Half of a Yellow Sun

In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. When the shocking horror of the war engulfs them, their loyalties are severely tested as they are pulled apart and thrown together in ways that none of them imagined…

half of a yellow sun

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a novel that captivates and rips your heart to shreds. Repeatedly. The narrative is split between two times, the early sixties, right after Nigeria won independence, and the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the late sixties.

In the first and third sections of the novel, the early sixties, we are invited to explore middle class Nigeria. Ugwu, moving to Nsukka from a small village to become a houseboy, marvels at the plentiful food in his new boss, Odenigbo’s home. He listens in on the political debates Odenigbo and his university colleagues have every night over the dinner he painstakingly cooked. He is intrigued by London university educated Olanna, who has moved from Lagos to be with Odenigbo.

Olanna moves to Nsukka because she is bored of her life with her parents. She can no longer take being thrust in the path of prominent – and single – political figures and ignored by her twin sister, Kainene, with whom she was once close. In Odenigbo she sees her intellectual equal, and is drawn to his revolutionary beliefs.

Richard is a rich white boy from London who desperately wants to write the great African novel. He is disgusted by his racist peers and their reductive views of the Nigerian people, but ignorant of the problems inherent in his mining of Igbo culture for story ideas.

In the second and final sections of Half of a Yellow Sun we watch the war dismantle their lives. It is a novel that studies what war does to a person. Nsukka, where Olanna and Odenigbo live, is one of the first towns to fall at the beginning of the civil war. Their need to escape arrives suddenly, so they are not able to take most of their belongings with them. Their books, the symbol of their education and their concerns up until that point are left behind to be destroyed by Nigerian soldiers.

In the times before the war, Adichie pauses over long descriptions of food. Ugwu cultivated his own herbs to make Odenigbo’s food tastier. He cooked rice to Olanna’s exact specifications. When Odenigbo’s mother visited she took over the kitchen, not trusting anyone but herself to properly sustain her son. Harrison, Richard’s home help, is proud to present his idea of British cooking, and ridicules those who can’t do it – while they do the same to him for his obsession. When the war comes, it’s all stripped away. One of the war tactics used by the Nigerians to regain Biafra was to block aid from reaching the Biafran people. The prices of things like salt and milk soared. Olanna is forced to queue at relief centres that are forever running out of food. Alcohol is no longer a dinner time companion so much as a numbing medicine against the pain, violence and uncertainty. Harrison starts using beetroot (the British food he was so obsessed with) to fake injuries so he can travel without being conscripted into the untrained Biafran army.

Adichie also uses the parallel timelines to ask who should be telling Africa’s stories. Before the war, Richard is constantly failing to start his novel. He goes on about his obsession with Igbo art – as if the existence of artists in Africa is surprising to him – and begs Ugwu to take him to a ceremony in his village to look for story ideas. His novels never get very far. He goes through various different titles and approaches to the story, convinced that if he assimilates into Igbo culture enough then the perfect narrative will come to him. It is only toward the end of the war, after he proposes a novel called ‘The World Was Silent While We Died’ that Kainene finally points out that which should have been obvious from the beginning: Richard was not a part of that ‘we’. When your government can pull you out as soon as you wish it and the soldiers are never coming for you, present or not, it is not your war. While everyone else is trapped by the war, Richard is ultimately choosing to remain in it.

Through a beautiful twist that comes out of a lot of horror, Adichie makes the political point that Nigerian people should be the storytellers of their country.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a difficult novel. It doesn’t give you what you want – I wanted to scream when I realised the page I had turned was the last – but it gives you something else. In choosing authenticity over closure, Adichie has created a story that will be stuck in my head for a long time.

 

 

 

 

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Americanah

Sometimes we fall in love too early. Ifemelu meets Obinze when they are both still at school in Lagos, Nigeria. They are perfect for each other, and it’s assumed by just about everyone that they will be together for a long time. But Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and the greatest success a young person can achieve is to leave the country, so when Ifemelu is offered a part-scholarship to an American university, she has to go.

