Half of a Yellow Sun | Study Guide

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun | Themes

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As a work in the postcolonial tradition, Half of a Yellow Sun is an exploration of themes that are central to postcolonial experience, cast in the specific context of the years leading up to the Biafran war and the war itself. Throughout the text, the characters grapple with navigating identity in a postcolonial world, with the racism and "otherness" that characterize Nigeria's internal and external relations, with the intervention (or lack thereof) of foreign powers in their struggle and what that means for their lives and within the process of change.

In Chapter 1 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses the first encounter between Ugwu and Odenigbo to pose the question, "How can we resist exploitation if we don't have the tools to understand exploitation?" She has Odenigbo, with his Western education and ideals, deliver the question to Ugwu, who is not yet capable of understanding the question's meaning. Ugwu is entirely subaltern, having little access to the tools and discourse of the colonizer; he is a boy who has, up to this point, lived a traditional villager's life. His entry into Odenigbo's house is his entry into a new world, where English is spoken and refrigerators and sinks are used; he understands the world in terms of the natural and the supernatural, not the political or the theoretical.

A primary arc of the novel follows the development of Ugwu's identity as he accesses and engages with the culture and privileges of the colonizer. This engagement, combined with his experiences in the war as a soldier and a refugee, leads to his emergence as a postcolonial writer, working in English, who takes up the task of giving Biafra a voice by telling its stories. As he develops, Ugwu wrestles with feelings of disconnection from and even disgust with his people, whom he has left behind in the village. His power ultimately lies in his sensitivity to the suffering of those around him, including the suffering he inflicts on the bar girl by raping her at the urgings of his fellow soldiers. By the end of the book, he rejects the Biafran nationalism—and the political and intellectual discourse—that gripped him as he listened to Odenigbo's university friends discuss politics. This rejection is evidenced by his refusal to listen to the radio and his declaration that "there is no such thing as greatness" in Chapter 32.

Throughout the text many characters exhibit the struggle and tension between traditional, indigenous forms of knowing and expression and the forms and methods of the colonizer, with its assumptions that Western ways are inherently superior to non-Western ways. This struggle is central to the formation of individual and group identity by colonized groups in the face of the cultural, economic, and political hegemony, or domination, of the colonizing culture. While characters like Olanna and Odenigbo construct hybrid identities that marry elements of Western culture with the traditional, other characters, like Odenigbo's mother and Ugwu's mother, fiercely resist Western influence by firmly aligning themselves with their traditional cultures and rejecting all parts of Western culture as inferior to their own.

Otherness, Racism, and Ethnic Identity

In Chapter 33, after the war's end, Odenigbo poses a fundamental question about the nature of racism and colonialism: "What do you think accounts for the success of the white man's mission in Africa?" Odenigbo states racism is a production of the colonizer, who "used it as a basis of conquest ... to conquer a more humane people." For Odenigbo, colonialism and racism are inseparably intertwined, and it is the idea of otherness, which racism is one expression of, that justifies and perpetuates the subjugation of the colonized.

Contradictorily, Odenigbo is a tribalist—one who believes identity resides in the tribe, rather than a quality of being African, and he rejects the idea Africans can be lumped together into a monolith as being "fundamentally a European notion." Like the colonizer who views Nigerians as "other," so does Odenigbo view those outside his own ethnic group. This very "othering" among groups of indigenous Nigerians has tragic results, such as the anti-Igbo pogroms that result in the death of thousands, among them members of Olanna's family.

Odenigbo says in Chapter 1 that national and race identities hinge on the colonizer's construction of an "other": "I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from white." However, he sees his identity as an Igbo as his true identity because it predates the "othering" of the colonizer: "I was Igbo before the white man came." Professor Ezeka objects, pointing out, "The pan-Igbo idea itself came only in the face of white domination." The modern Igbo tribe "is as colonial a product as nation and race." Indeed, British policies influenced Nigerians to identify as part of a large ethnic group rather than with their local clans, as well as tending to subsume individual differences within those ethnic groups. Pre-colonization, Odenigbo would have seen himself as Orlu, Isu, or some other smaller group that was later lumped together under the ethnic identity "Igbo."

Foreign Power

Foreign influences profoundly affect the lives of Nigerians. The characters are quite aware of this fact from the training of officers at Britain's military academy, Sandhurst, to Prime Minister Balewa's pact with the British that makes him a "stooge" (Chapter 6), to the ethnic tensions exploited by and exacerbated by British colonial policy. Okeoma provides a telling metaphor for the effects of foreign involvement with his poem "about Africans getting buttocks rashes from defecating in imported metal buckets" (Chapter 5). The radicalized characters, like Odenigbo and his circle, resent foreign influence while also being products of it themselves. Odenigbo left the village to become a professor, speaks English, and engages deeply with Western political ideas. He insists capitalist democracy is good, but it must be remade by Nigerians to serve their own needs; it must be "our kind" (Chapter 7).

When British diplomat David Hunt tries to prevent Biafran secession, Odenigbo's circle generally bristles with the idea that it's not his business (Chapter 13). Richard, offended by the sensationalized accounts of the Igbo massacres he reads in the British press, writes his own letter asserting such ethnic hatred in Nigeria is a product of British policy and actions during the colonial period (Chapter 14). The letter is rejected; Britain is uninterested in exploring any responsibility it may bear for the present crisis.

As the war progresses, the stakes of foreign influence grow higher. Biafra is largely ignored by the world as its people suffer in its struggle for independence. Ugwu advances the untenability of this moral position in the title he gives his book, The World Was Silent When We Died, which is excerpted throughout the novel. The military advantage of Nigeria over Biafra is enhanced by the equipment, arms, and troops supplied by foreign regimes; it is also exacerbated by the foreign press, which presents images of Biafran suffering while also downplaying them, as discussed in Chapter 30. In her treatment of the subject, Adichie expresses the idea that in a land bearing the indelible marks of foreign influence, the Biafran war and its attendant suffering is a product of both foreign intervention and foreign indifference.

Change

The text depicts a time of great change in Nigeria, a period of 10 years that covers its initial post-independence struggles to the civil war over Biafra's secession. Adichie examines the way political changes affect the internal and external lives of individuals. Some react with strength to outside change, like Kainene, Olanna, and Ugwu, who forge new identities and find new power. Some crumble—like Odenigbo, who takes to drinking. Others are victims, like Anty Ifeka, despite her proud assertion, "My life will change only if I want it to change" (Chapter 20).

Loss is a big part of change, but with loss comes new life, even in the worst of circumstances: Olanna loses her beloved family, her money, her closeness with Odenigbo, and her sense of safety, but gains a deep relationship with her sister Kainene, her daughter Baby, and a sense of personal agency she never had before. Kainene asserts the primacy of personal agency, even through profound loss, when she declares, "We are all in this war; and it is up to us to decide to become somebody else or not" (Chapter 31).

Ugwu experiences the most profound changes of any character. He begins as a naïve village boy, becoming a member of the educated class, a soldier (with its attendant labels of "killer" and "rapist"), and finally a writer involved in the healing and expression of the experiences of his people. These changes come at the loss of his connection with his village and the life he knew there, which is itself forever altered by the war. The change from a life of luxury to one of abject poverty, the introduction of death and war as features of daily life, and the fear and uncertainty that tug at self-confidence are all changes the characters of Half of a Yellow Sun wrestle with.

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