a much smaller scale than what has recently occurred, was in 1945. The carnage was precipitated by the British colonial government when it blamed the Igbo people for the first national strike, banned Igbo-published newspapers and generally encouraged anti-Igbo sentiment."
Adichie remains angry about the way colonialism set people against one another through a policy of divide and rule, and says such events cannot be forgotten. "I think it's impossible to write about Africa in the 1960s or today without engaging with that history," she says. "Of course, the Western powers came back after independence - a lot of people would say they never really left. Nigeria was set up to fail. The only thing we Nigerians should take responsibility for is the extent of the failure.
"The first Nigerian government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was incredibly unpopular because people believed he was a puppet who would do whatever the British asked him to. The British helped him to power through fraud and on the basis of a constitution that favoured him.
"Not only was colonialism an awful thing, it also created conditions where the Africans who took over became colonialists themselves. They were copying what they had seen." Adichie says the legacy of colonialism survives in other ways - such as the way some British readers have responded to her book. "There's a tremendous interest and sometimes resentment, about the character Richard. He's white and British. I think he's a rounded character but he is clearly weak at times. Lots of British readers have been resentful about that. I think there is something colonial about this reaction. If Richard had been a Nigerian man there would have been less interest."
Amid the horror of mass death from starvation and disease in Biafra we learn that the killer malnutrition condition kwashiorkor has been renamed Harold Wilson syndrome after the British Labour prime minister who armed the Nigerian government and helped to enforce the blockade of Biafra.
There is also a strong sense in the book of the need to stop bowing towards the former rulers. Olanna is attracted to Odenigbo by his fiery anti-colonialism. As she waits in a queue for theatre tickets she sees a white man waved to the front: "Olanna was annoyed, but only mildly because she knew the queue moved fast anyway. So she was surprised at the outburst that followed from a man wearing a brown safari suit and clutching a book: Odenigbo. He walked up to the front, escorted the white man back into the queue and then shouted at the ticket seller. 'You miserable ignoramus! You see a white person and he looks better than your own people? You must apologise to everyone in this queue! Right now!'"
Adichie is aware of the danger of reinforcing stereotypes about Africa as "the dark continent" when writing a book about horrific war there: "I hate the image of Africa as simply a continent of starving people and warring people and, behind that, the notion of a continent of stupid people. I do sometimes feel ambivalent that I might be adding to that image of Africa. But to console myself I say that Half of a Yellow Sun is nuanced and complex, and it's not just about people thrown into war where we watch them die. It's about people who have full lives and of how those lives change in war.
"And also it's about a war with a reason - it's not about a 'senseless' conflict. There are clear political causes. And it makes those causes clear, which we often don't get. Fighting in Africa is often portrayed as about 'age-old hatreds' that suddenly erupt and people start to kill each other. That sort of analysis obscures the political reasons why things happen."
The book also has a strong sub-theme about the achievements of pre-colonial Africa and how these societies are often misunderstood. Richard, who has a great reverence for pre-colonial civilisation, visits a village where great treasures have been found and asks if they have come from a king's burial chamber. A villager "gave Richard a long, pained look. Emeka laughed before he translated, 'Papa said he thought you were among the white people who knew something. He said the people of Igboland do not know what a king is. We have priests and elders.' Richard apologised. He sat there for a while imagining the lives of people who were capable of such beauty, such complexity in the time of Alfred the Great."
Half of a Yellow Sun deals with Biafrans' desire to break away from the Nigerian state, and with the often murderous divisions between people from different ethnic backgrounds. Nigeria, a country with 130 million people, has many ethnic groups and hundreds of local as well as common languages. But Adichie remains hopeful of the potential for unity - under the right conditions: "I really believe we can unite. I have never agreed with the argument that just merely by being different it means that people cannot live together. It's about politics.
"I look at the Nigerian capital Lagos, and in the rich areas people from all different ethnic groups live together and get along perfectly alright with each other. But then in the poorer areas there are killings because people are told they cannot get jobs because the Igbo man has taken them.
"It's not the differences themselves, but the way the differences are manipulated. Ethnicity has always been manipulated in Nigeria. If we hadn't had political parties that were regionally based - and therefore tribally based - then I wonder if our history would have been different. The Biafran War was about separation, but the demand and need for separation arose because of political events. At various points in Nigerian history different groups have wanted to secede. We see that right from the start to the present day.
"The Igbo never wanted secession until the late 1960s. They were nationalist and pro-Nigeria. But this feeling was turned around by the massacres in the north of Nigeria. It isn't that people were born with the need to live where there were only Igbo-speaking people - it is political events that led to those demands."
Adichie stresses that amid the very real horrors of war people do incredible things: "Biafran people learned a certain independence during the war. People who were blockaded started to make their own engine oil. I deeply admire the self-reliance they showed. I didn't want war just to be seen as a terrible thing, which it is of course. But it is also a time when people come together. It makes you realise what really matters."
In the book Olanna and Kainene, who have been set apart by adultery, are reconciled because of their shared suffering during the war. Kainene says, "There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable."
Another great African writer, Chinua Achebe, says that "Adichie came almost fully made" and her style is a remarkable combination of simplicity and depth. Half of a Yellow Sun is in some ways a very easy book to read. But it also has layers that can be appreciated again and again. Follow the rhythms in this passage that I took almost at random from the book:
"They were standing before the glass door. Ugwu held back from reaching out to touch the cement wall, to see how different it would feel from the mud walls of his mother's hut that still bore the faint patterns of moulding fingers. For a brief moment, he wished he were back there now, in his mother's hut, under the dim coolness of the thatch roof; or in his aunty's hut, the only one in the village with a corrugated iron roof."
The combinations of textures, the sense of touch, the various temperatures, the flow of the sentences all make the writing incredibly vivid. Adichie has written a wonderful book that brings together a hidden history and the lives of powerfully drawn individuals. She is an important voice in the debates about Africa's future, and she plays a vital role as a woman promoting those debates.
Half of a Yellow Sun is published by 4th Estate, £14.99. You can order the book from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848.
- The Biafran War took place between July 1967 and January 1970. As a result, between 500,000 and two million Biafran civilians died from starvation.
- In January 1966 a group of leftist army officers took power through a coup. Many of those involved were Igbos from the east of the country. Months later a group of officers from the northern part of Nigeria carried out their own coup. These battles at the top led to great ethnic tension and massacres of Igbos.
- The discovery of oil in 1958 meant there was a glittering prize available to a government that could hold the country together. This meant crushing any moves towards the Igbo independence movement.
- In May 1967 Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu proclaimed in the southern parliament the secession of the south eastern region from Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra.
- The war began when Nigerian federal troops advanced into Biafra. Biafrans fought surprisingly strongly, given their lack of resources. The Nigerians besieged Biafra while the great powers watched the death toll grow. Elites from both sides of the civil war put their own interests before those of ordinary people.