Life in America is not what Ifemelu had expected. Everything is much harder than it should be, and her race, which she had never even thought much about in Nigeria, now seems to be the most important thing about her. Unable to get a job, and forced into situations she would never have chosen in order to survive, Ifemelu’s life drifts farther and farther from Obinze.

Many years later, after much struggle, Ifemelu has built a successful life in America. She writes a blog about race that is considered one of the foremost sources of the subject. But something doesn’t feel right, despite her success. In search of the missing pieces, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and Obinze. After almost a decade apart their lives collide once again.

Americanah

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a book about everything. It’s about love, coming of age, race, family, politics, heartbreak and hair.

The story weaves in and out of time. We begin with Ifemelu having her hair braided in a sweaty salon in Trenton, New Jersey, prepping herself to go home to Lagos. From there we fall with her back to her teenage years when she met and fell in love with Obinze, and gradually work our way toward the present.

I love Ifemelu. She was one of those girls people spent a lot of time telling to be quiet when she was a kid, but it never really stuck. She’s frequently the smartest person in the room, and she always knows it. She holds people to high standards they can’t always meet. She avoids situations that scare her until they become unavoidable, and then throws herself in whole-heartedly. She’s not afraid to use her voice. One of the most interesting things in this book is watching Ifemelu’s journey from complete bemusement by America, to being able to satirise it to perfection. She repeats the process when she returns home to Nigeria.

There is a distinct sense of otherness surrounding Ifemelu throughout the book. Some of this she places upon herself, and some a result of the racism embedded in Western culture.

She considers herself an outsider in most of the social groups she’s in throughout the novel. When she first arrives in the US, she feels like her friends from Nigeria there are too ‘Americanised’ to have anything in common with anymore. Even once she joins her university’s African Student’s Association and starts down the path that will define her professional life, the sensation never truly leaves her. She gets in a serious relationship with a man she has politics in common with, but little else. She’s uncomfortable with his friends. It’s this feeling of being an outsider that eventually sends her back to Nigeria. Ifemelu is a person in search of home, and I think that’s an experience most of us can relate to.

americanah2

As for the racist othering? There is a ton of it. As both a woman of colour and an immigrant, Ifemelu finds it near impossible to get a job when she first arrives in America. In order to be considered employable she is asked to change her physical appearance. She relaxes her hair until the chemicals that sting her scalp cause it to start falling out. She has to relearn her place in society as American culture makes her race the most important thing about her.

She starts a blog to share her experiences. Posts from the blog are scattered throughout the novel. They are wonderful, thought provoking and funny and made me love Ifemelu (and Adichie) even more. One of my favourite articles she posted was a list of questions determining white privilege. Questions included:

‘If you criticise the government, do you worry that you might be seen as a cultural outsider? Or that might you be asked to “go back to X,” X being somewhere not in America?’

‘When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another race?’

Once she is back in Nigeria, it’s not long before Ifemelu starts to blog again. Writing about her life is like an irresistible pull. There is a certain joyousness with which Ifemelu approaches her second blog. She’s writing with the knowledge that she is finally home.

‘Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself into being.’

This book is perfect. I can’t recommend it enough.

Feminist TBR

For anyone who hasn’t noticed, lately I have got even more obsessed with women’s writing, specifically, women writing about feminist issues. I put this renewed obsession down to Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour podcast and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. It also relates to a minor incident a few weeks ago, when I was walking home by myself, late-ish at night and a random guy decided to shove his drunk friend into me, for, as far as I can tell no reason other than to frighten me. This is far from the worst creeperie I’ve experienced, but it has me angrier than usual. I suppose it’s because in an ideal world I should be to complete a less than ten minute walk from a concert venue to a youth hostel alone without incident.

I feel like reading books about feminism is a healthy way to channel the frustration.

Summaries all from Goodreads.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

41edjJkb2DL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters…This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.’

You Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out and Finding Feminism – Alida Nugent

24611657‘Alida Nugent’s first book, Don’t Worry It Gets Worse, received terrific reviews, and her self-deprecating “everygirl” approach continues to win the Internet-savvy writer and blogger new fans. Now, she takes on one of today’s hottest cultural topics: feminism.

