Listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s widely shared 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, and you will find out that she is on a mission. Through her work, Adichie seeks to dismantle the pervasive “single story” of Africa, arguing that “stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” This urgency and desire to provide a more nuanced narrative and amplify the voices of the unheard is easily apparent in Adichie’s 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which chronicles the Biafran War, a three year civil conflict riddled with widespread starvation, genocide, and destruction, resulting in the deaths of over a million people.
Adichie’s novel is insightful not because there is a shortage of information about current political turmoil, secessionist movements, or conflict around the world. A cursory glance at any major news website reveals statistics, isolated stories, and an array of opinions regarding various global conflicts. Additionally, many novels, social movements, and slogans have espoused the futility of war. Rather, Adichie is unmatched in her ability to represent the historical roots and early manifestations of conflict in a fictional format. She catalogs how the repercussions of conflict reverberate in interpersonal relationships with the precision of an ethnographer, chronicles the political underpinnings of discord with the knowledge of a historian, and remains unparalleled in her narrative ability. Furthermore, through chronicling how seemingly good-hearted characters implicate themselves in callous acts or reveal prejudiced beliefs, Adichie reveals the mechanics of a descent into war on an individual level and challenges the “single story” of the Biafran Civil War within Western conceptions of Nigerian history.
In Half of A Yellow Sun, we are introduced to Ugwu, a mild-mannered servant from the country who moves to the city to work for Odenigbo, a politically active university professor. We are later acquainted with Olanna, an Oxford sociology graduate and later, Odenigbo’s wife, and her twin sister Kainene, and Richard, a British journalist. The beginnings of the novel remain unmarked by conflict; instead, Adichie establishes the relationships between the characters, their places in Nigeria’s postcolonial political landscape, and their personal aspirations. Through conversations among academics in dinner parties at Odenigbo’s home, we learn about the tensions between proponents of pan-African, national, and tribal identities. While the early flames of the conflict are interspersed between descriptions of the character’s personal happenings, the conflict soon accelerates in magnitude, consuming the entirety of the characters’ lives. It finally manifests itself in the breakdown and reconstruction of interpersonal relationships, with characters undergoing different traumas.
In her TED Talk, Adichie speaks on the value of identifying “secondary stories,” which she defines as popular narratives that overlook the root causes of conflict. The events in the novel reflect this theme. Adichie writes that the conflict in Biafra was propagated by arbitrary colonial borders that split territories owned by particular ethnic groups and grouped other ethnic groups together. While independence was heralded as a victory for Nigerians, Adichie writes that at the time of independence, Nigeria was a “collection of fragments held on a fragile clasp” due to the actions of imperial rulers.
However, foreign media discourse about the Biafran conflict in the UK and in foreign media failed to report a causal link between imperial oppression and the civil war. Rather, they sensationalized images of malnourished children during the conflict, and used these images to further cement the monolithic narrative of an impoverished Africa. In the novel, British magazines asked Richard whether conflict and deaths were related to “ancient tribal rituals,” propagating the narrative that war and starvation were endemic to Africa and absolving imperial powers from all responsibility. In a later scene within the book, Ugwu is shown to have chronicled his experiences, in a book entitled “The World Was Silent When We Died.”
As I write this column, people across the United States are engaging in demonstrations to protest the death of George Floyd. While the President of the United States has denounced some protestors as “thugs,” activists such as Rachel Cargle state that disparaging demonstrators and framing their actions as unproductive, selfish, or needlessly violent is part of an “attempt to gaslight the black community into believing that they aren’t justified in their outrage and their genuine attempts to enact meaningful and permanent change.” These activists argue that viewing these demonstrations as isolated incidents instead of acknowledging these movements as a response to the realities of oppression faced by Black Americans over the past 400 years is reductive—it is, according to Adichie’s definition, a “secondary story,” one created to absolve responsibility and in this case, deny systemic racism within American institutions.
Adichie’s novel provides many lessons as we attempt to right past injustices and address the fundamental causes of inequality and oppression. She shows us the power of storytelling to contradict the pervasive “secondary stories” that remain in the popular imagination. Only through providing avenues for members of marginalized communities to share their stories and actively challenge our preconceptions can we create a more nuanced and truthful image of the past and a more equitable future.