Analysis of Half of a Yellow Sun and The Interrogation of The Postcolonial

 

The novel, Half of a Yellow sun, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can be found in your local library under the heading of postcolonial text. This is so because the literature addresses European-Western colonialism and domination and its aftermath (which is commonly referred to as the post-colonial era).  However, this classification of time has been deemed linguistically inadequate by many critics who suggest the term makes history seem fissured – as if theHalf-of-A-Yellow-Sun_Nigeria.jpg independent generation has completely freed itself from the after-effects of colonialism. It is evident that the societies termed as post-colonial are “still subject in one way or another to overt or subtle forms of neo-colonial domination, and independence has not solved this problem” (Ashcroft, 2). As opposed to visualizing the human race in a state of postcoloniality[1], post-colonial literatures, such as Half of a Yellow Sun, become “the discourse of oppositionality which colonialism brings into being” (Appiah, 117). Adichie’s novel investigates the African country, Nigeria, in part, during the Biafran war, and highlights the issues inherent in the concept of a “post-colonial” society or a society after independence. The story is told through the lives of four characters: Odenigbo, Olanna, Ugwu and Richard against the backdrop of a Nigerian society infiltrated, both literally and psychologically, by the British empire. Adichie additionally focuses on the civil war of 1967-70 which was instigated by the growing internal divisions amid a hundred or more ethnic and cultural groups under the influence of formal colonial powers. The political vision of a unified state therefore eluded Nigerian realities; instead, the nation witnessed the “development of new elites…often buttressed by neo-colonial institutions…[ethnic], racial linguistic or religious discriminations [and] the continuing unequal treatment of ‘indigenous’[2] peoples in settler/invader societies” (Ashcroft, 4). Adichie investigates this volatile period in Nigerian history through the polyvocal, interwoven discourses of characters and the third person omniscient, re-cognizing the Euro-based, essentialist, dichotomous concept of the post-colonial.

It is not enough to blame colonial forces for the Biafran war, however, one cannot ignore how British decolonization strategies, which included political supervision and dividing Nigeria into three regions, intensified the differences among the Nigerian ethnic groups. Moreover, the British provided a kind of colonial culture which morphed with pre-colonial Nigerian cultures, developing new and divergent political, caste/class, racial, gendered, ethnic ideologies and actions.  Adichie interrogates this through the main narrative and ‘The Book’ which provides a “de-personalised, global point of view [and back-story]” which “rehistoricises the postcolonial” through a reliable journalistic account lacking in the world outside Nigeria (Akpome, 32). Within the novel, three predominant ethnic groups are mentioned: Igbo (forming the Southeast), the Hausa-Fulani (of the North) and Yoruba (in the Southwest) who have varying cultures, religions and languages. Their system of governance is also disparate, with the Igbos exercising more democratic systems, demonstrated by the general assembly one notes in Half of a Yellow Sun with the elders gathered under the Udala tree (623). The rift between the groups widen when the North becomes the preferred British site for indirect political rule after independence; of the three regions, the North held the majority. This disproportion dominates the ensuing Nigerian political system which not only fuels the Hausa public’s sense of entitlement against “western dressed” African ‘infidels’ but inspires the coup d’etat which later provokes a counter-coup. Prior to this event, the 1960 independence marked an increase in Christian households and the much sought after western education; many Igbos (the wealthy in particular) send their children to British universities which is the case for the majority of the professionals and professors in the novel (along with Olanna and Kainene). Other regions are also said to be “competing so fiercely” for “white salaries” and a white way of life (510). However, the Muslim Hausas do not wholly absorb European cultural imperialism in the same way the Igbos and the Yorubas do. The Northerners, therefore, become the less literate and socio-economically thriving group in the Nigerian population. This fuels the resentment between ethnicities which is exemplified when a man on the plane, next to Olanna, expresses how the bothersome Igbos “own all the shops; they control the civil service, even the police” (738). Similarly, many Nigerians inadvertently adopt the skepticism and stereotypes that the Europeans cast on their ethnic groups. The North is therefore regarded as a site for the authoritarian, self-righteous posse of Hausas, the Igbos are considered to be the “money-loving” clan and the Yoruba are seen as fawning subordinates to their long time British contacts (184). Thus, the desire for all things Eurocentric along with the colonial seeds of mistrust, intolerance and political inequity matured in the ‘free’ state.