Nugent is a proud feminist—and she’s not afraid to say it. From the “scarlet F” thrust upon you if you declare yourself a feminist at a party to how to handle judgmental store clerks when you buy Plan B, You Don’t Have to Like Me skewers a range of cultural issues, and confirms Nugent as a star on the rise.’

 

The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats and Ex-Countries – Jessa Crispin

9780226278452‘When Jessa Crispin was thirty, she burned her settled Chicago life to the ground and took off for Berlin with a pair of suitcases and no plan beyond leaving. Half a decade later, she’s still on the road, in search not so much of a home as of understanding, a way of being in the world that demands neither constant struggle nor complete surrender.’

I heard about this book on Stuff Mom Never Told You. I really recommend listening to the episode. Jessa is a fascinating lady.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More – Janet Mock

janet-mock-book-cover.jpg‘In 2011, Marie Claire magazine published a profile of Janet Mock in which she stepped forward for the first time as a trans woman. Those twenty-three hundred words were life-altering for the People.com editor, turning her into an influential and outspoken public figure and a desperately needed voice for an often voiceless community. In these pages, she offers a bold and inspiring perspective on being young, multicultural, economically challenged, and transgender in America.’ 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51KOK64918L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.’

My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem

9780679456209‘Gloria Steinem—writer, activist, organizer, and one of the most inspiring leaders in the world—now tells a story she has never told before, a candid account of how her early years led her to live an on-the-road kind of life, traveling, listening to people, learning, and creating change. She reveals the story of her own growth in tandem with the growth of an ongoing movement for equality.’

Amazing review by Ann Friedman here.

Procrastinate like a Feminist

Am I struggling to keep up with blogging and NaNoWriMo?

Yes.

Yes, I am.

I owe this partly to my fantastic procrastination skills.

When I procrastinate by reading feminist materials, I class it as ‘learning’ and therefore not time wasting.
I think maybe it’s both.

As such, today, I figured I would help you procrastinate better.

Am I struggling to keep up with blogging and NaNoWriMo?

Yes.

Yes, I am.

I owe this partly to my fantastic procrastination skills.

When I procrastinate by reading feminist materials, I class it as ‘learning’ and therefore not time wasting.

I think maybe it’s both.

As such, today, I figured I would help you procrastinate better.

To read:

Lenny

A feminist publication started by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Sign up and you’ll get a weekly newsletter filled with articles about women fighting sexism in Silicon Valley, the results of gun wielding abusers (nothing good. When will it end?) and the experience of having a ‘vagacial’ (I didn’t know that was a thing, either).

To listen:

Women of the Hour (itunes)

Lena Dunham also just started a podcast. It’s wonderful. It has a pretty limited run I believe, and I have loved the first two episodes so much that I am pre-grieving it’s ending. There’s a subject a week – so far we’ve had friendship and bodies – and within that Lena hands the mic to the women who can best speak to it. The podcast features a pretty wide spectrum of feminists.

It brings out all of my emotions, and I end each podcast with a post-it filled with names of women I now must follow on Twitter, Instagram, etc.

One such post-it featured Ashley C. Ford, who was one of the speakers on the friendship episode. Since the show first appeared on itunes, I have read pretty much all of her work that I can find. She writes beautifully. One of my favourite pieces of hers was an interview with Rainbow Rowell. I wrote this quote in my journal:

‘When I asked if world-building was a coping mechanism, a tool of resilience for children in bad situations, Rowell takes a moment to respond. Then offers, thoughtfully, “I have really mixed feelings, because there’s this idea that kids are resilient, and I don’t really believe it. I think kids get by and do what they need to survive, and then they kind of turn into bombs.”

So, how do we defuse the bomb?

“Hopefully, you get to a place where you’re feeling secure and you’re feeling safe, and that’s when it comes out.” She takes a deep breath and exhales into the receiver. “That’s the most you can hope for.”’

To watch:

I listen to Beyonce while I jog. I had been meaning to listen to ‘that sample bit in Flawless’ forever. I finally did it. This talk is inspiring. Watch and fall in love with this lady.

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie