Welcome to my first post as part of the Third Day Book Club in the blogosphere. This month's book is: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.
You know that feeling you have when you see someone in a situation that you consider to be "terrible" or "unfortunate?" Whether that is someone with a physical disability, someone living in a war-stricken nation, someone who has been neglected, injured, terrorized, raped, has survived horror or excessive pain, disease or abject loneliness—anyone that has experienced something you perceive you would not ever want to. I have heard so many strong, capable, amazingly tough people say of these situations, "I don’t know how he/she/the citizens of that country do it. I don’t think I could."
There’s always a chance that they are right, that any one of them would break under extreme stress to the body or spirit, but I believe that most of us are far more capable than we imagine. The point is, unless you are the one facing the tragedy, you cannot know.
But you can read books that give you a glimmer of insight into what it might be like. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie did that for me in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which captures the three year war over a territory of Nigeria from 1967-1970 that tried to secede and set up its own nation, calling itself Biafra. She shows us this time through the eyes of three main characters. Ugwu, a bush-born teenager who comes to serve in the household of his "Master" Odenigbo—a ‘revolutionary’ professor who hosts social debates on politics and art in his home; Olanna—Odenigbo’s high-born mistress-turned-wife, who loves him with a passion that is blinding and nearly costs her the love of her twin sister Kainene; and Richard, the white British lover of Kainene who starts out merely fascinated by Igbo culture and in the end comes to feel he belongs to it.
I don’t want this post to be just a cold analysis of a piece of great literature—which this book really is. I want to talk about this book in terms of how it made me feel, and what tangents it brought me to as I read.
The first most apt quote from the book that summarizes what I felt it was about is from Olanna’s point of view, when the war is revving up to its worst and they have fled their home to a safer town,
"She looked at [Odenigbo’s] bare, hairy chest and his new beard and his torn slippers, and suddenly his mortality—their mortality—struck her with a clutch at her throat, a squeeze of alarm."
The moment Olanna becomes aware of their mortality is in some ways the most painful moment of all. For even though she lived an easy, some might say cushy life before the fighting broke out, she is inherently a good person and Adichie draws her characters so well that you can feel the pain of the loss of that protective membrane that allows a person to believe, "That won’t ever happen to me."
One of the things I loved about the book is that Adichie does not draw the customary parallel that "having" equals "evil." Some people have it better than others for sure (this is in great part a portrait of the middle class). Ugwu is a servant, after all, in his Master’s house—but he is loved and treated well and in return he loves them. When he is feared dead, they are as devastated as if he were family. Just because they have ‘enough’ does not, however, mean they are bad people—a point I think Adichie drove home exquisitely well. There is a way to have enough and still be pure of intention.
This is a book in which the worst can and does happen to people who seem as though they might crumble under the stress of war, but don’t, not in the expected ways. Their comforts may have insulated them and they do perhaps suffer the harder for it when all is taken from them and their lives are truly at stake. But it is also a book about fighting for the right to be who you are, as a person, as a nation, as an ethnicity. Biafra formed and existed at all because enough people were tired of conforming to a way of life, because they wanted to have more control over their lives and their government. It’s a theme we see repeated in history all the time.
And you can’t read this book and not feel your periscope widening out to include more of the world. While Biafrans was fighting and starving, American sons were still coming home in body bags from Vietnam. That’s where our focus was. But what else was happening in the world? At any given time in the world people are being suppressed and murdered (Darfur) and rising up against said suppression (Iraq).
The characters in this novel are people who also might have said, "Oh I couldn’t handle it if X happened," and then they do, in fact, handle it. The more reduced they are, the more they become aware of their humanity. Oh not at first. Ugwu, who is a gentle, kind, thoughtful boy, eventually gets conscripted by the military against his will and does things he will repent for the rest of his life. Betrayed by her lover, Olanna commits an act of betrayal that is even greater and nearly costs her the one person she loves most. Unsure of Kainene’s love, Richard jeopardizes their life together. Some days they are livid with fury, choked with grief and injustice, but most days they put their priorities in place: food, shelter, family.
The urge to survive is bigger than us. On the heels of having just written about suicide, I know that some people make the choice to end it soon, but I think the vast majority of us would do what the characters in this novel do: bind together, love a little more in the present, accept each new layer of tragedy, poverty and loss because it’s still life, and there seems to be no greater directive in any species than that of staying alive.
December 3rd: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell