- Ivara Esege
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria.
She studied medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria then moved to the US to study communications and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University. She gained an MA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.
After initially writing poetry and one play, For Love of Biafra (1998), she had several short stories published in literary journals, winning various competition prizes. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was published in 2003 and is set in the political turmoil of 1990s Nigeria, the narrative told from the perspective of 15-year-old Kambili Achike. This book won the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book), and was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Her second novel is Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), set before and during the Biafran War. It won the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.
Chimamanda’s third novel Americanah, was written during a fellowship awarded by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2011-2013 and was published to great acclaim in 2013.
Chimamanda divides her time between Nigeria, where she regularly teaches writing workshops, and the United States.
As the author of the highly-praised The Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s success has been celebrated by the literary establishment.
These novels are set in Nigeria and separately reveal her deftness as a storyteller. The Purple Hibiscus has its main focus on the strained relationship between the first-person narrator, Kambili, and her dominant father and has a military coup as a backdrop. In comparison, Half of a Yellow Sun is more engaged with the outside political world and is centred on the effects that Nigeria’s colonial past and the Biafran war has had on its more strongly developed cast of characters. She has also written a play, For Love of Biafra (1998), which is an earlier dramatised account of the war; short stories; and a collection of poems entitled Decisions (1998).
Because Kambili is aged 15, and events are delivered in her first person voice, The Purple Hibiscus is filtered through her adolescent perspective. Initially, the narrative appears to be overly naive, but, when remembering her age, this gradually becomes an authentic coming-of-age story. The depiction of her violently authoritative father allows for some complexity that criticises both British colonialism and traditional patriarchal powers for their influences on the oppression of marginalised groups. The connection is also made between the two as her father’s respectability is measured by himself and others in his adherence to Eurocentric values: ‘Papa changed his accent when he spoke, sounding British, just as he did when he spoke to Father Benedict. He was gracious, in the eager-to-please way that he always assumed with the religious, especially with the white religious.’ His material success is seen to go hand in hand with his seemingly devout Catholicism and in this way his corrupt view of the world becomes entangled with an imposed religion and the workings of capitalism.
As with Adichie’s second novel, the setting of Nigeria is elemental rather than decorative or incidental. The flower of the title represents liberty, not exoticism, and symbolises her brother’s challenge to their father’s authority: ‘Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.’
Although Half of a Yellow Sun is set in the 1960s, it is regarded as ‘eerily current’ by Rob Nixon in The New York Times because of the parallels that may be drawn with the fallout from the Iraq war as ‘citizens abandoned on the highways of fear must choose between a volatile federation and destabilizing partition’ (1 October 2006). The title refers to the Biafran flag of independence and the narrative is divided into four main parts. These shift backwards and forwards in time alternately from the ‘Early Sixties’ to the ‘Late Sixties’.
It is written in the third person and each of the 37 chapters gives the reader the perspective of one of the main characters: Ugwu, Richard or Olanna. The first, for example, is from Ugwu’s point of view. He is aged 13 at the beginning of the novel and has just started working as a houseboy for Odenigbo, who is a university lecturer. He tells Ugwu that education is a priority and exploitation cannot be resisted ‘if we don’t have the tools to understand exploitation’. Odenigbo is a mouthpiece for one who favours civil rights and questions the influence of colonialism, and yet his contradictory views of how full independence may be achieved are made clear in his choice to speak in English rather than Igbo at his campus parties.
The second chapter shifts to Olanna, who is Odenigbo’s girlfriend, and through her the narrative extends its reach to examine familial relationships as well as the historical influence of colonialism more fully. She and her twin sister, Kainene, are from a wealthy family and their mother and father are seen to have gained their money from corrupt practices. Their position in society before the war is used as a contrast with Ugwu’s rural upbringing.
Richard, who is first used as a focal point in Chapter Three, is the only white main character and is the lover of Kainene. He comes to Nigeria as a writer and wants to research the Igbo culture, but Adichie avoids using him as simply one of a new breed of colonialists that continue the work of the predecessors after Nigerian independence. He comes to identify himself with the Igbo people he loves and is given a part to play in reporting the atrocities of the Biafran war.
However, he is not given the opportunity to re-write the past. Occasionally, excerpts from a book appear within this book and the readers are initially (but erroneously) led to believe that this second narrative has been written by him. It is entitled The World was Silent When we Died and explains how Nigeria came about as a nation and how this may be linked to the horrific outcomes of the civil war in 1967: ‘The Yoruba were the largest in the Southwest. In the Southeast, the Igbo lived in small republican communities. They were non-docile and worryingly ambitious. Since they did not have the good sense to have kings, the British created 'warrant chiefs', because indirect rule cost the Crown less. Missionaries were allowed in to tame the pagans, and the Christianity and education they brought flourished. In 1914, the governor-general joined the North and the South, and his wife picked a name. Nigeria was born.’ Both books highlight how this war, that came to be synonymous with starvation and supposed in-fighting, has its root in a history of divide and white rule. The decision to give the authorship of the second book to an Igbo writer rather than a British white man also allows Adichie to reclaim the past and the present in independent terms.
In conclusion, Adiche’s postcolonial writing about Nigeria demonstrates a capacity to look at the family and the wider public sphere with equal regard. Her fiction asks questions about the roles played by colonialism and present day corruption in the conflicts of the land of her birth, and she refuses to simplify the problems or solutions.
Dr Julie Ellam, 2008