You are here

Half of a Yellow Sun - The story behind the book

Published: 
Monday, February 28, 2011

When the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria seceded in 1967 to form the independent nation of Biafra, a bloody, crippling three-year civil war followed. That period in African history is captured with haunting intimacy in this artful page-turner from Nigerian novelist Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus ). Adichie tells her profoundly gripping story primarily through the eyes and lives of Ugwu, a 13-year-old peasant houseboy who survives conscription into the raggedy Biafran army, and twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, who are from a wealthy and well-connected family.

Tumultuous politics power the plot, and several sections are harrowing, particularly passages depicting the savage butchering of Olanna and Kainene’s relatives. But this dramatic, intelligent epic has its lush and sultry side as well: rebellious Olanna is the mistress of Odenigbo, a university professor brimming with anticolonial zeal.

Business-minded Kainene takes as her lover fair-haired, blue-eyed Richard, a British expatriate come to Nigeria to write a book about Igbo-Ukwu art—and whose relationship with Kainene nearly ruptures when he spends one drunken night with Olanna. This is a transcendent novel of many descriptive triumphs, most notably its depiction of the impact of war’s brutalities on peasants and intellectuals alike. It’s a searing history lesson in fictional form, intensely evocative and immensely absorbing. (Publisher’s Weekly)

The story behind the book

Both my grandfathers were interesting men, both born in the early 1900s in British-controlled Igbo land, both determined to educate their children, both with a keen sense of humour, both proud. I know this from stories I have been told. Eight years before I was born, they died in Biafra as refugees after fleeing hometowns that had fallen to federal troops. I grew up in the shadow of Biafra. I grew up hearing “before the war” and “after the war” stories; it was as if the war had somehow divided the memories of my family.
I have always wanted to write about Biafra—not only to honour my grandfathers, but also to honour the collective memory of an entire nation. Writing Half of a Yellow Sun has been my re-imagining of something I did not experience but whose legacy I carry. It is also, I hope, my tribute to love: the unreasonable, resilient thing that holds people together and makes us human.

Q & A with the author:
Given that, at the time of the war, you hadn't yet been born, what sort of research did you do to prepare for writing this book? I read books. I looked at photos. I talked to people. In the four years that it took to finish the book, I would often ask older people I met, "Where were you in 1967?" and then take it from there. It was from stories of that sort that I found out tiny details that are important for fiction. My parents' stories formed the backbone of my research.

Was it important to you that you get all the “facts” of the war correct for this work of fiction? I invented a train station in Nsukka, invented a beach in Port Harcourt, changed the distance between towns, changed the chronology of conquered cities but I did not invent any of the major events.

Are memories of the war still alive in Nigeria, talked about on a regular basis, or do you feel that the conflict is being lost to history as time passes and that it becomes less important to Igbo culture? The war is still talked about, still a potent political issue. But I find that it is mostly talked about in uninformed and unimaginative ways. People repeat the same things they have been told without having a full grasp of the complex nature of the war or they hold militant positions lacking in nuance.

There is a conflict in this story between what is traditional and tribal versus that which is modern and bureaucratic. What is the mix today? How worrisome is it that some of the tribal ways have been lost?
Cultures evolve and things change, of course. What is worrisome is not that we have all learned to think in English, but that our education devalues our culture, that we are not taught to write Igbo and that middle-class parents don't much care that their children do not speak their native languages or have a sense of their history.

Disclaimer

User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff.

Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.

Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments.

Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.

Before posting, please refer to the Community Standards, Terms and conditions and Privacy Policy

User profiles registered through fake social media accounts may be deleted without notice.