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Half of a Yellow Sun – Andy will be out of therapy any time now

August 30, 2015

I like Patrick White (“OK, so he begins a post on a novel about Africa written by a living black African female writer by referring to a dead white Australian male writer who only ever wrote about Australia” … I know what you’re thinking. Stick with me). I have read three of White’s novels and enjoyed them all, and appreciate his contribution to that mysterious entity known as “Australian literature”. But: crikey, he didn’t half take himself seriously, did he? White’s writing reeks of a desperation to be considered “important” – he didn’t want his work to be “Australian literature”, he wanted to contribute, and significantly, to “literature”, full stop. And he did. He’s still the only Australian writer to win the Nobel prize, more than 40 years on. But: that desperation to be “important” is on every page of his I’ve read.

yellowsunI’m sure Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes herself seriously as a writer – and she should, because she is a serious, and a seriously good, writer. Half of a Yellow Sun is a serious, and a seriously good, book. But it’s also important. And I think Adichie will come to be regarded, if she isn’t already, as an important writer. I got a third, maybe close to halfway through this book and I thought “I am reading something important here.” By the time I’d finished this was a conviction, not a thought. But: does “importance” and “seriousness” scream from every page? Do you get the sense that Adichie has a bit of an inferiority complex, that she’s trying to use her writing to make up for her perceived deficiencies? No. And I wonder if she isn’t a better writer than Patrick White.

Netty mentioned at lunch when we discussed this book that she feels her high school education let her down – she was unfamiliar with the Biafran secession from Nigeria and the resulting civil war. I was almost as unfamiliar – I knew there’d once been a country in Africa called Biafra, I knew there’d been a famine, but because I’d grown up in the shadow of famines in the Horn of Africa I’d assumed Biafra was somewhere near Ethiopia, or Sudan, or – you know, one of them. I had no idea Biafra was on the other side of the continent and for three years was a separate country to Nigeria, its secession recognised by only a handful of countries and its food supplies deliberately cut off by Nigerian authorities in collusion with the former colonial powers in London – and a little help from the Yanks and a bunch of other fuckers.
Half of a Yellow Sun is serious and important. It’s also horrifying and traumatising. There were times the iPad had to be put aside as I took a few deep breaths and tried to fathom what I was reading. It’s educational, in that – without you noticing she’s doing it – Adichie gives you knowledge and understanding of events you’ve never heard of. On occasion it’s hysterically funny, although more often it’s desperately sad. It’s also frustrating – Adichie’s sympathies are clearly on the side of the Biafrans and understandably so, but she’s not afraid to satirise the bullshit people tell themselves and others in the absolute conviction that not only are they right, but they will win.

Half of a Yellow Sun is not a metafictive novel, but Adichie employs a single metafictive technique to expose her readers’ unspoken and unidentified racism (although, admittedly, she does nudge us in that direction). I won’t give it away, because it provides an unexpected moment of warmth and reward towards the end of what is a harrowing read.

I’ve just realised I’ve told you basically nothing about the book, other than Biafra, Nigeria, civil war, famine. Not a single character’s name. Oops. Ok, let’s remedy that – Ugwu. There you go. I’ll let Netty fill in the gaps.

I have read one other of Adichie’s books – a collection of short stories called The thing around your neck. She has also written a couple of other novels, and I plan to read them both. And basically everything else she ever writes. Half of a Yellow Sun is  a stunning contribution to that mysterious entity known as “literature”. The end.

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