On Sunday 7th August, women and men, flocked to the Southbank, many in their colourful African best to see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, discuss bestselling ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, 10 years later. If you missed it, have no fear I wrote down EVERYTHING, partly for this blog, but primarily for general life enrichment. With no introduction required, Chimamanda came out to a rapturous applause, alongside interviewer Ted Hodgkinson (who did a great job FYI). Ted begins by asking Chimamanda about the ancestral influences of the book, as well as its raison d’être(yep Chimamanda’s got me speaking French). Seemingly impressed by the question, Chimamanda tells us that the Biafran war was a period she always felt called to write about, (disclaimer, I am not about to detail the causes and happenings of the war, google it). As an Igbo, born and bred in Nigeria, this war had a profound effect on her family. Chimamanda recollects being told stories, notably by her father about experiences during the war. These stories enabled her to capture the “emotional truths” that make the novel deeply moving, whilst hours and hours in libraries carrying out research and going through archives gave the book its factual element.
It is clear that this novel is more than just a story, both Chimamanda’s grandfathers died in refugee camps during the Biafran war… There was a certain emotional space Chimamanda says she inhabited whilst researching and writing this book, that was not experienced in any other writing. ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ is not simply a novel but history.
Despite this calling, Chimamanda admits to feeling the pressures of broaching a topic left alone by much of Nigeria’s education system. She wanted to capture an honest picture of Biafra, in its making and after, without writing propaganda. Moreover, the pacifist in her, wanted to write a novel that shone light on everyone’s truth.
We then got onto the topic of the character Richard Churchill, the English journalist who travels to Nigeria. (Richard was covered at different points, for ease of reading I’ve put it all together). Chimamanda says she never planned to include an English character, however, the more and more she researched, she realised that the “outsider” element was crucial to the war. It was foreign journalists for example, who reported on the death toll, and refugee camps in Biafra, and other nations that supported ( whether verbally or with arms) the warring sides. Additionally, Chimamanda read about BBC broadcaster Frederick Forsyth who covered the war, and alas the seed for Richard was sewn.
Although Chimamanda was certain she DID NOT want Richard’s character to take the form standard in literature, of the European that travels to deep dark Africa, she admits to struggling at first with writing his character. She jokingly says Richard initially spoke in long sentences with lots of commas, but that this didn’t feel right or real. Richard is a white male, Chimamanda is not, but once she was able to strip this away, and transcend race (tehe),writing this character became more natural. She recalls the offence some took to her depiction of Richard, and proudly retorts that those offended were used to white males playing a central role in all things…. On the contrary, in her novel, we see him struggling to write about his experiences during the war, precisely because, despite being an honorary Biafran, this is not his story to tell *cries in white privilege*.
And with that we go on to Ugwu, the character the novel starts and ends with, Odenigbo’s house help ( sorry I don’t know the politically correct term for this). This character is given a salient role in this story, with Chimamanda giving a voice to a level of society that is often muted, because as she deftly puts, “class is not talked about in Nigeria, as the people talking are all of one class”. Chimamanda explains that out of all the characters, it is Ugwu that earns the right to tell this story, even if society deems him as a lowly servant.
We then move on to discuss, the polar opposite twins, Olanna and Kainene. Chimamanda states that these characters were inspired by the fact that, women’s stories were and still are, rarely the centre of narratives about war. Ted rightfully observes that the war adds a resilience to Olanna, who Chimamanda describes as the sibling that strives to be good and parent pleasing. The war ” strips her layers of bullshit”, and you see a strength in her that was always present in Kainene.
After what Chimamanda calls the psycho analysis of some of her characters, we move onto a recent chapter in her life, motherhood. You can literally see the happiness radiating off her, as she discusses her baby. In this journey, she has found a sense of admiration for mothers, equally, it has also made her more concerned about current issues and affairs, as she needs her daughter to grow up in a world, better than what it is now. When stating some of the differences between writing and motherhood, Chimamanda admits that when writing you are the character’s God, but you are not your childs, which is a blessing but also frightening.
We ended on the much anticipated audience questions. I understand that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is our Guru of life and literature, but some of the questions people were asking had me like O___o , so I’m only delving into a few.
On the books ending;
Chimamanda speaks on meeting a mother who trekked decades after the war ended, to find her son who had gone missing during the war, and had been cited in the North. She hopes that such compelling truths are reflected in her story’s ending.
“Feminism is who I am, not a cloak I take on and off” *drops mic*.
On gender equality in Nigeria;
Younger Nigeria women seem to be less progressive, 23 year olds obsessing with marriage, and policing women more than men…..
On politicising her novels;
When you’re black or brown, white audiences read your work as an anthropology not just as a writer writing about love or a family etc. Chimamanda recollects someone asking her about a character in one of her books, and if he was representative of the 1980s military regime in Nigeria, NO, he was just a father.
It is a disservice to only see/ force the political aspects.
On complex, sensual love life’s of her female characters;
Chimamanda cheekily responds, that it’s a reflection of her love life. She emphasises that it is important for female sexuality to be seen as a thing and not connected to shame.
On Europeans working across the African continent;
Someone tweeted that the evening was like Comic Con for Black girls, and that is literally it. I cannot overstate how inspiring it was. Ted ended the night by gushing “your daughter is lucky to have you as a mum”, and the standing ovation Chimamanda received following this demonstrates how correct this is!