The reason I write now isn’t because I can, or I have more time, or I am bored at work, or I like it. It is because, I feel stories from all perspectives need to be told. I’ve lost many friends to their lofty generalizations from times I wasn’t confident enough to be offended or grasp the vagueness afforded to me. And yet, I am equally ashamed of buying into stories that have made me react with the same ignorance about Nigeria and basically the whole African continent. It seems to be a part of our pop ethos to gloat over differences in culture and simplify things to what the over-exposed narrative tell us, just because we don’t relate to it. Half of a Yellow Sun is critical not just as a story of war, personal growth and humanness, but also because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ideas that force you to internalize your own internal prejudgements.
Like a lot of wonderfully deep modern writers of her time, Chimamanda’s stories and Half of a Yellow Sun are close to her personal life – being a person of Igbo origins and having grown up in Nsukka. It’s also a history lesson in the process detailing the struggles of a newly independent state of Biafra and Nigeria, and a civil war that follows.
I found it extraordinary to recall that the only mention of Africa in our school books seemed to be the division of the colonies by the European masters. Or, the stark images of kids with Kwashiorkor (also revisited in the book), or exotic animals, as if that’s all that the entire continent of Africa was all about. I don’t remember reading a single book by an African author in my growing up years. Sadly, just as many people I know have not read many stories by native Indian authors, despite growing up in the country. How did we do that to ourselves? How did we propagate the race theory to such an extent that we believed that the only true face of literature came from outside? And why aren’t more people writing about their stories without feeling the need to westernize them? Why do we need a Quantico or a Time magazine validity for Piggy Chops? Why do so many Indians in America patronize everything about India? Why have I only thought of Nigeria with growing urbanism, TV sales and Boko Haram?
A history lesson apart, it’s a book about personal themes of loss, loyalty, betrayal and humanness. At one point, Chimamanda shares a thought that made me stop and think:
Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.
As I read that, I had a sudden fleeting thought missing Jhumpa Lahiri, even though she wouldn’t be as authentic in describing Igbo feelings. But I missed a more physically evocative response to Olanna and Ugwu’s ambiguities. I missed that in between the book and Olanna’s tragedies, I wasn’t sitting up and sobbing. Perhaps that was the intent, but I wanted to be pushed so. The gap between my understanding of the Igbo people’s experiences and my pop influenced reality is still so large, that I could not personalize that emotion. Like I do, in Lahiri’s invented loneliness. But the more I write, the less critical I am of such details. Because, writing a single story that merits so much reflection is beyond petty criticism.
I do hope as people we read and listen to more stories. Culture impacts us just as much as it gets impacted by us. I hope that we’re able to shape it in ways that are open and less divisive. I wish, we share more of our own experiences, instead of generalizing someone else’s.
While you’re at it, here’s something to hear today. It may inspire you to find the other half of a yellow sun that speaks to you.