The notion of the postcolonial typically speaks to the fascination with novelty in modern/modernizing society; subjects therefore cling to a politics of fulfillment and view themselves as free from old (colonial, traditional) ties. Adichie, counters this misguided presentism in the text and reveals how Eurocentric powers remain in the “new” Nigerian economic and social space. White expatriates remain behind in Nsukka for instance, present at major social events, they rub shoulders with black Nigerians who maintain a mutual relationship with them of give and gain, get and gain. They exert influence and maintain the hegemonic bonds of imperial Britain. They may have left their government posts but they still own many resources and slide easily into the master-servant relationship from the master-slave relationship. However, black men and women can take the role of the dominant or oppressor as well. To illustrate, the white female, Susan, expresses stereotypical racist views, however, she dulls in comparison to Olanna’s parents. Chief Ozobia and his wife are certainly haughty and exhibit their material possessions to give the population something to “covet” as Kainene mockingly puts it. They do not “acknowledge the humanity” of their servants and Art herself severely chastises a worker for simply stealing some rice to feed his family.  Olanna realizes how “[her] father and his politician friends steal money with their contracts, but nobody makes them kneel to beg for forgiveness…they build houses with their stolen money and rent them out to people like [the] man [who stels the rice] and charge inflated rents that make it impossible to buy food” (226).  Their actions indicate that it is not enough to blame the “white man” in a binary of we the blacks versus whites. As Trinh Minh-ha states, “ if we try to find the centre of the empire, we will never find it, even in Piccadilly or Buckingham Palace, because this structural notion omits the institutions and process by which power is disseminated and maintained. Clearly that process is one set in train by the imperial project and continues throughout the colonial world. This is why ‘postcolonial’ can [and should] apply to white settler/invader colonies as much as to the indigenous people” (213). Although Odenigbo and Olanna are kind to Ugwu, his position as the Master and hers as Madam reflects how black faces can imperceptibly reinforce the failed colonial logic of inferior versus superior lifestyle or tastes.

The idea of a unified Nigeria with no ethnic boundaries becomes a political vision for moving forward from colonialism. However, the adoption of modern enlightenment (an intellectual, philosophical European movement that stresses the development of a state in the present) leads many political leaders and their followers in the text to assume that tribal and ethnic differences have to be cast-off.  Moreover, the colonial imposition of European culture carries the idea that ethnic is heathen, “Other” or not fully civilized, thus, difference becomes the enemy. Although “oneness” emphasizes the mutual movement of a people from colonial backgrounds towards a better future, this line of reasoning still has its faults. In particular, it proves difficult to develop a nation-politics which works towards unity by suppressing difference and identities instead of employing them in a constructive way. This generalizing symptom of the postcolonial has partly led to the Biafran war as the nation does not fully subvert English language and culture to decolonize meanings. The characters are all ethnically positioned in some sense but it is crucial to have a sense of self. As Stuart Hall declares, this does not have to be an ethnicity “doomed to survive, as Englishness was, only by marginalizing, dispossessing, displacing and forgetting other ethnicities” (227).  The character Richard rightly states in his letter to an overseas newspaper that “the tribes of the North and the South have long had contact, at least as far back as the ninth century” without engaging in hostile retaliations and killings as seen in the war. Pre-colonial Africa with all its “ancient tribal” struggles had a more “humanistic ethical-orientated”[3] approach to governance and community than the British “informal divide and rule policies” (567).

