Been a while since I did a pop novel, but I found I had a lot of thoughts about this one that I wanted to compile, and then I figured I may as well force them on you.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a spectacularly written work of historical fiction about the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s that functions primarily as a class commentary. Adichie’s prose is the best I’ve encountered in a long time. Unfortunately it has some pretty significant misogyny issues, and I was surprised by how toothless the racial commentary was.
Also, if anyone has read Americanah (Adichie’s latest novel) I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it. It being primarily a romance doesn’t really appeal to me so I got Yellow Sun, but I’m willing to believe the strength of Adichie’s writing could carry even something boring.
Warning for lots of rape.
Yellow Sun is set in the years leading up to and during the Nigerian Civil War, a brutal and bloody war that saw the genocide of the Igbo people and was entirely the fault of the British and then further exacerbated by them. It follows Olanna and her boyfriend Odenigbo, both academics, as well as their ‘houseboy’ Ugwu, Olanna’s twin sister Kianene, and Kianene’s partner Richard. (And this is a tangent, but it was really skeevy how the back-cover summary called Olanna Odenigbo’s “mistress” when they start the book in a long-term relationship and have even decided to move in together. She’s not his mistress, she’s his girlfriend, and later his wife. WTF, copywriter, WTF.)
The themes and plotting of the story reminded me a lot of Midnight’s Children without the magical realism. The story is powered forward by the engagingness of Adichie’s writing and the fullness of the characters, who serve as allegories for the society as a whole. It deals with independence from colonial rule and the double-edged sword those revolutions can be.
However, for a story about how British rule ruined the lives of the people in what would become Nigeria, I thought the story was weirdly evasive about whose fault the situation was and even went out of its way to assure the white male reader it couldn’t have possibly been them. It creates the character of Richard to be a Good White Man for the white-male reader to identify with, and relegates racism to something espoused by petty women (we’ll get to that) and discussed by black characters behind closed doors.
For some background, it was all Britain’s fault. The area Britain decided to call “Nigeria” was occupied by a plethora of disparate cultures and societies. In the south, the major players are the Igbo and Yoruba, whose societies were democratic and representative and progressive. The Igbo in particular were really big on education. But in the north were the Hausa, basically a Muslim theocratic autocracy. Shockingly, shoving these societies together went terribly. On top of that, the setup of the Northern peoples with one despotic leader made rule by proxy really easy for the English, so they went out of their way during colonization to endorse and bolster the radical Muslim state (this would ultimately result in the creation of Boko Haram — thanks, colonialism!). When Britain decided to pull out of this part of Africa, it is does so on the condition that the three factions unify as one country of “Nigeria” to prove that the British were right about how things should go. The Yoruba and Igbo revolutionary leaders were so desperate for independence they agreed. This was obviously a horrible decision. Less than a decade later the southern people attempted to secede and create a new state called Biafra, but Britain didn’t want to have to face that Nigeria was a bad idea and Russia is Russia, so the two nations supplied the Northern armies, which crushed the southern freedom fighters. Since the rest of the world didn’t want to piss off Britain and Russia, no one would help Biafra. The Hausa slaughtered the Igbo in particular, women and children, without compunction, and enacted blockades to starve out those who remained. Millions of people died, most of them Igbo, most from starvation.
And yet the book chooses to make the English plotline about how very Good and Not Racist its white British guy is.
This was an absurd decision to me. Why would you set a story like this during a bloody civil war that was the direct result of racist white colonialism and ego and then have the extent of your engagement with the British be, “Hey, this white guy’s so cool and like, basically African”? The only real explanation I can come up with is that either the author or the publisher was worried about isolating the white dude audience, but like… are there a lot of people reading historical fiction about Nigeria who wouldn’t if it were about Nigerians and not white men?
Maybe Adichie was more concerned about getting the story out there and making it consumable, encouraging those who would to seek their own answers, which… I mean, that’s valid. If you have to make some concessions just to tell the story, I do get that. And, you know, there’s something to be said about a story about black people in Africa that doesn’t make it all about racism… but if that’s what you want, a war caused by racist colonialism is a weird setting to choose. And for me personally, it felt really awkward to have no one mention the elephant in the room, and I like my commentary on these things to be biting, and this was so noncommittal to the point of being handwavey that I came out of it just feeling weird about the whole thing, because it took me like 4 minutes of reading the Wikipedia page about the war to see who was to blame.
Buuuut if you accept that her goal was to bring the story to the larger consciousnes in a palatable way, then I’m probably not the intended audience exactly and the complaint is kind of moot, and if you’re trying to bring African history to white dudes creating a Very Not Racist white dude character is probably the way to make them accept it.
The problem that was actually inexcusable here was the misogyny.
