The Story Behind the Book
Both my grandfathers were interesting men, both born in the early 1900s in British-controlled Igbo land, both determined to educate their children, both with a keen sense of humor, both proud. I know this from stories I have been told. Eight years before I was born, they died in Biafra as refugees after fleeing hometowns that had fallen to federal troops. I grew up in the shadow of Biafra. I grew up hearing ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war’ stories; it was as if the war had somehow divided the memories of my family. I have always wanted to write about Biafra—not only to honor my grandfathers, but also to honor the collective memory of an entire nation. Writing Half of a Yellow Sun has been my re-imagining of something I did not experience but whose legacy I carry. It is also, I hope, my tribute to love: the unreasonable, resilient thing that holds people together and makes us human.
Q & A with the Author
Q: What led you to write a book about the Nigeria-Biafra war?
I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget. I have always known that I would write a novel about Biafra. At 16, I wrote an awfully melodramatic play called For Love of Biafra. Years later, I wrote short stories, That Harmattan Morning, Half of a Yellow Sun and Ghosts, all dealing with the war. I felt that I had to approach the subject with little steps, paint on a smaller canvas first, before starting the novel.
Q: Given that, at the time of the war, you hadn’t yet been born, what sort of research did you do to prepare for writing this book?
I read books. I looked at photos. I talked to people. In the four years that it took to finish the book, I would often ask older people I met, “Where were you in 1967?” and then take it from there. It was from stories of that sort that I found out tiny details that are important for fiction. My parents’ stories formed the backbone of my research. Still, I have a lot of research notes that I did not end up using because I did not want to be stifled by fact, did not want the political events to overwhelm the human story.
Q: Was it important to you that you get all the “facts” of the war correct for this work of fiction?
I invented a train station in Nsukka, invented a beach in Port Harcourt, changed the distance between towns, changed the chronology of conquered cities but I did not invent any of the major events. It was important that I get the facts that mattered right. All the major political events in the book are ‘factually’ correct. But what was most important to me, in the end, was emotional truth. I wanted this to be a book about human beings, not a book about faceless political events.
Q: Are memories of the Nigeria-Biafra war still alive in Nigeria, talked about on a regular basis, or do you feel that the conflict is being lost to history as time passes and that it becomes less important to Igbo culture?
The war is still talked about, still a potent political issue. But I find that it is mostly talked about in uninformed and unimaginative ways. People repeat the same things they have been told without having a full grasp of the complex nature of the war or they hold militant positions lacking in nuance. It also remains, to my surprise, very ethnically divisive: the (brave enough) Igbo talk about it and the non-Igbo think the Igbo should get over it. There is a new movement called MASSOB, the movement for the actualization of the sovereign state of Biafra, which in the past few years has captured the imagination of many Igbo people. MASSOB is controversial; it is reported to engage in violence and its leaders are routinely arrested and harassed by the government. Still, despite their inchoate objectives, MASSOB’s grassroots support continues to grow. I think this is because they give a voice to many issues that have been officially swept aside by the country but which continue to resonate for many Igbo people.
Q: The book focuses on the experiences of a small set of people who are experiencing the conflict from very different points of view. When we step into their individual worlds, we don’t exactly know their every thought—the narrator who follows them isn’t omniscient—but rather we seem to see and understand them through a film. Can you describe your narrative style and why you framed these characters the way you did?
I actually don’t think of them as being seen through a ‘film.’ I have always been suspicious of the omniscient narrative. It has never appealed to me, always seemed a little lazy and a little too easy. In an introduction to the brilliant Italian writer Giovanni Verga’s novel, it is said about his treatment of his characters that he ‘never lets them analyze their impulses but simply lets them be driven by them.’ I wanted to write characters who are driven by impulses that they may not always be consciously aware of, which I think is true for us human beings. Besides, I didn’t want to bore my reader—and myself—to death, exploring the characters’ every thought.
Q: The character of Richard is a British white expatriate who considers himself Biafran, drawing a certain amount of quiet—and some loud—criticism for his self-proclaimed identity. Another key narrator, Ugwu, is a thirteen-year-old houseboy who reacts rather than acts. Both are interesting choices for characters for the narrator to “shadow.” Why did you pick them?
Ugwu was inspired in part by Mellitus, who was my parents’ houseboy during the war; in part by Fide, who was our houseboy when I was growing up. And I have always been interested in the less obvious narrators. When my mom spoke about Mellitus, what a blessing he was, how much he helped her, how she did not know what she would have done without him, I remember being moved but also thinking that he could not possibly have been the saint my mother painted, that he must have been flawed and human. I think that Ugwu does come to act more and react less as we watch him come into his own. Richard was a more difficult choice. I very much wanted somebody to be the Biafran ‘outsider’ because I think that outsiders played a major role in the war but I wanted him, also, to be human and real (and needy!)
Q: Are there other characters based on real people?
‘Harrison’ is based on a real Harrison who lived with my family until very recently. What the character does with beets is, in fact, what the real Harrison told me he did during the war.
Q: There is a conflict in this story between what is traditional and tribal versus that which is modern and bureaucratic. What is the mix today? How worrisome is it that some of the tribal ways have been lost?
Cultures evolve and things change, of course. What is worrisome is not that we have all learned to think in English, but that our education devalues our culture, that we are not taught to write Igbo and that middle-class parents don’t much care that their children do not speak their native languages or have a sense of their history.
Q: We see snippets of a book written by a character in Half of a Yellow Sun—it is an account of the conflict depicted in Half of a Yellow Sun, written after the fact. Its authorship may come as a surprise to some at the end of the story. What effect did you want this book within a book to have on Half of a Yellow Sun?
I wanted a device to anchor the reader who may not necessarily know the basics of Nigerian history. And I wanted to make a strongly-felt political point about who should be writing the stories of Africa.
Q: You must have come across many books on Biafra. Are there any you would recommend in particular?
Surviving in Biafra by Alfred Obiora Uzokwe is a marvelous memoir of war seen through the eyes of a young boy. Chinua Achebe’s Girls at War contains three sublime Biafran stories. Adewale Ademoyega’s Why We Struck is a fiercely ideological look at the events that led to the war. A Tragedy Without Heroes by Hilary Njoku and The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War by Alexander Madiebo are fascinating personal accounts from top-ranking Biafran Army officers. The writing in Ntieyong Akpan’s The Struggle for Secession has a formal beauty and he presents—inadvertently, I suspect—a complex, flawed and sympathetic portrait of the Biafran leader. Wole Soyinka was imprisoned during the war and records this period in his magisterial memoir The Man Died. George Obiozor’s The United States and the Nigerian Civil War: An American dilemma in Africa is informative albeit brief and has an interesting forward by Walter Ofonagoro. Herbert Gold’s stark account of his visit to Biafra, Biafra Goodbye, moved me to tears. The Biafran War: Nigeria and the Aftermath by Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is a concise and clear-eyed look at the conflict. Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again are novels that convincingly portray middle-class Biafra. John De St Jorre’s The Nigerian Civil War presents an excellent view of Biafra from the outside. And Sunset in Biafra, the bitter and beautifully-written memoir by Elechi Amadi, looks at the war from the point of view of an anti-Biafran minority.