Half of a Yellow Sun (henceforth: HYS) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a historiographical fiction novel set before and during the iconic Biafran War of 1967 to 1970. The book follows the perspective of three main, contrasting characters. The first character to be introduced is that of Ugwu, the young house boy from rural Nigeria, who comes to work for a professor in the university town of Nsukka. Second is the professor’s love interest, Olanna – a well-educated woman from a rich family. The last is Richard, a nervous and shy British expat with dreams of writing about Nigeria. Each character provides a separate viewpoint and narrative of the events in the novel, especially with regard to the theme of memory.
Each character is faced with trauma through the war and copes with it in different ways. One such coping mechanism is found at the end of the novel, where Olanna is accused of ‘burning memory’ when she is trying to get rid of vestiges of Biafra to avoid persecution. She responds to Odenigbo (the person who accused her) by stating that her memory is inside her; in this way, it is indestructible (Adichie, HYS ch. 37). This essay will deal with how the characters of Olanna and Ugwu dealt with the memories of the Biafran War by examining how Olanna internalised her memory, how her missing sister embodied her inability to move on from harsh memories and how Ugwu differs, adopted Richard’s memory and used it to create a collective voice for all Biafrans.
Some may see Olanna’s burning of her Biafran money as weak, but it should rather be seen as a product of her method of protecting her memories – internalising them. With Nigerian soldiers searching for remnants of Biafra supporters (ch. 37), Olanna not only (understandably) fears for her safety, but also for the sanctity of her memory. The quote: “She would not place her memory on things that strangers could barge in and take away” describes perfectly how Olanna felt about embodying memory in physical manifestations (ch. 37). Achebe made it clear how important memory of the Biafran war is for the psyche of those involved and those who came after (Ojinmah 2). Olanna also realised this to a degree but she saw tangible objects as too delicate a vessel for memory to hold. As such, she destroyed those mementos herself so she could be the sole controller of her own memory. With the destruction of the notes and other vestiges of Biafra, Olanna still possessed her memories of the war. As Dickson (2014) said, the Biafran war still clings to the descendants of the victims (Dickson 82). The character of Olanna witnessed the war, but the author did not. In this way, Adichie was writing in the ‘shadow of Biafra’ as she put it in an interview (Adichie, The Story Behind the Book). In many ways, Adichie is dealing with a collective memory in which, as a writer, she is seeking to turn internalised memory into something tangible. As Ojinmah (2012) said, preservation of memory is the domain of the writer. Olanna’s character seems to be moving away from Adichie’s idea of preserving memory, as she internalises it to herself alone. To Olanna, however, internalisation is the only way to defend her memory. In her own mind, nobody can corrupt it.
Olanna does have an embodiment of her memory, her the search for her sister, Kainene (Adichie, HYS ch. 37). Olanna’s memory, with regard to her sister, and the inability for her to move on from the war, is emphasied in the quote: “It was stranger than grief. She did not know where her sister was. She did not know. She raged at herself for not waking up” (ch. 37). This quote describes the visceral rage, frustration and hopelessness that Olanna felt at being unable to find her sister. Closure, as events such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa espoused, is one of the most important aspects of coming to terms with harsh memory. Being unable to find her sister and, understandably, being unable to accept that fact, means that Olanna can never come to accept her memory and move on.
Ugwu deals with his memory in a profoundly different way from that of Olanna. Instead of internalising his memory, he decides to collect his own and the memories of others and tell the collective story of Biafra. While Olanna develops from an educated and confident woman into a broken vision of her former self, Ugwu transforms from illiterate houseboy to teacher, to child soldier and eventually into a writer. His perspective of memory changes dramatically, taking into account the wider narrative of those surrounding him. Once again, memory is the domain of the writer – and Ugwu sought to preserve the memory of Biafra (Ojinmah 2). While Olanna burnt the tangible remnants of her memory, Ugwu sought to write it all down (Adichie, HYS ch. 35).