I really hated the character of Ugwu, which was all the more irritating because I think the book saw him as the protagonist and not Olanna and it like ends with him having written a novel dedicated to Odenigbo as though this is something amazing and touching. Ugwu is terrible. He starts out just frustrating — he spends a lot of time early in the book witnessing bad things, thinking about how he’d really like to say something, and then just stewing and hating instead of being active. At first this was acceptable for a young kid in a scary situation — leaving his small village to work as a housekeeper for a well-to-do university family — but there came a point where it was just really irritating as a reader to constantly be in the head of someone so spineless. It made him really hard to root for right from the beginning, especially next to the rest of the cast who were strong personalities.
What made him even harder to root for is the way he obsesses over women’s bodies. He leers at and thinks about fucking every single woman he comes across first and foremost, and this all culminates in — and I swear this is not an exaggeration — him participating in the gang-rape of a woman without any hesitation.
There are actually two gang-rapes in this book, although one happens offscreen, and I was frankly disgusted by the way they are handled. Both are very much about Ugwu’s indignation and personal growth, sparing no time for the women they happen to, and focus way, way too strongly on the women being the “right” type of victim. There’s a really creepy narrative obsession with the fact that the woman Ugwu rapes had “eyes full of hate.” Whenever he thinks about her he feels sad because of her hateful eyes. And this is repeated so many times that it starts to imply that the only reason what he did was bad was because she was visibly angry about it. What if she had been drugged or beaten, and was in a daze? What if she closed her eyes and zoned out? What if she snapped mentally, and laughed as a way to dissociate? Would Ugwu still have thought it was wrong? Would he still have felt bad?
The other gang-rape happens to Ugwu’s sister, and the reason that one is wrong is because she was engaged to be married. We don’t even actually see her reaction to it — she tells Ugwu her marriage is off, and then he leaves and another character tells Ugwu about the rape being the cause. Ugwu then gets to be Righteously Indignant, as though his reaction matters at all.
Both rapes are for the benefit of Ugwu. The one he participates in is for his personal growth; the one that happens to his sister is so he can feel Wronged. Neither are about the women, and it’s implied way, way too strongly that the first was only tragic because the girl was pissed and the second because his sister already belonged to someone else. There’s no room for rape, never mind gang-rape, to be inherently evil. The acts are bad because they make Ugwu have a sad. They’re bad because the girl had angry eyes. They’re bad because his sister was engaged, and because it was his sister. And that last part doesn’t even connect — Ugwu never wonders if the barmaid he raped was someone’s sister. It’s because there’s no room there for either woman as a person. They are only set-dressing for the nearest male, even when that male is their rapist.
I also found it really gross that the girl Ugwu sleeps with at the original house is completely silent. She literally is voiceless, and a big deal is made about how much Ugwu likes this. She silently comes over to his house, silently fucks him, and silently leaves. A true paragon of womanhood.
There was a lot of rape in these books, although only the two gang-rapes are explicitly referred to as such, and I kind of wonder if the author realizes the other things are rape, too. Eberechi is shoved into the house of an important general and expected by her family to please him — this is rape. Odenigbo’s mother forces her maid Amala to sleep with Odenigbo — and it’s heavily implied she roofied Odenigbo to get him to agree. These are both rape. Olanna’s parents offer her to a politician friend in exchange for favors. This would have been rape. Olanna seduces Richard, and it’s implied she gets him to drink first on purpose. It’s never clear how drunk he is, but this is at best incredibly rapey.
None of these things are treated with the gravitas they deserve, and while the offering of women to powerful men for favors thing is I think supposed to be illustrative of the way the society views women, having Olanna brush it off and Eberechi not care is a really suspect decision especially in light of the other rapes. The Odenigo-Amala one is particularly horrifying. Amala actually becomes pregnant from it, and the next time we see her she’s desperately shoving herbs into her mouth to try to get herself to abort. But Olanna doesn’t have much of a reaction to it, and the scene never comes up again. I don’t know what the book was trying to say with all of this, and it never addresses any of it.
Then there’s more rote stuff, like how all women are either hateful of each other or, in rare cases, kowtowing to Olanna. All the women in this book hate each other — Olanna and Kianene, Odenigbo’s mother and Olanna, the housewives and Alice, Olanna and Kianene and their mother, etc. Miss Adebayo is introduced trying to come on to Odenigbo — she’s immediately set up as a vixen and a rival to Olanna. Naturally, the few who don’t are sycophants — Adize and the aunt, the good teacher. The men, of course, get to be friends of various closeness. Odenigbo has a whole group of male friends over all the time to chat with, some of whom he gets on with more than others. This difference is stark.
Then there’s Susan. While white men get a main character to reassure them what perfect woobies they are, the only white woman with a speaking role is paranoid, hysterical, jealous, possessive, and incredibly racist. She’s a cartoonishly terrible human being who seems to embody everything wrong with both women and the way white people treat Africans. This both deflects blame from the people actually responsible — when Britain forced the creation of Nigeria, there were a whopping 25 women in parliament, good for just over 3% — and seems to posit that because a woman is racist, it’s okay to treat her misogynistically, which is such utter bullshit.
