Not since the Civil War have Americans experienced the gut reality of war in their own backyards. Although the U.S. has engaged in various excursions over the centuries, including at present in Iraq, and many Americans have lost friends and family members to war, most civilians have as much experience with the mundane realities of life during wartime as they have experiencing life on Mars. War has become a foreign concept to many of us, which is a shame because, unfortunately, our literature reflects this lack of experience. While we have had writers such as Ernest Hemingway or Tim O'Brien who have written about their war experiences (WWI and Vietnam respectively) they usually write from the perspective of veterans. It is rare for an American writer to explore what life is like for civilians under the constant threat of death and destruction unless she is writing from an historical perspective.
9/11, of course, could change that. But even the terrorist attacks against the United States doesn't compare to the daily terror citizens face in other countries under the auspices of war. Therefore, writers from other countries who have experienced war have often been left to pick up the slack, exploring the very ways in which violence infiltrates the most intimate and mundane facts of life. One such writer who has taken up this mantle is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her latest novel Half of A Yellow Sun, which depicts the war which ripped her native Nigeria apart during the 1960s. Described as the "21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe" by the Washington Post Book World, Adichie captures the horror, mystery, and insanity of war, while also delving into the more intimate and personal daily struggles of her characters.
Half of A Yellow Sun depicts a Nigeria swept up in the turbulence of the period. Following the end of colonial rule, the country plunges into a war when Biafrans, who are majority Igbo, struggle to establish an independent sovereign nation. With the support of Britain and the United States, northern Nigeria engages in a brutal crackdown on Biafrans. Many Biafrans are slaughtered or are forced to flee from their homes. Adichie describes the horror of these events through the perspectives of three characters–Ugwu, a thirteen year old houseboy for the intellectual professor Odenigbo; Olanna, Odenigbo's lover and later wife; and Richard, the British ex-pat who falls in love with Olanna's twin sister, Kainene. Their personal lives are a backdrop to the epic drama, highlighting themes of reconciliation, independence, and identity.
The personal dramas of her characters involve familial estrangements, affairs, illegitimate children, class and racial differences, and self-hatred. In the hands of a lesser writer, these themes would disintegrate into melodrama, but Adichie applies a quiet and subtle self-assurance to her material that respects and heightens these little dramas under the backdrop of the greater horrors that take place during war. War is treated with an even-handedness that likewise becomes frighteningly mundane. When Olanna, after being caught up in the ethnic cleansing against the Biafrans, travels home by a train crowded with other fleeing refugees, she is haunted by the image of the decapitated head of a woman's child, which the woman keeps in a calabash. Her language is direct, uncompromising, and shocking in its simplicity:
Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl's head with the ashy-gray skin and the braided hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed.
The woman closed the calabash. "Do you know," she said, "it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair."
Even in the face of such evil, the longing for the normal and mundane becomes a life raft for those caught up in the throes of war. When Kainene, against military orders, crosses enemy lines to continue her black market business to provide much needed goods and food to refugees in the camps, her actions are predicated less by the needs of these refugees but her own desire to find a semblance of order in her pre-war life as an independent and enigmatic entrepreneur running the family business. The ways in which war rips apart lives and complicates the often complex web of relationships between her characters are the main themes of Adichie's fine novel. Death is both brutal and arbitrary, as Richard soon discovers when an airport official is slaughtered by Nigerian soldiers after his Igbo origins are discovered. Most Americans might not be able to relate to the fears of being forcefully conscripted into army, which is the issue that commands much of houseboy Ugwu's story after the family flees to a refugee camp, but can certainly relate to his desire for love and his willingness and foolishness to risk danger when he walks a young sweetheart home. This one simple and endearing act sweeps Ugwu into the middle of the events that are ripping the country apart when he is snatched by Biafran soldiers and is forced to fight in the civil war. The sequence when Ugwu is sent to training camp is both heartrending and ironic as it becomes apparent that the Biafran army, lacking weaponry, training, and discipline, is unmatched against the better trained Nigerian forces. Yet Ugwu's need to place the conflicts that are tearing his country and people apart in context, such as his obsession with a paperback copy of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, do not spare him from becoming complicit in the evil and bloodshed he has witnessed thus far. The gang rape of a barmaid during a night of revelry by a group of soldiers whose youth and immaturity are exacerbated by the immorality of war haunts young Ugwu for the remainder of the novel.
While the story of Olanna and Odenigbo's marital discord might seem like an anomaly in the face of the greater horrors taking place, their relationship forms the moral heartbeat of the novel and reveals how even the normal problems of marriage–lack of communication, betrayal, commitment–parallels their compatriots' independent struggles. As Biafra attempts to break away from Nigeria and form a national identity, often in the face of its own political, social, and class differences, Olanna and Odenigbo struggle to keep their marriage together despite Odenigbo's betrayal. The glimmers of hope in their reconciliation during their journey from their home to refugee camps provide the glimmers of hope that Biafra and Nigeria will see through their regional differences and that both war-ravaged nations will find peace.
Adichie's novel, nonetheless, is not a fantasy, nor does it offer simple resolutions. Her characters' growth come from the hard-won realities of life and war. Adichie neither placates the reader nor presents a sanitized portrait of Biafrans–they can be every bit as snobbish, arrogant, enigmatic, confused, and complicated as they are passionate about their country's freedom. Rather, Adichie documents the history of her country and allows the reader to come to her own conclusions.
Half of A Yellow Sun, which represents the flag of the independent Biafra, is a crowning achievement for so young a writer. Adichie documents a moment in African history that is otherwise overlooked, bringing to the intimacies of war a clarity that is rarely experienced on American shores. Haunting and sparse, Half of A Yellow Sun joins a pantheon of great African literature documenting post-colonialism and its haunting and troubling aftermath.