Chimamanda Adichie reminds me a lot of Arundhati Roy in the sense that while she’s obviously and very clearly a talented novelist, she’s also a political activist and political writer. This creates a tension in me as a fan, because I worry this might lead her to stop writing fiction, but also realize that that’s selfish, if her activism is more meaningful and more efficacious in terms of bringing help to those who need it.
So for that reason, I think I have been putting off reading this. I’ve owned a copy since 2007 when I briefly met Adichie at a small book reading. She was gracious and kind, and her reading was excellent.
I had already read Purple Hibiscus, and since then, I have read Americanah, her short fiction and nonfiction essays.
Anyway, I finally decided to read this one, and of course, it’s wonderful. I remember her telling our group “When people used to talk about starving Africans, they mean Biafra” and I realized that as an American with a pretty Western-centric education, I hadn’t ever heard of it. So I looked into it, and kind of learned a little. With this novel, though, you are both taught about and compelled to learn about (on your own) more about the conflict. In doing so, I came across numerous articles that talk about how much of this history isn’t exactly common knowledge in present day Nigeria. This seems to be because of a few factors: one, Nigeria is an incredibly young country — the median age is like 20. Two, this was a civil war that began because of post-colonial violence among various ethnicity group, and what can often happen is that a larger population, a more fundamentalist religion, and support from an external world superpower allows one side to commit much more widespread violence.
So I thought a lot about how to process the information in the book and how to read it through its cultural bias (Adichie is Igbo, who are a large population within the separatist Biafran state) and trying to figure out “where the truth lies” and of course this is an incredibly privileged attitude, that is specifically called out repeatedly in the novel. I have that American tendency to “reserve judgment” and that Liberal attitude “not actually ever really judge”. And this is an attitude that fail the characters in this novel.
The novel is about two sisters from a middle-class or upper-class who experience the war from a few different perspectives–one is married to a leading revolutionary, one is with a foreign writer. The novel is their various experiences, along with the ways in which their personal lives are still happening, irrespective of the war. They are the witnesses to the horrors.