Words by Temi Otedola
Photography by Joy Mumford
Original Thumbnail Art by Antonia Weishaupt
Welcome to the first blog post of the JTO Book Club. A few weeks ago, I was finishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun for a second time. I had read the final chapter by 3 am, yet at 4 am I was still in a state of contemplative insomnia. What did I make of the contradictions I found in the characters, and what did this book mean to me personally, a Nigerian who had only witnessed the historical legacy of the Biafran war? I wanted to speak, or better yet write, my thoughts down somewhere, for someone, anyone, to read and respond to. At that moment I yearned for conversation. By 5 am, the idea for a JTO Book Club had been birthed.
Later that morning, I woke up slightly groggier than usual and asked my Instagram followers if they would be interested in book-centred content. Luckily, the response was really encouraging. Many of you wanted a similar space to share your favourite books and a way to find out the novels that have shaped my literary journey.
So here we are. I’m both excited and nervous to share this inaugural post of the JTO Book Club. Unsurprisingly, I thought it apt to kick off this new series with Half of a Yellow Sun, a book I’m sure many of you cherish as much as I do. If you’re yet to read Half of a Yellow Sun, please chime in on anything at all in the comment section. What have you recently read? Maybe you would like to start reading – what genre do you think you’ll venture into first? Every comment on this blog post will be appreciated and responded to – so get typing!
So, what is Half of a Yellow Sun all about?
Adichie’s novel is situated in 1960s Nigeria. The first part of the book sets the scene and the reader is able to connect to the characters and their surroundings via Adichie’s unequivocal prose. Yet, it is in the second part of the book in which everything that was set up in the first part is dismantled by the Biafran War which erupts in 1967 and lasts until 1970. This Nigerian Civil War was fought between the Nigerian government and the separated state of Biafra, whose populace was mainly Igbo. Due to the fact that many of the central characters in Half of a Yellow Sun are Igbo, and Adichie herself comes from an Igbo family, you might think the reader observes the conflict from a slightly partisan viewing point. Yet, Adichie does not hesitate to account for the atrocities and mistakes undertaken by both sides, and in many ways, this mirror of morality is also reflected in the book’s characters.
As I mentioned before, we get to know a myriad of characters in the first half of the book. Some we empathise with, others we do not. Some we like, others we dislike. But for me, that was the point. There was an unwavering complexity and contradiction between Half of a Yellow Sun’s five protagonists – a houseboy, a professor, a virtuous upper-class Igbo woman, an austere upper-class Igbo woman, and a white expatriate.
I have become infatuated with the characterisation of Olanna and Kainene. The duality of these twin sisters questions society’s commonly shared ideas of what constitutes as “womanhood”. Kainene especially has become somewhat of a personal hero. There is a nonchalance and lack of affection in everything she does that I’m deeply drawn to, and nothing makes me happier than novels with imperfect female characters. Women are human beings, not robots. We make as many mistakes as our male counterparts, so it’s crucial to retire the good vs. bad binaries which we often impose on female characters. It will come as no surprise that Adichie masterfully disregards this trope when it comes to Olanna and Kainene. Adichie is a world-famous feminist, and this reflects in the way she paints Kainene and Olanna. These sisters show the reader that there is no single way to be a woman (or a feminist). In my eyes, Kainene is a truly feminist character. Olana, too, often showed determination barely halved by her male counterparts.
Let’s get into Richard Churchill. The English journalist, and Kainene’s beau, who first comes to Nigeria due to his love for roped pots. Yes, you read that correctly. The most timorous of the characters, you can’t help but both cringe and sympathise with Richard’s bashfulness. Even during his most questionable moments, including sleeping with his girlfriend’s twin sister, there is a hopeless naiveté that lets him off the hook. At times I found him to be a personification of “white guilt”. Richard becomes inwardly angry when he hears his fellow white man being racist and comes to see himself as authentically Biafran, regardless of what the outside world may see. Richard’s inability to “fit in” also raises questions of whether feeling belonging is an intrinsic part of human nature. Surprisingly, I, a black female, found myself connecting directly with Richard, a white male, more than any of the other characters. I come from a Nigerian family but was born, and currently live, in England. I’ve only actually lived in Nigeria for about 7 or so years in my entire life, and now hold dual citizenship from these two countries that have shaped my life.
It is scary to say (or write) this out loud, but I’ve always felt inauthentically both Nigerian and British. It’s that feeling when neither side makes you feel like you really belong. Somewhat in the inverse, Richard is a British man who desperately wants the world to see him as Igbo as he sees himself. Reading Richard’s accounts, I began to pity the fact that this fictional world never would.
But knowing what you are, shouldn’t that be enough?
Illustration by Claire Idera
Half of a Yellow Sun culminates in the midst of the Biafran War and the reader comes to learn of the ways in which it terrorizes each character; ways that I was not fully prepared for. During my first read of this book, I knew it was situated around the Nigerian Civil War, yet when Adichie accounts merciless death, rape, and starvation, Half of a Yellow Sun becomes difficult to read. But this is a necessary discomfort for the reader. The only way to truly realise the brutality of the Biafran War is for the reader to really envision it. For me, it was Olanna and her husband, Odenigbo, who demonstrated how much life can change during a war. We first meet them enjoying their idyllically intellectual lives working at Nsukka University, and by the end of the war their family is impoverished, starving, and Odenigbo has become a shell of his former self. This transformation showed me how much everyone was affected.
I know that I haven’t discussed Odenigbo, and Ugwu, his houseboy turned extended family, in great detail. This first blog post could have gone on forever, but I’m cautious to make sure it stays a digestible piece, so I focused on the characters I felt I had the most to say about. If you have already read Half of a Yellow Sun, let me know if you agree or disagree with my musings by leaving a comment at the end of this post. If you haven’t read Half of a Yellow Sun, make sure to enter into the giveaway (below), so you can start turning its pages.
I hope you enjoyed reading the first edition of the JTO Book Club as much as I enjoyed writing it. Let’s create a book-loving community together. You can start by commenting and replying to others at the bottom of this post.
Go ahead and share your thoughts, we’re all listening.
Temi’s Takeaway Quote:
“The World Was Silent When We Died” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
G I V E A W A Y
Follow the below steps to win a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun:
– Follow @jtofashion on Instagram (here).
– Like my latest Instagram photo.
– Comment below on this blog post stating: your thoughts on Half of a Yellow Sun or what your favourite book is and why…
– Send me a DM stating that you have finished the following steps.
– I will post an Instagram Photo on Saturday 15th December 2018 tagging the 3 winners.
For postal reasons, the books can only be sent to addresses within the United Kingdom and Europe.