Reading like a racist

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun

I can’t decide how much I like this book. Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche) is a fascinating social history of post independence Nigeria (from Britain) running up to, and through, the Biafran war in the 1960s. It gives insight into the complex ethnic and political divisions and lifestyles of the period and there is a real sense of urgent excitement, an unselfconscious, ravenous ambition for the country and its future.

But is this just romantic exoticism? Would I have found this book as compelling if I were Nigerian and this history and social context were simply part of everyday life? Would this book have won the Orange Prize for fiction if the Oranges weren’t in Britain’s fruit bowl to start with?

If I were Nigerian suspect I might have criticised the book as pseudo chick-lit, a tiring shopping list of mechanical sex lives tricked out in purple prose. Or perhaps I might have bridled against the one dimensional depiction of the country’s 1960’s jeunesse doree, the strangely inconsistent writing that paints the female characters as 1990’s-style feminists while the men remain stubbornly rooted in a brash adolescence, trailing around behind their dicks. Or how about the formulaic ‘outsiders’ – the British ex-pat, the heartbroken African American woman, air-dropped into the story like a crate of leaflets.

Perhaps my criticisms of the writing style simply reflect my sensibilities. After all, I’m not Nigerian. I’m Anglo Australian and although it’s impossible to generalise about an ‘Australian sensibility’ any more than than a Nigerian one, I think there’s a strong asceticism that runs through Australian literature that reflects a thin-lipped, less-is-more Presbyterian background where language is hard and spare and the poetics of human emotion are often refracted through light and landscape. Or maybe was this what I was looking for in Half of a Yellow Sun – a hard-bitten white-lady dialogue with Africa, like so many that have gone before. I’m thinking of Alexandra Fuller’s work, but there are others too.

I’m left with questions like; how much, if at all, does Adichie’s work represent a ‘Nigerian’ literary aesthetic? And should it?

Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Adichie’s book presents an interesting, sympathetic and complex and accessible account of a particularly vicious civil war, an account that will likely draw in those who might not otherwise give a crap. For that, it’s worth its weight in peppers.

1 thought on “Reading like a racist

  1. Pingback: Reading like a racist. | The Mutton Flap

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