Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Nigeria's Brutal Civil War

(In 2008, a year after I interviewed her, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won a MacArthur "genius" grant)

For Americans, the word Biafra may reveal faint memories of a horrible famine in Africa decades ago. In 1967, after a series of horrific massacres of the Igbo people in Nigeria, the southeast region of the country seceded to form the Biafran Republic. The fledgling country lasted for three years and the brutal civil war resulted in as many as one million dead, with the Nigerian army carrying out unspeakable atrocities and starving the civilian population into submission.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Half a Yellow Sun” (Knopf, $25) tells the story of the doomed Biafra through the eyes of two wealthy twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, and their two lovers. Olanna’s husband Odenigbo is a fiery professor and supporter of Igbo self determination. Kainene’s British paramour Richard is a writer obsessed with the newly independent Nigeria. Ugwu, Odenigbo’s preteen houseboy watches and learns from the two sophisticated couples through their turbulent relationships.

After the horrific massacres of the Igbo people, the Biafran Republic is formed. The hope of a free nation is soon broken by war. As the blockade starves the people, the sisters, their lovers and the houseboy Ugwu are irrevocably changed by the violence and hunger. As hundreds of thousands of people are dying, the governments of the world stand by, refusing to help as the overwhelmed Bifran forces are eventually crushed by the Nigerian government. In her sweeping novel, Adichie creates a masterful tale of Biafra’s hopeful birth and long, tortured and bloody death.

Adichie, 29, was raised in Nigeria and educated at Drexel University, Eastern Connecticut State and Johns Hopkins University, where she received an M.A. in creative writing. Adichie first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” won the Commonwealth Prize. Adichie lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where she is a graduate student in African studies at Yale University. She spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home.

Q. What made you write a novel set in the Biafran civil war?

A. I don’t remember having one particular reason, but I have always felt that I had to write about the war. I was fascinated by stories people told me about it and because my grandfather had died because of Biafra. My family is Igbo. My father was a a lecturer at the university. Though he was kind of the anti-Odenigbo, he believed very much in the cause of Biafra.

Q. Why did you decide to frame the novel around the two couples and Professor Odenigbo houseboy Ugwu?

A. I didn’t want to have one point of view. Ugwu came from the stories my mother used to tell me about a houseboy she had during the war. It made me wonder what effect the war might have had on him. I am also interested in class, how it affects the way we see the world and how war changes that. Ugwu came from that. I also know that I needed an outsider, so I created Richard to have an English point of view. With the twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, I wanted to explore the family relationship.

Q. Why did the Biafra try to secede from Nigeria?

A. The only reason Biafra was able to secede and had the support of so many people was because of the massacre. The central idea behind Biafra was “We will be secure.” The reasons behind the massacre were much more complex. People said that the massacre was revenge for what was believed to be an Igbo-planned military coup. There had been massacres of the Igbo before. The Igbo are separated from Northern Nigeria by both culture and language. After independence, politics in Nigeria quickly became ethnicized. In the end, the reason Nigeria is so messed up is because of ethnicity.

Q. How do you view the the hopeful period of the Biafran Republic?

A. For me, Biafra is something I feel strongly about. It is a period that I admire very much. We were self-sufficient because we couldn’t import things because of the blockade. We believed in the cause and we believed that we had no other choice. This was the way to self determination. My father, a pragmatic man, believed to the very end that Biafra would succeed. You have to believe, because what are the options?

Q. You write vividly of murdered children and starving refugees. How did you accomplish this?

A. It was difficult and even more so because I was not detached. I did not want to write a novel that glosses over things. I wanted to confront the reader with what I think people actually did go through. That is why I chose to have the readers not know whether Ugwu was alive or dead after he went into the army. Many families went through that experience. War has the ability to bring out the worst in people. I wanted Ugwu to be brutalized by the war but to remain human.

Q. What qualities does fiction bring to the table in chronicling something as gut-wrenching as a civil war and famine?

A. When I want to understand something, I want to read a good novel about it, not a boring history book. I do think that fiction is more effective in telling people what it felt like. I am biased because I am a fiction writer, but readers are more capable of empathy when reading fiction. When you read about a woman who can’t feed her child, you are more sympathetic than when you read, “The State of Biafra was blockaded.”

Fiction and history do compliment each other. I am hoping that when people read my book and it will start them talking, and then they will go out and buy history texts.

(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in November 2006)

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