Friday, September 24

Considering Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's "Half of a Yellow Sun"

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gave a fine TEDTalk last year. The essential message, to write what you know, is nothing special, but she illustrated it well with personal experiences of first writing stories about white-skinned, blue-eyed children eating apples when she was born in Nigeria and had only ever ate mangoes. Then she went that extra step and drew the theme out with the need to search for a diversity of voices and not let a single narrative come to dominate any single person, culture, nation, event.

You can see how this idea is present in her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. There are a diversity of voices. Three characters, a boy from the bush serving as houseboy to a mathematics professor, a daughter of privilege and the professor's lover, and a British expatriate live through the years preceding and during the separation of Biafra from Nigeria and the ensuing war to bring it and its oil fields back into the fold. Just in writing about this time from the Biafran perspective, Adiche is creating another voice to challenge and correct the existing narrative. It reveals little to say now that Nigeria wins the war as Biafra is unable to find any international support, and as tends to go for the winners, their story tends to be the better known.

Thematically this is all very nice and good, but in this novel it frustrates me to no end. Borges once said something along the lines that he knew a series of stories were authentically Arabian because they never once mentioned camels. They were a given and needed no exceptional recognition. If someone traveled from Medina to Mecca, it would have been redundant to write "by camel." Reading Yellow Sun you will never forget it takes place in West Africa. Igbo words are frequently dropped in conversation. They eat a lot of jollof rice and garri. It's not as egregious or as blatant as Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao where footnotes are generously employed to bring foreign readers up to speed on just how terrible Rafael Trujillo was, but it's still heavy enough to jar me from the narrative when there is another reminder that this is a different place where they eat different things and mourn differently. It really bothers me then when these novels become so celebrated in America. I get the feeling that Americans read Yellow Sun and Oscar Wao as much to educate themselves as for the story itself. Now they know Biafra once existed and can drop a few good facts on the lead up to the war and the leaders should the opportunity come up in conversation.

Compare this to Sherman Alexie and Jhumpa Lahiri, two foreign-born writers whom I respect. Both write about their unique cultural experiences. Alexie's stories are set on reservations and Lahiri writes about educated Bengali immigrants in America, but there is never a sense that one is receiving a lecture on their lives and cultures. Alexie's stories are really about fathers and sons and Lahiri's are about founding one's place in a new land. That they include reservations and Bengalis is incidental. They are just the best ways they know how to express these themes.

Perhaps it's inevitable when Adiche sets her story in a time of war, when characters are caught up in events so much larger than themselves, that the larger facts of the situation come to bear, so I would like to see Adichie write something small next time, something much less epic. Maybe just the relationship between two sisters, which is by far the best aspect of Yellow Sun. It would be another voice for Adichie to share.

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