Ugwu adopted the stories and narratives of many people to form his own memory and narrative. Ugwu was writing about his and others’ experiences of the war before his conversation with Richard at the end of Chapter 5, but after Richard said, “The war isn’t my story to tell, really.” Ugwu adopted the name “The World Was Silent When We Died” and began in earnest to create a collective narrative of memory (ch. 35). Ugwu’s adoption of Richard’s book name (which was further taken from Madu) is an example of how Ugwu adopted the memory of other people. Richard may have stated that it was not his story to tell, but the book was originally his idea and thus, his memory. Ugwu, with (arguably) Richard’s blessing, took the name and made it his own. This is also seen at the end of Chapter 3, where the scene that Olanna witnessed of the baby head in the calabash is brought up in Ugwu’s book (ch. 3). In many ways, Ugwu is an allegory of Adichie herself. Both adopted the memory of others in order to illustrate the collective memory of all. Adichie used Ugwu as a purveyor of memory through writing, much like herself (Dickson 84).
Ugwu’s character dealt with many harsh events throughout the novel but he chose to illustrate his memory through the voices of all those involved. Ojinmah (2012) is right in saying that memory needs to be carried on and written about so as not to be forgotten (Ojinmah 3). He was writing about Adichie’s reasons for writing about the Biafran War, but the same can be applied to Ugwu, who Adichie depicted as compiling the collective memory of those who took part in the Biafran entity.
In creating a voice for all these memories of other people, Ugwu ‘found his voice’ in writing (Dickson 84). Ugwu’s memories themselves were not pleasant and neither are the memories he writes down – but in creating a narrative, he finds a way of coping. In some ways, giving a voice to the voiceless, Ugwu may be seeking reconciliation for the crimes he commited as a child soldier. The rape he participated in may not have been his idea or even what he wanted, but he still felt the guilt (Adichie, HYS ch. 29). This guilt became even more pertinent when he realised that his sister had been raped (ch. 35). In a way, he may have thought himself responsible for the rape of his sister as he had raped a woman. He had become a part of the collective entity of rape itself – an action which he was pressured into, but did perform nonetheless. This is another example of collectivised memory. Ugwu raped and his sister was raped – he perpetuated the action which harmed his sister. That, more than the initial guilt itself, scarred Ugwu. Through writing, Ugwu perhaps found solace in his actions by writing them all down, as well as all the other atrocities that had occurred. In another way, Ugwu possibly tried to dilute his guilt by drowning it in the actions of others. His book was a collective memory and, as such, it possessed many rapes, many murders and many wrongs.
Both Ugwu and Olanna can be seen as a symbol for the entire nation of Biafra’s method of coping with their traumatic past. As Dickson said, the Biafran War blighted the memory of early Nigeria (Dickson 81). Olanna, like many other Biafrans, did not want to risk persecution and felt safer internalising her memory of Biafra and the war. Despite this, she could never truly move on as her sister was never found and the memory thereof never reached full closure. Ugwu dealt with his memory in a different way. By adopting the memories of other people, he created a collective memory where he diluted his own pain and guilt. In a way, he preserved memory. Olanna, ultimately, failed to move on from her painful memories due to the disappearance of Kainene. Ugwu may have managed to find solace in his writing. In both ways, they attempted to deal with the painful memories of Biafra – the memory of which still scars Nigeria to this day.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. Kindle.
—. The Story Behind the Book. 2007-2015. Web. 15 April 2015. <http://chimamanda.com/books/half-of-a-yellow-sun/the-story-behind-the-book.>
Dickson, Bernard C. “History, Memory and Politics of National Unity in Adiche’s half of a Yellow Sun and Achebe’s There was a Country.” International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literatur. 1.2 (2014): 81-89. PDF File.
Ojinmah, Umelo. “No Humanity in War: Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” Journal of Nigeria Studies. 2.5 (2012): 1-11. PDF File.