This is a tangent, but: it’s super trendy right now to append adjectives like “straight” and “white” to women and use them to say misogynistic things (or just straight-up launch into personal attacks). See, when you can get women blaming each other for the misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc., they face, the people actually responsible get to slink away. And that is exactly what happens in this book. The book is so over-the-top in painting Susan in misogynistic strokes while making sure Richard is not just portrayed as but called by actual black people a Good One, that you end up absolving the people who were actually in power of the things they did in favor of talking about how those awful hysterical women are just the worst. And it moves the focus from a white-male-dominated society to the feelings of individual women, thus getting attention away from the idea of societal change in lieu of a competition of feelings and individual attitudes. This is really, really wonderful for the Old White Men calling the shots.
I think there are two reasons this kind of thing happens so much: First, feminism is supposed to sit quietly in the corner while Real Problems like racism and homophobia get solved first, because women are not supposed to take care of themselves. Secondly, the tumblr-style Oppresion Olympics decree the the person who belongs to the most marginalized categories ‘wins’ and gets to lord it over others sans consequence. But the terrible, regressive tropes used to characterize Susan are not suddenly okay because she’s also racist. Of course she’s fucking racist, she’s a white British woman in the 1960s. It’s still misogynistic to mock the way women look even if you call them “basic white girls” while you do it. It’s still misogynistic to calling women “handmaidens” and imply the patriarchy is their fault even if you call them “straight women.” And it’s really fucking misogynistic to imply the crisis in Nigeria was more the fault of British women than men, who really just wanted to look at art because women are all hysterical-ass backstabbing whore harpies even though, yes, 99% of white British women in the 1960s were goddamn racist.
The solution here was to swap the sexes of Richard and Kianene.
It makes a hell of a lot more sense for a British woman to leave her society and seek something new halfway across the world in a place where she’ll probably be treated as a pariah if we’re running on the assumption that mid-1900s Britain wasn’t some kind of matriarchal utopia. For a woman to want to escape the stifling British upper classes in a place where she can start over without societal expectations makes about a bajillion times more sense than it does for a man with no societal disadvantages at home. We could then actually see, uh, Richelle (?) confront her own internalized racism — at first she sees the Igbo people as kin in the fight against an oppressive society because she’s ignorant to her own biases, but she comes to realize that their experiences — particularly those of the women — are different because of race, and not only that, but she has racism issues herself, particularly with a tendency toward black exceptionalism and appropriation of the southern struggle for freedom. This way, she doesn’t start the story already somehow a paragon of white virtue, but as a flawed human raised in a society where the messages are incredibly anti-black. Take it a step further: her growth can mirror the hoped growth of the white reader, about what it means to respect African culture and peoples and how to properly share their stories.
The baffling thing to me about all of this — from the terrible handling of rape to the “the real evil is the women” to all the female characters hating each other — is that the author wrote an essay and did a TED talk called “We Should All Be Feminists.” I have good news for her — based on the bar set by this novel, we’re all already feminists!
All of this said — and I know it’s a lot of angry complaining — this novel did a lot of great things and for most of the ride, I enjoyed it.
First of all, the social commentary that was actual here was far and away above all else a class commentary, and it was a really excellent one (in fact, how deftly it was done made it all the more obvious how unconcerned with race issues the book was…). It actually reminded me a lot of Dishonored’s theme about how the rich see themselves as being insulated from consequence by the comforts their wealth afford them. In Dishonored the threat was disease, and in Yellow Sun it’s war. I loved the way you see the slow, subtle shift of revolution as something you talk about over drinks to something that’s happening outside your door. I loved the wedding scene where you see that fall apart — they try to fiddle as Nigeria was burning, only to catch fire themselves. It reminded me of the masquerade ball sequence in Dishonored.
I also loved all the little details about how tough it is to go from the upper class back to where you came from. I liked the way Olanna was grossed out by how dirty her aunt’s house was, and then hated herself for being bothered by something she never would have noticed before. I love how Ugwu was thrilled to go back home, only to find he spent the whole time missing Odenigbo’s amenities. I also loved how the book portrayed the aftershocks of class, where even when they were starving the fact that they used to be important made it easier for them to access emergency supplies. And I also liked that the book didn’t blame them for wanting to save themselves. If you’re starving and someone hands you food because they know your parents, you eat — you don’t insist they first consider the situations of strangers.
And it’s really hard to understate just how good Adichie’s writing is. It’s just innately compelling.
Fuck now I don’t know what else to say. This always happens in posts when I like things with issues — I feel like I make things sound a lot worse than they are. Because even though I wasn’t super thrilled with how things ended in this book (fucking Ugwu, I s2g), the journey here was really amazing and the way the story parses the Biafran War is, I think, really important for a Western audience who is probably only familiar with the “starving African child” meme.
Also what this and Rushdie have taught me is that I really enjoy historical fiction.