Read To Win

Why 'Half of a Yellow Sun' won the 'Best of the Best' of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Continuing our series on readers’ choices of books that have moved them.

There is a toy, called a thaumatrope, composed of a thick paper disc attached to string. It looks roughly like this: —O—.  Its name means “Wonder Turner”. On one side there may be a picture of a bird, and on the other a cage; or on one side a tree and on the other leaves. Thanks to the persistence of image, when a person twists the string to spin the disc, the two pictures on either side join in the eye. The bird, free at rest but frozen, in motion both occupies and escapes the cage, which lies empty and less poignant in stasis. The tree assumes its leaves in the passage of the disc’s rapid seasons.

This figure also functions conceptually: place “space” on one side and “time” on the other, or “male” and “female”, or “even” and “odd”, or “finite” and “infinite”. The thaumatrope is a truly Pythagorean device. Half of a Yellow Sun is such an instrument.

The practice of love offers no place of safety. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control.
- bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows that time alone is inadequate to a description of history. She is thus wise to choose to write fiction, a form almost wholly absorbed with human relations, to which she seems highly attuned: her depictions have earned due adulation. Just last month, Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the “Best of the Best” of a decade of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winners.

The book, which received the original Baileys award in 2007, along with the prestigious Orange prize, tracks a family through West Africa’s seismic sixties, in which Nigeria became an independent republic, dissolved into civil war then spawned and aborted another country.

“I grew up in the shadow of Biafra,” says Ngozi Adichie. “I grew up hearing ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war’ stories; it was as if the war had somehow divided the memories of my family. I have always wanted to write about Biafra – not only to honor my grandfathers, but also to honor the collective memory of an entire nation.”

States stand, in this work, for the situation. Events reverberate at scales: Subject and Object are corollary. Counterintuitively, timelines actually fracture thematic continuity.

Can we not find it in ourselves to belong to an ancient civilisation instead of to just a recent nation? To love a land instead of just patrolling a territory?
- Arundhati Roy, Democracy

The narrative of Half of a Yellow Sun, Ngozi Adichie’s second book, charts six individuals through a sort of vortex of personal and political crises. Sections leap over years, so the reader sometimes only feels echoes of events that have occurred in the interim, which get filled in as the story progresses.

The civil war, which began in 1966 with an Igbo military coup against Hausa (“Northern”) and Yoruba (“Western”) leaders, provides the plot’s engine. Newly liberated, Nigeria’s switch from colony to democracy left many suddenly-antiquated power edifices in place, and the first coup was a response to unequal tribal representation in the buxom, heavily incestuous government.

Unrest ensued, plus another coup against Igbo (“Southeastern”) soldiers that spilled over into citizens. Hence the secession of Biafra: tension between North and South is a universal issue. These tribes are also distinguished as language groups. The climate is complicated in that the violence in a way enacts people’s explicit desires.

Since facts are to some extent given, twists arrive via the characters’ lives. Ugwu, Olanna and Richard are the foci: they get the ostensible “I”. Richard, from Britain, is romantically involved with Olanna’s non-identical twin, Kainene, heiress to a manufacturing dynasty heavily embedded in the old regime. Olanna teaches sociology; her “revolutionary lover”, Odenigbo, teaches mathematics and hosts a nightly salon of local intellectuals, which allows Ngozi Adichie opportunities to interrogate rhetoric and nationalist “Spirit” with a spectrum of perspectives.

Ugwu is Odenigbo’s houseboy, raised in a village. The last of the six is a girl child, most often in Ugwu’s care. Together, the ensemble represents contiguous strata of society, and Ngozi Adichie deploys them to great effect. Their affairs, thoughts, experiences and states of mind not only inspire belief; they invite empathy, which is an ideal achievement.

There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.
- Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

“I wanted to write about love and war,” says Ngozi Adichie. These are the poles she inscribes on her thaumatrope and invests with movement. In its spin we see their overlaps, as well as how they exceed and transcend each other. Care can breed possession, jealousy, paranoia, greed. Trials forge and purify affection, strengthen bonds and purge deceit. The toy in Ngozi Adichie’s deft hands is serious, and play elucidates reality.

Half of a Yellow Sun contains two central images, which repeat at intervals. First, there is the Igbo-Ukwu roped vessel, testament to the region’s mastery of copper metallurgy as early as the Ninth Century CE. It is an ornate, wrought record of human achievement: the capacity to manipulate matter. Richard cites the artifact as his whole impetus to move to Nigeria. The roped pot, as an object, speaks to a vibrant cultural heritage before both written language and colonial oppression.

Second, there is the calabash Olanna sees on a train home from an area affected by the war. Calabashes are also known as bottle gourds, which, since prehistory, have been hollowed and dried to make vessels, utensils and musical instruments. The calabash Olanna sees bears a young girl’s head; the girl’s mother carries the gourd: Love and War.

Everything is bilateral in the domain of thought. Ideas are two-sided. Only God is triangular!
- Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions

With the Wonder Turner, the vessels merge and gain identity in the persistence of image. The Igbo-Ukwu roped pot grows smooth, organic, a natural product of evolution, while the calabash assumes ornament, gets crafted, acts as evidence of advanced civilization. Each has a head in it: together they are one. “There is no was.” Our maps today bear no trace of Biafra, but it’s there behind them. The pages of Half of a Yellow Sun turn with enough grace and speed to true history.

Zachary Bushnell works across mediums such as poetry, prose, theatre and performance. He currently teaches writing and critical theory at a university in Delhi.

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