Book 5: Half of a Yellow Sun–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It should come as no shock that I know nothing about Nigerian history. We barely learn anything about American history beyond the anglo/christian/hetero/male perspective, so why would I expect to learn anything about the continent of Africa in general, let alone the history of one country in particular. Although Half of a Yellow Sun is fictional, Adichie did considerable historical research, using her family and friends, in addition to other documents, as sources. So for an introduction to the history of a newly independent Nigeria, this book was really interesting. But for the characters that she developed and the tale that she wove into this history, this book was fantastic!

Admittedly, it started kind of slow. Not uninteresting, but not gripping either. She had to construct the setting, develop the characters, provide context, let you learn who/what/where/when/why.  All of a sudden though, this book becomes a page-turner. Of the 500 some odd pages I read about 350 of them over the course of a day and a half.  I haven’t sat and binge-read a book like that since the seventh Harry Potter book came out.

I know I’m being repetitive, but…WE NEED MORE OF THESE TEXTS IN OUR EDUCATION! We are such an informationally stunted, nationalistic, revisionist-history culture! The dominant (read: western) narrative regarding anything Africa is what? Abject poverty, famine, desperation, disease, conflict, corruption, backwardness. There’s never any context, never any explanation of how those situations came to be (Reminder-everyone on that massive continent is not starving, naked, and living in a hut).

This book takes a complicated situation and tackles it in such a digestible way, without the objectification, without the oversimplification, without the sad music and requests for donating money to charitable organizations. It got at the nuances of why and how a civil war begins: how European powers historically helped to create ethnic tensions and then continue(d) to aggravate those tensions politically and economically even post-independence, all the while blaming the ensuing chaos on the “uncivilized nature” of the people they formally colonized and using it as a hindsight justification for their prior crimes against humanity and continued human rights violations. It showed how the rest of the world gets it wrong in understanding why these manmade disasters happen, and how little all these charitable donations really do since the problem originates from power structure abuses internally and externally rather than a lack of actual resources. This novel does all of that without preaching, without being overly academic, and without being melodramatic. That’s what was so genius and enthralling about it.

It was beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking at the same time, but probably one of the best ways to talk about how a nation, or a groups within a nation go from stability to the opportunistic poverty-porn images we see broadcast across the world. Caveat: like I said, I don’t know much about Nigerian history, so maybe somebody from there, who lived through this has a different perspective on this novel. Maybe it still is oversimplified and missing substance, maybe it’s not still 100%. But since we get ZERO over here, 75-80% more clarity if a far cry better.

There is a movie adaptation of this book, and I was excited when I remembered that because I was left wanting more once I finished the book. This is a story that deserves a serious approach and effort in its motion picture depiction, much like what’s given to the hundreds of movies about the lone (small group of) white war hero(s) year in and out.  Unfortunately, the movie version (available on Netflix) didn’t even begin to do the story justice. I actually couldn’t even finish the movie, which is saying a lot because I’ve sat through some pretty bad movies. I normally don’t quibble about inaccurate casting, but when an author spends a vast amount of time commenting on a character’s appearance, especially in contrast to another character, such that it becomes central to the story, why on earth would you cast an actor/actress that directly contradicts that description?

I know that Black/African/Diasporic stories rarely, if ever, get the budget and resources that white movies get, especially if they’re not directed by someone white, or don’t center a white character within the story (see: The Last King of Scotland). And they don’t get those budgets because studios swear they don’t as well in the box office–that black audiences don’t turn out and that black stories don’t resonate enough with “mainstream audiences” to encourage their turn out either. It becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy: fewer resources can lead to lesser quality can lead to disappointment can lead to poor reviews can lead to low box-office turnout can lead to fewer resources the next go round. Although, it’s been proven repeatedly that many black films do as well, if not better, than “mainstream” movies among ALL demographics, And lower budget doesn’t necessarily  mean lower quality.

However, this was one of those cases where the screenplay and casting really impacted the storytelling. The individual cast members are all great performers in their other movies, but some were inappropriately cast (imho). But more than that, the plot line didn’t flow. It’s a 500 page book and cutting it into a 2 hour movie is always going to be difficult and will inevitably have to deviate in some of the details, but it’s been done better with longer books as source material. Events were reordered and entire dynamics between characters were altered, to the point of it not making any sense and changing the actual story. But at the same time they’d choose conversations from the book to repeat verbatim. So it just got too messy for me.

Anyway, there’s really no need for me to continue critiquing the movie, since like I said, I didn’t even finish watching it. So if you want to watch the movie, I’d suggest you watch it before you read the book, because the reverse would probably be as disappointing for you as for me. But regardless of whether you watch the movie, READ THE BOOK! You won’t have wasted your time. You’ll learn something new. But better than that, you’ll develop a personal relationship with the characters that’ll leave you wanting more (and maybe one day they’ll do another film version that does it justice while still filming in Nigeria and having a director/producers of the people, with all the resources they could ever want and need *fingers crossed*).