Dr. Polak's Reading Blog.
Dr. Polak's Reading Blog.
Half of a Yellow Sun marks the exposure of a different angle of the Nigerian Civil War/Biafran War. During the period of this conflict, the world was painfully aware that there were children starving. After all, it was featured on the cover of Time magazine. However, because the conflict was so deeply decontextualized—it was attributed to “ancient tribal enmities”—it was difficult for most Westerners to get a grasp on anything aside from the image of the starving African child. Prior to this period, Africa was predominantly constructed as a lawless “frontier” to be discovered, but this conflict introduced a new motif into representations of Africa. The starving child became as common as the “savage” in terms of representation, and symbolized desperation in the same way that the “savage” had come to symbolize the need for a civilizing mission a bit under a century before. Of course, this image of the starving child served in a sense to infantilize Africans, and undermined the Western viewer’s sense of their agency and individual histories.
Half of a Yellow Sun seeks to recoup that image and place it in conversation with specific suffering. Furthermore, Adichie renders Nigerians/Biafrans as having lively intellectual lives, something that is sorely lacking in many representations of Africa. It is worth considering to what extent we peruse this work with the “starving child” and “savage” motifs in mind, and how Adichie treats each. On one hand, we have thoughtful, curious Ugwu, who is developing as an intellectual in his own right, but is nonetheless compromised by the image of savagery and commits rape. In this, he falls victim to the symbol, but at the end, when we discover that the book excerpts incorporated throughout were in fact his own work rather than Richard, we have to pause to reflect on the extent to which individuals can both conform to and reject stereotypes based on circumstance. This is not to exonerate him for his crime—it is a horrific crime—but to consider his perpetration of this crime within the hierarchy of successive denials of agency. After all, rape is a crime that is predicated on the denial of agency of the victim.
Similarly, we have Baby stand in as the “starving African child”. Baby has been purposefully de-individualized by her nickname, and is mostly an indistinct character in her own right. Instead, she becomes a limb for Olanna. Baby conforms in this sense to the trope, but eventually breaks away from her mother’s desires (to keep her clean, to separate her from the camp children). However, in this separation, she further conforms to the expectations of the trope—she becomes like the children in the picture on the cover. But I think of Baby as a warning to the Western viewer.