Tag: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Reading Slump and Half of a Yellow Sun

Hello. I’m back. Or am I? Too soon to tell!

I’ve been facing the reading block from hell such that there is little else I think about these days. This time last year, I was on book # 31. Whereas, as of this moment, Half of a Yellow Sun was book # 4 for this year. I’m so disappointed in myself that I don’t even feel like counting the other three books. It’s like the gap in reading negates everything I’ve done.

My last review in 2016 was published on Dec 1st. Post that, all I was doing was trying to read. To be fair, I was even trying to live, so everything I did on a daily basis got lost in the effort of keeping myself alive. I confessed in a post last year that I read books to consciously keep the real world out. Therefore, not being able to read was doubly suffocating. Like a singer who woke up one day to find she’s lost her voice.

I tried my best to fix my reading problem – a candle of hope that if I read one book from start to finish, maybe, just maybe, other parts of my life would begin fixing themselves. We attach significance to certain actions in certain ways. In an effort to bring this to fruition, I joined a book club. It didn’t help with the reading, but it helped in other ways – it allowed me to revert to a side of me I had hidden for the last few years under a cloak of introversion. It was quite beneficial to my self esteem which had been on an all-time low. But with the reading, nah – I’d bring a new book with me each week, pretend to read a chapter, and then put it back on my shelf. Nothing stuck, nothing stayed.

6318821It was the same with Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The first time I brought it to the club, I didn’t even open it, as I was  too busy chitchatting with everyone else. Two weeks after that, while at home, I decided to start reading it on a whim. This isn’t my usual “book called out to me” phenomena that I keep talking about on this blog. This was just another attempt to kill the block. At first, it was as bad as ever – not the book, but my focus and concentration. I felt like a calf learning to walk and constantly failing. I’d read one sentence and dream of clouds for the next three paragraphs. I chided myself and a part of my brain became a stern parent to another part. Instead of giving up on the book, I’d go back and read those paragraphs that I’d missed. I vowed to not let the slump get better of me this time. Slow and steady (real slow cos it took me a month to read a book I would have finished in maybe four days before).

Adichie is someone I admire a lot for who she is. I’ve listened to her talks and interviews and I have immense respect for her. Last year, I read Purple Hibiscus and quite enjoyed it. The prose was simple, the story realistic, with characters that stayed in your mind even after you put the book down.

I decided to read Half of a Yellow Sun more out of my love for Adichie than anything else. I didn’t even read the blurb before signing up. And, forgive me for being so ignorant, but I learned about the Nigerian Civil War only after reading this book.

Set in the ’60s, the story does not follow a linear timeline. It starts with the early ’60s, then moves to late ’60s. we go back to the early ’60s where some important revelations are made, and we return to the late ’60s, in the middle of war and starvation and destruction. In the beginning, the characters seemed almost hopeful that the war would come. A fight, a hope for independence. The story is told through the POVs of the three central characters – Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard.

The story begins with Ugwu accepting a job as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor and an intellectual strongly in favor of creation of the new state, Biafra. Odenigbo entertains other intellectuals every evening, while Ugwu observes their mannerisms and tries to learn as much as he can.

Enter Olanna, the beautiful woman Odenigbo is in love with. She has decided to leave behind her hometown and rich parents and move to the university town with Odenigbo. Her arrival makes Ugwu uneasy at first; with her polished manners and refined language, Ugwu believes she is not right for his master, but soon his respect for her grows beyond his respect for Odenigbo. When Odenigbo’s mother hatches a plan against Olanna, it is Ugwu who tries his best to warn her.

Olanna has a sardonic twin sister, Kainene – the ignored one. The different treatment the two girls received from their parents has turned Kainene cynical and indifferent. She meets Richard, a shy English journalist at a party and the two soon become lovers. Even though Richard falls in love with her, he is too afraid to ever fully express his feelings. It is Igbo art that draws him to the country, but he stays to document the war.

In the beginning, the book gave off a Gone With The Wind vibe, as both have a war setting. There is also a tinge of The Kite Runner. However, Half of a Yellow Sun focuses more on the characters in the story than the war itself. The brutality of war has been captured to an extent, but not with the severity it demanded. The war serves as a backdrop, and is almost like an afterthought in the work as a whole – more time could have been devoted to show just how terrible it was (this is just my opinion). In this regard, I liked Purple Hibiscus better, as in that book, the setting is as important as the characters.

I quite related to the character of Olanna and her blind love for Odenigbo. There was a devotion in her love that I could understand in a way that I wish I didn’t. However, it is Kainene I looked up to. Her development as a character has been very well written. She is a perfect blend of strength, willfulness, and levelheadedness. I absolutely admired her (and wished I was more like her than her twin).