Through the actions and lifestyle of the characters, the reader observes the ways in which occidental culture acts as “a source of transformative (or modernizing) possibilities” for the ‘encountered’[4] nation (40). However, as formerly indicated, the movement towards “progress” in Half of a Yellow Sun becomes, ironically at times, a regressive move. Take, for instance, the civility of an individual which is not often determined by his/her disposition or actions but by his/her proximity to Europeans, ability to access Euro-based products and mimic European attitudes. This belief also fuels the assumption in the novel that the city typically represents a domain where progress (Euro-consumerism) is centered while the rural landscape, like African cultural traditions[5], is said to support a retrograde way of living. This is communicated within the affluent world of Nsukka when the reader witnesses Ugwu’s growth from unschooled houseboy to learnt boy with modern sensibilities.  Ugwu lived in a small village and on becoming the houseboy, his life of household appliances, “real meals” and “butter” becomes more desirable than what he had known. Thus, the meals that are eaten become symbols of the “innovative” which explains why Harrison (Richard’s cook) only wishes to make western foods, regarding Nigerian foods and herbs as either outdated or “devilish”.  When Ugwu and his guardian Odenigbo are forced to flee Nsukku and end up in Umuahia, Ugwu notes how the “ugly” “unpainted” compound is “unworthy of Master” (645). Adichie deconstructs these assumptions of forwardness and backwardness through “a specific spatialisation of narrative action…swinging between the village and the city” (Akpome, 10), revealing what each location lacks along with the symbiotic relevance of both spheres. She does so in particular with Olanna who reveals an underlying snobbishness in Umuahia when she becomes concerned with who were the “right kind” of people to hang around her child, Baby. She also notes how her aunt’s home is squalid and small compared to the ten rooms of her parent’s home. Yet, the long hallways could not remedy the artificiality of her parents’ relationship, hinting at how literal space or what I call postcolonial architecture can often suppress intimate, familial and communal space. Olanna and Odenigbo fail to fully recognize the usefulness of their culture, they do not consider that the present does not have to mean a rejection of the past. As Jay Ciaffa aptly declares, African beliefs characterized as ‘superstitious’ (witch) are “no more incompatible with scientific development, for instance, than religious beliefs (Saints) that were widely held in the West” at the onset of the modernized age (131). Olanna eventually senses this when she is forced to recognize the appeal of African cosmology, that is, the belief in reincarnation and signs when Kainene goes missing. Thus, Adichie launches Olanna from the periphery into the belly of the war so that the reader is able to learn the significance of the interconnected community and Nigerian convention. If the war had taken place in an impersonal city setting with houses “not so close” as in Umuahia, there probably would have been no character like Mrs. Muokela to guide Olanna or Okoromadu’s mother whose orality enables her son to recognize Olanna and give her dried egg yolks to save Baby’s life.

Apart from location, education and language become an indication of progress in the post-colonial society. The languages of the ethnic groups are displaced in the name of almighty English which is the standard against all other “tainted” languages. English, with its typifying tendencies, becomes a carrier of imperialist culture. Within the novel, characters who are able to speak English are met with better treatment, service, recognition and respect. As noted by Braj B. Kachru, “the alchemy of English (present and future), then, does not only provide social status, it also gives access to attitudinally and materially desirable domains of power and knowledge. It provides a powerful linguistic tool for manipulation and control” (295). Notice the way that Odenigbo constantly says “my good man” or “ignoramus” – how ironic that an anti-colonialist utilizes Edwardian language. Before his article is submitted to the Daily Times, Olanna has to “edit it and tone down his rhetoric, so that his argument…was clearer” (434). This speaks to what Chinweizu Madubuike expresses in his article “Towards the Decolonization of African Literature”: some African intellectuals do feel the need to place “sophisticated” works in the postcolonial space, yet, this “syntactic jugglery” of language denies the validity of the Nigerian culture and also causes Odenigbo to lead his readers into a “wilderness of insipidity” (2). His encrypted ideas should be easily accessible to the public in order to provoke extensive critical thinking. There is also the case of Odanna’s flat versus Ugwu’s “small bush”, the case of the firewood versus the kerosene stove. Ugwu’s home is debased, not so much by Olanna’s tone but by the words which have suggestive in them, the underdevelopment of a people.  Ngugi Thiong’O rightly states that “language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” (290). It is important that Nigerians use English to empower themselves instead of becoming human bridges that convey race and class discrimination into the present.

In concluding, Half of a Yellow Sun, as an historical text, provides the reader with a valuable critique of the concept of the postcolonial. Through the mouthpiece of multiple characters, the author reveals how easy it is to repeat the mistakes of the past. Adichie has effectively shown the reader that Nigeria has colourful people with potential and heart. The character Richard, the assumed white outsider, nonetheless, raises the question of who should be responsible to write for the Other[6] as he actually expresses more love for Nigerian culture and food. Ultimately, the text communicates that the signs of progress and success need to be restructured so what Adichie calls the “rich African world” may thrive. Africans then, must evade linguistic traps and the western ornamental (without vilifying them) and think critically about what works best for their individual/communal selves[7], with location and time period(s) in mind.

 

Take what is needed and run – P. Marshall.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Anchor, 2007.

Adichie, Chimamanda. “African “Authenticity” and the Biafran Experience.” Transition, No. 99 (2008), pp. 42-53. Indiana University Press: W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. Web 6 Sept 2011.

<http://www.jstor.org/stable/20204260&gt;

Akpome, Aghogho. “Focalisation and Polyvocality in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s  Half of a Yellow Sun.” English Studies in Africa. Routledge, 2013.

Appiah, Kwame. “The Postcolonial and The Postmodern.”  Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, 2005.

Ciaffa, Jay. “Tradition and Modernity in Postcolonial African Philosophy.” Humanitas Volume XXI (2008): 121-144. Gonzaga University. Web. 6 March  2015.

Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth; Tiffin, Helen. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, 2005.

Hall, Stuart. “New Ethnicities.” Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, 2005.

Kachru, B. Braj, “The Alchemy of English.” Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, 2005.

Korang, Kwaku. “Where is Africa? When Is the West’s Other?: Literary Postcoloniality in a

Comparative Anthropology.” Diacritics 34.2: 38–61 (2004). Project Muse.

Madubuike, Chinweizu. “Towards the Decolonization of African Literature.” Transition. Duke University Press, 2007.

Minh-ha, Trinh. “No Master Territories.” Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, 2005.

Sollors, Werner. “Who is ethnic?” Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, 2005.

“The Nigerian Civil War, Causes, Strategies, And Lessons Learnt.” Web. 5 March 2015.

<http://www.africamasterweb.com/BiafranWarCauses.html&gt;

Thiong’O, Ngugi. “The Language of African Literature.” Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Routledge, 2005.

 

[1] A state of being that is uncontaminated by colonialism.

[2] Problematic term as Nigeria no longer has a pure, native society untainted by colonialism.

[3] Qtd from “Tradition and Modernity” by Jay Ciaffa, p.  127

[4] Non-European/non-Western colonized world

[5] Odenigbo, Olanna and Harrison label African cosmology, folklore and bad medicine as “rubbish” and demonic.

[6] Nigerians (like Ugwu) should be the ones who value their culture enough to write the story of their people.

[7] Note Mrs. Ozobia’s excessive jewelry and Olanna’s desire for “real flowers” at her wedding.

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Analysis of “Africa” by David Diop

Africa

Africa my Africa

Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your work
The work of your slavery
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this your back that is unbent
This back that never breaks under the weight of humilation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying no to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

David Diop, a Senegalese poet, uses his poem entitled “Africa”, to lament the state of the African nation and eventually valorize it despite its long-suffering experiences with colonialism and neo-colonialism. Following in the footsteps of the well-known African writer and former president of Senegal in its first twenty years (Léopold Sédar Senghor), Diop utilizes the trope of Africa as woman. This poetic male tradition is upheld through allegorical means where Africa is seen as a mother to the Black populace born from her landscaped body. Language and structure are skillfully orchestrated within this metaphorical medium which utilizes diction, rhyme and figures of speech to further develop meaning. Thus, the reader is able to comprehend the plight of the country through the poet and addressee’s arguments and perspectives. Although the Mother Africa trope has its shortcomings, David Diop’s poetic vision comes through to utter the need for Africans to rise above the colonial system.

Within “Africa”, the poet addresses the land as if it is a real person, and this denotes the use of apostrophe. Apostrophe allows for an interesting dramatization which holds the readers’ attention and allows them to identify with Mother Africa’s human experiences. It almost gives us the sense that the earth itself is not a lifeless thing but is somehow alive. The representation of Africa as an animate female stems from a colonial background, however, the damaging image is subverted (to some extent) in the poem. Africa is epitomized as a strong and beautiful nurturer who endures and reproves her ‘impetuous’ children with warm proverbial advice. The poem begins with the poet possessing Africa as his own through the designatory diction of ‘my’. The placing of the word ‘Africa’ at the beginning and end of the phrase ‘Africa my Africa’ is also repeated in lines 12 and 21, creating the poem’s refrain which not only emphasizes ownership[1] and command[2] but balances the rhythm of the piece. This choral effect is also typical of apostrophic poetry which is usually a kind of invocation.  The musical quality of the poem is additionally increased through assonance which is essential in a free verse poem. Within this loose form, similar to “And If You Should Leave Me” by Ben Okri, an external pattern is imposed and this allows the poets to appeal to the “human instinct for design [and] our love of the shapely” (Perrine, 771). For Diop, the repetition of vowel sounds enables him to make the beginning lines sound hoisted and spiritual. It is in tune with Africa who has reared ‘proud warriors’ that are a testament to her pre-colonial glory in the time of ‘ancestral savannahs’ (2). It is an Africa with a tradition of orality where the praise singing grandmother spreads the tale of the land’s greatness to her grandson, supposedly the poet. These lines refute the “assumption underlying the French policy of ‘assimilation’ that Africa was a deprived land possessing neither culture nor history” (Britannica.com). Perhaps the distant river bank the grandmother sings on suggests the far-removed location of the African generation from its hallowed cultural source (distant river bank) where it can never go back to. Or the poet could simply be remembering his dead grandmother who he believes extols Africa from the distant, mystical land of the ancestors, only linked to the real world through a river journey. Either way, Diop has ‘never known [Africa]’ and her struggles firsthand in the way that his predecessors did as he was born in France and lived there for most of his life. Nonetheless, his father and mother were Africans, their ‘blood flows in [his] veins’ which is why he spent significant time living and teaching in Africa. The blood is not only representative of his familial ties to Africa but the cause of the people which pulses within him.  He then goes on to line 7 which utilizes alliteration to add forcefulness to his conviction that Mother Africa’s ‘beautiful Black blood…irrigates the fields’. It is through the struggle and hard work of Black people that the encountering nations like France were able to reap the harvest and build domains.  Thus, Mother Africa is represented as a slave that was physically abused and exploited economically. This continuity of oppression is exemplified through parallelism with the run-on lines from 8-11 which keeps the reader anticipating what comes next:

