Half of a yellow sun proudly rises in the center of the Republic of Biafra’s red, black and green-striped flag. You might not recognize the name Biafra, perhaps because the Republic of Biafra only existed for three years, between 1967 and 1970, and perhaps because the world largely turned away while millions of people died in Biafra due to ethnic conflict and starvation during the Nigerian Civil War.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has inherited the African post-colonialist literary tradition that includes Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Her novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” chronicles the secession of the southeastern section of Nigeria, which was home to much of the ethnic Igbo population in Nigeria.
As happened to many former colonies in Africa after achieving independence from Great Britain, the borders of the new state of Nigeria were drawn without regard to previously existing ethnic boundaries. Nigeria is therefore home to many distinct ethnic and cultural groups, including Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo, who practice many religions, most prominently Islam, animism and Christianity.
Igbo, due to laws meant to reduce inequality between minority groups in Nigeria, received preference in government positions that caused resentment among other Nigerian ethnic groups. The Igbo’s cultural and religious differences also led to tensions with other groups. After an Igbo military coup of the government in 1966, ethnic violence against the Igbo led them to create the secessionist state of Biafra, beginning a civil war.
Adichie demonstrates a commanding grasp of the history before and during the Biafran conflict, especially considering that she didn’t live through it, although she thanks her family, especially her parents, for sharing their stories in her acknowledgments. She very successfully integrates factual history with fictional story, bringing the tragedy of Biafra to life for readers who may have never heard of it before.
Seeing the conflict through the eyes of Adichie’s vivid characters humanizes the sometimes abstract tolls of war; perhaps the inability to imagine the humanity of those affected by war is what allowed the rest of the world to deny aid to the dying Biafrans during the civil war. Excerpts from a fictional book called “The World Was Silent When We Died” appear periodically throughout the story, retrospectively reflecting on the Biafran experience. Adichie certainly gives voice to the victims through the lives and deaths of her characters.
However, “Half of a Yellow Sun” ultimately left me dissatisfied with the novel as a story even though it worked well as history. Although Adichie has a flair for creating unique characters, I couldn’t help but feel that they functioned more as plot devices than living, breathing humans whom you could potentially meet on the street. Of course, not all fictional characters have to directly reflect reality; but even as the violence and hardship the characters faced horrified and saddened me, I sometimes found myself emotionally detached from the characters who seemed more like cardboard cutouts meant to stand for certain demographics of people, such as rural villagers and idealistic academics, than fully developed individuals.
That’s not to say that all the characters were flat—I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationships between the twin sisters Olanna and Kainene and Olanna’s romantic relationship with Odenigbo—but I recommend “Half of a Yellow Sun” more for the historically minded than literary-minded, although either type of person could greatly enjoy this expertly-written, important book.