I’m yet to read Adichie’s other works of fiction (Americanah, The Thing Around Your Neck etc.), but I enjoyed the two I’ve read so far. Although I liked Purple Hibiscus more than Half of a Yellow Sun, I will still equally recommend both, the important reason being they’re not exactly comparable and are so different from each other, they could’ve been written by two different authors. That said, I will always remember the story of Half of a Yellow Sun. It is, after all, the first book I read in a bloody long and hard time.

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We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Twitter4838603I was ten years old w23301805hen one evening during dinner, I asked why was it that my mother ate after everyone else. Why was it that she did not eat with us? Why was it that when she did eat, no one asked her if she’d like more gravy, like she always asked us? Simple questions that only a ten year old could ask. My brother, then twenty three, responded with a smirk, “You sound like a feminist.” I asked him what that meant and he told me it was someone who asked such questions. A vague explanation, and a tone that taunted more than appreciated. My mother chimed in saying how feminism is wrong and shouldn’t have a place in the world, because it was a woman’s place to compromise, to see her family was well fed, with selfless devotion. It was a woman’s place to eat last.

I can’t say why but even at that age, this caused a lot of rage within me. This went beyond something I could accept or even comprehend or make peace with. But so much of social conditioning and internalizing goes on within that far too many times, I accepted certain injustices because I thought that was normal. That normal must not be questioned.

A couple of years ago, a good friend told me that while he respected women very much (I can say for a fact, he did, and more than most men I know) he wished women would just stay at home. He did not mean this in a sexist or malicious way; at least, that was not his intent. He said men with their fragile egos get only more riled up and feel threatened when women compete with them at the workplace. This leads them to turn more violent in order to keep women “in their rightful places”. In short, the way to curb sexual politics was to go back in time when men hunted and women cooked. Cos men, it seemed to my resigned friend, were reluctant to change.

We keep hearing about this: men and their fragile egos. Men almost seem proud of it. I don’t see why anything described as “fragile” should be cause for pride, but whatever. Around the same time as the above conversation happened, I came across the quote I’ve shared at the beginning of this post. And I thought, “Holy shit this is so true!” I did not know the quote was from a book. I had not even heard of Purple Hibiscus or Half of a Yellow Sun at the time, so even the author’s name did not ring a bell. I was just struck by the simple, stark truth of the statement. Which is of course why I still have that image on my phone, though I have changed three phones since I first saved it.

But enough about me. We should be talking about this wonderful book. Originally a Tedx talk given by Adichie, it was later published as a book. Short as it is, it covers all the right topics, and may I begin with this first:

“Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that. ‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. There are particular things that happen to me because I am a woman.”

The number of times I have had this argument (interestingly, almost always with other women who think feminism is something other than what it really is) has sapped me of all my energy. At this point, it’s like I’ve given up trying to explain to these women that standing up to that sexist boss is also feminism, standing up against the man who groped you on the street is also adding to the feminist dialogue. I mean, come ON! What is so difficult to understand?

As for the fragile egos, she says how men are pressurized into believing they have to be a certain way, and the stronger they’re told to be, the more “masculine”, the more pressure there is, and the weaker their ego becomes. Sad, really. Equality takes that pressure off of men. Equality means a happier world, just simply stated.

Adichie describes how she is never greeted by waiters at restaurants, but they always greet the man she is with. Something similar always happens to us at the supermarket. At the exit gate, quite a few guys rush to the Mr. imploring him to fill out credit card applications. They ignore me completely. Like I’m invisible. When I pointed this out to the Mr. one day, he asked, “Do you even want a credit card? I thought you hated credit cards.” I told him that was not the point. The point was, they assumed I need not be asked, cos as a “woman” what use would I have of anything like a credit card or money, when there’s clearly a man with me. Adichie says, “Does it occur to you to ask the waiter, ‘Why have you not greeted her?’ Men need to speak out in all of these ostensibly small situations. These are little things, but sometimes it is the little things that sting the most.”

Sometimes when I see anti-feminist slogans, I sulk for whole days. I slowly begin to understand why Sylvia Plath killed herself. I go through the same emotions – an intense desire to put my head in the oven. Then every once in a rare while, a Trudeau or an Adichie come along to lift up my spirits. Adichie says in the book that at first she believed her talk would not be appreciated, but the standing ovation she received gave her hope. Essays like this one give me hope. I wish it was longer. And I wish people who currently have no clue about feminism picked this up.

May we all read this book. May we all be feminists. 🙂

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