So I'm in Canterbury, in a B&B, the day before the start of the tw0-day Global Youth Cultures conference I'm working on. I've just had curried goat at the local Caribbean restaurant, during which I finished Half A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Following last night's television "event" I could link from this rundown of my day to a celebration of a globalised post-national identity. But somehow, it doesn't seem appropriate, because I am thinking of Biafra.
The short-lived nation of Biafra (pronounced Bee-Afra) seceded from Nigeria in 1967 and existed in a state of war for three years before starvation and the brutalities of war brought the infant nation was reabsorbed into Nigeria. Ngozi Adichie's epic novel traces the courageous stories of a group of Biafrans during this period, and in doing so, reveals the history of a nation that now endures only in memory, and words.
I came to this novel in a roundabout way. I was doing my regular internet trawl for material on Bangladesh, when I stumbled upon a review of Half A Yellow Sun in which Bangladesh was mentioned. The two secessionist struggles occurred in parallel in the late 1960s, but with radically different outcomes, leading to a series of political science papers that used the two as comparative case studies upon what it takes for a nation to succeed. The "case" of Biafra, seen as a "failure;" the "case" of Bangladesh, a "success."
I meant to read this novel as research, but at some point during reading, my "postcolonial-theoretical" mind shut down. It seemed somehow disrespectful to Ngozi Adichie's magnificent act of remembrance, to immediately unpick it in terms of narrative technique or the representation of gender. Instead, I kept thinking of these two groups of people, Biafran and Bengali, fighting and dying to bring their nations into being and to keep them alive, thousands of miles apart. I thought also of others: Algerians, Vietnamese, Palestinians. With each page, postmodern critiques of nation rang hollower and hollower.
The horrors of war and starvation, and the courage and resourcefulness of a people in spite of them, brought to mind many stories I've read of Bangladesh. And it makes me consider what things would have been like if that war, so close to my heart, had turned out differently. I would, perhaps, be a British Pakistani right now, with a green and red flag stowed away in a suitcase, my soul, under occupation. And in turn, I wonder how it must be to be Igbo in Nigeria today, to have known autonomy, and then to go back to being a minority - but now more exposed and scrutinised than ever before.
I realise this isn't much of a review. I haven't spoken about the plot in anything but the most general terms, I haven't mentioned a single character. But perhaps it is testament to the novel that this is so (especially given that the last time I was so stunned by a novel, it was with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a novel so great I could never bring myself to write about it). But I will write on it, and, I hope, from it. Like Guillermo de Toro with Pan's Labyrinth, with Half A Yellow Sun, Ngozi Adichie has also shown me a way of telling history that one day I hope will inspire me to write Bangladesh's story, just as Achebe and Chinodya guided her.
Sometimes, I find the work of picking apart books to be so remote from the world that it depresses me. Sometimes theories that justify humanities research in terms of ways to comprehend the complexities of that world only seem like empty funding-application-speak, merely to justify our salaries. And then I read books like Half A Yellow Sun, and remember.