Last Easter, I had the pleasure of reading one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s books for the first time. I didn’t stop at only one of her novels, though. Rather, I jumped in with both feet and read Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah back to back.
I hadn’t planned to do this particularly—I don’t generally read fiction—but my mother who knows what a fan of Ms. Adichie’s I am, passed on these books to me on Easter weekend after she was done with them herself. With lots of time on my hands, I couldn’t resist!
Before I begin telling you about either book, allow me to ask: do you know who Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is?
In case you don’t, let me introduce her to you the way I first learned about her: through her popular TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Danger of a Single Story
From the first time I heard this talk, I was hooked.
I knew Ms. Adichie’s was an African voice I wanted to keep listening to and boy, have I!
I listen to and/or read any of Ms. Adichie’s talks, interviews, or short stories that I’m lucky enough to get my hands on.
Until last Easter, though, I had never read any of her novels (as I said, I don’t generally read fiction).
Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah are her second and third novels respectively.
Now, let’s take a look at her two later novels in closer detail.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Because of that, despite my mother recommending that I start reading Americanah first, I chose to begin with Half of a Yellow Sun.
Because I reasoned that the odds were great Ms. Adichie had honed her craft in those seven years, meaning there was a good chance that Americanah was the better of the two books.
I didn’t want to read the better book first and then be disappointed by the less well-written one. (I shouldn’t have worried about this. Both books are brilliantly written, and I actually liked Half of a Yellow Sun a bit more. More on that later).
Ok, so let’s get to the meat of it.
What Is Half of a Yellow Sun About?
The novel follows the story of 5 characters: Ugwu, a houseboy; twin sisters Olanna and Kainene; and their respective partners Odenigbo, a “revolutionary” university professor, and Richard, a British writer who travels to Nigeria to write a book.
The first part of Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in a peaceful Nigeria.
In this early part of the book, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduces us to the story’s main characters.
She explains to us how they became part of each other’s lives and details the relationship between them.
The latter part of the book takes place during the Nigerian Civil War (a.k.a. the Biafran War), a war that broke out after Southeast Nigeria seceded from the rest of Nigeria to form a new and independent nation of Biafra.
At first the Biafrans are elated with the formation of their new and independent state. Since there doesn’t exist a country called Biafra today, though, you already know which side lost the war. The book follows the story’s main characters through the war (with some serious dramatic twists and turns in the plot!) recounting at once a very personal story about love, people, their hopes and dreams, while at the same time telling a more global story of war, national hope, identity and international relations.
After reading Americanah, I understood why my mother thought I would like it more than Half of a Yellow Sun. Americanah is truly a turn-of-the-21st-century African story that mirrors many experiences I have lived myself, down to the fact that the book’s main character Ifemulu becomes a blogger. 😀
Although I said I liked Half of a Yellow Sun more—which is quite surprising because I am not usually one for wartime stories—Americanah told a story that was so delightful in its familiarity. (In hindsight, I think I couldn’t connect with some of the issues Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie raised about race in Americanah, especially all the energy with which Ifemelu writes about them in her blog posts. I could understand the issues and recognize what she was saying, having lived in North America for 8 years, but it’s just no longer part of my reality now that I live in Africa again.)
The scenes of Ifemelu getting her hair braided in an African hair salon in the U.S., along with all the characters she meets there, had me nodding and laughing in recognition. The scene towards the end of the novel where Ifemelu attends a Nigerpolitan Club meeting for people who had returned to Nigeria after living or studying abroad, could have been any number of social situations I’ve experienced in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, or any other East African capital. The central story of the love affair between Ifemelu and Obinze, though, was a serious challenge to my moral compass. Why? Because when childhood sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze get in touch again after years of no contact, Obinze has a wife. I have never rooted so hard for something I am generally so fundamentally against! 😆
Back up! What Is Americanah About?
Americanah follows the lives of two Nigerian childhood sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze. After meeting in secondary school in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze both go abroad in search of greener pastures. Ifemelu goes to study in the U.S., while Obinze immigrates illegally to the U.K. Americanah follows their journeys in their new countries-of-residence with a particular focus on their struggles, especially those related to race. Ifemelu eventually becomes a popular race blogger. When we meet her, she is on the verge of moving back to Nigeria—where Obinze lives—after 13 years in the U.S. (I’ll stop there so that I don’t inadvertently leak any spoilers).
Thoughts on Americanah & Half of a Yellow Sun
Have you read either of these books before? If so, I’d like to hear what you thought about them (please leave me a comment in the comment section below!). Personally, I LOVED both novels. They had me up all night, and I just couldn’t put them down! I loved that the female African characters in these books were sassy, intelligent, strong, and that they showed agency. I particularly liked how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tackled the sexuality of her African female protagonists. In these books, their sexuality is visceral, hearty, unashamed, and owned by themselves. Another thing I enjoyed was how both books jumped back and forth in time. This did a great job of keeping us in suspense with regard to certain key plot points.
I loved the Africanness of both novels. I loved that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sprinkled the books liberally with Igbo, her native language and the native language of many of her characters. Even in the scenes that take place in urban Nigeria, she sprinkles dialogue with English as it is spoken there. For instance, the word ‘Americanah’, which comes up in conversation when Americanah‘s main characters are still in high school in Lagos, is a Nigerian term used to refer to a person who goes to the US and then returns to Nigeria with American affectations.
Race in Americanah
The commentary about race in Americanah—especially in Ifemelu’s blog posts—was biting, and it was refreshing to hear someone tell it like it is. If I am honest, though, this is not what moved me most about the book. Like Ifemelu, and Ms. Adichie, I’ve been lucky enough to live most of my life in places where race hasn’t been my primary definer. AIthough I could relate to what Ifemulu/Ms. Adichie was saying, I didn’t relate to it very powerfully.
In both novels, Ms. Adichie, using her gift with words and what must be a keen power of observation, weaves stories and worlds that completely suck you in. The scene I recall most from Half of a Yellow Sun, for instance, is one that mentions a minor insignificant character, whose name we are never sure of and who isn’t even mentioned until after he is already dead. Ms. Adichie tells this young boy’s story so elegantly and eloquently, that I spent the whole day after I finished the book moping about, weeping (figuratively not literally) for Biafra and this little boy.
Watch Ms. Adichie discuss love, race, and hair in a television interview…
Now I’d Like to Hear from You
Have you ever read Half of a Yellow Sun or Americanah? If so, please share your thoughts on these books in the comment section below. I am particularly keen to hear from non-Africans to find out if these books are as enjoyable when you are not African. If you haven’t read either of these novels, I recommend them wholeheartedly! You can purchase them here and here on Amazon (you can also follow those links for more reviews). If you ever do get round to reading them, again, please let me know what you thought of them in the comments below.
Until the next time,
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Photo Credit: mlcref.blogspot.ug