…The blood of your sweat

The sweat of your work

The work of your slavery

The slavery of your children…

The lines become memorable and emphatic as they give off a sonic effect and signify the buildup of colonialism in African history. Even the organization of speech sounds reinforce meaning as the lines move from monosyllables (sweat, work) to trisyllables (slavery) and disyllables (children). The tempo of the lines eventually become slower as articulation becomes as leaden as the colonial transition of the African people.

The poem shifts from a praise and observation of Africa’s situation to a questioning of her decision to yield to colonialism. The speaker demands that Africa tell him if this is her, ‘…this back that is bent/ This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation…(13,14). These lines utilize alliteration which conveys the enquirer’s assertiveness. This interrogation is additionally buttressed by the insistent repetition of ‘this back’ and the internal rhyming of ‘break’ and ‘weight’ which calls our attention to Africa’s subjugation. Here, Diop’s anthropomorphic inclination is greatly expressed when Mother Africa’s back is ‘trembling with red scars [as she says] yes to the whip under the midday sun’ (15, 16).  The personal suffering of the mother is symbolic of the trepidation of the African nation, traumatized by colonial experiences. The lines could even foretell the disastrous and exploitive consequences to come out of the 1958 Referendum where Senegal submitted to neo-colonialism, that is, maintained cultural and economic ties with France, under the leadership of the nation’s first president, Léopold Senghor. Some may argue that the male or poet addressing Mother Africa is taken aback by her character which was once proud and resistant to western culture. Many feminists might argue that through his male gaze, she embodies the speaker’s “honour and glory or his degradation as a citizen” (Stratton, 51). Even more unfortunate is that women’s persecution becomes a metaphorical medium through which poets cast their vision. This adversely gives license to the stereotype of women as compliant towards domination. However, in a similar reading, I could add that Diop did not romanticize Mother Africa which would contradict the actual struggling, marginalized position of women in Africa. Also, Africa’s true condition may not have been distorted as she corrects the male’s assumptions about her experience. In another light, the ‘grave voice’ could be the feminized conscience of the poet himself. At any rate, the speaker is labeled as ‘impetuous’, he makes rash assumptions without thought or care.  In her response, she seems to alter the way he envisions her, she assigns the image of redemption to a pomological entity where Africans are symbolic fruits that develop, adapt, diversify and evolve even while faced with threats to its ecosystem:

untssssitled

The lines may indicate that the poet did not truly perceive what Africa was as the constant use of demonstratives tells the reader that Africa (Tree of Life) is away from the female speaker. Perhaps the answering female suggests that Mother Africa is not the defeated form of a bent back but a flourishing being, or rather Africa is not a mortal mother at all but an ever-growing metaphysical tree which renews itself with the potential of generations after being hacked by colonial forces. The parasitic flowering plant of white domination will see its end and the nation of Africa will rise unwaveringly to bursting greatness.

The poem ends with interlaced rhymes and a rising cadence which gives a pleasing effect, indicating that the poem has finally arrived at a thoughtful and substantial conclusion. The ending lines are paradoxical for one would not associate liberty with bitterness, yet, it has a ring of truth to it. Independence is often a goal achieved through sacrifice, coups, chaos and hardships. Nonetheless, the poem ultimately communicates that the fight is worth it; the African mind must exercise more national optimism and turn away from colonial resignation in the walk towards socio-cultural and economic revival.

[1] That is Africa, your Africa

[2] Africa tell me Africa

 

Works Cited

“David Diop the Senegalese Author.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 4 April 2015.

<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/164338/David-Diop&gt;

“Glossary of Poetic Terms” Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 April 2015.

<www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-term>

Stratton, Florence. “The Mother Africa Trope.” Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Perrine, Laurence. Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. Second Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1994.