Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ink Pot/Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie/Susan Lago/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Beverly Jackson

During its publishing run, from 2002 t0 2006, Literary Potpourri, later known as Ink Pot, featured short stories, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, graphic arts, interviews, newsletter, and contests. Writers the likes of Randall Brown, Terri Brown-Davidson, Myfanwy Collins, Ron Currie, Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Roy Kesey, Roger Morris, Bob Thurber, and Joan Wilking appeared in its pages. Beverly Jackson published "Half of a Yellow Sun" in the second issue. Sometime later, Zoetrope: All-Story published the story, and it went on to win an O. Henry Prize in 2003.

Nominated Short Story: "Half of a Yellow Sun" - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review: by Susan Lago

In “Half of a Yellow Sun,” Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounts the story of Biafra’s secession from Nigeria in the late 1960s. Told from the perspective of a young Igbo woman from a well-to-do family, the story is more than a history lesson— rather; it is a wrenching personal account of survival during wartime.

The story opens with a triumphant rally in Freedom Square in the university town of Nsukka. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her fiancĂ© Nnamdi, the narrator recalls the recent massacres of the Igbo while celebrating Biafra’s ascension as an independent nation. Soon Nnamdi leaves to join the Biafran army and the narrator and her family are forced to flee their stately home, finally settling in a hovel surrounded by other refugees. Over the next few months, she and her family scavenge for food and try to keep their hope alive despite defecting Biafran soldiers and the ever-increasing ranks of starving refugees. In the meantime, she and her beloved brother, thirteen-year-old Obi, teach the children of the refugee camp, regaling them with tales of Biafra’s triumph over colonialism along with lessons in History and Mathematics. When Obi becomes seriously ill and the refugee camp is bombed, the narrator can no longer refuse to acknowledge that the war – and the dream of an independent Biafra – is lost.

In the same vein as her compatriot, Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), Adichie writes of the divide and conquer legacy of Nigeria’s colonial past. Although the narrator is proud of her Igbo heritage, she is not above using her privileged upbringing to push herself to the head of the line at the relief agency to beg food for her family: “I spoke British-accented English, to show how educated I was, to distinguish me from the common villagers…” This postcolonial legacy of self-delusion and subordination allow her equal measures of pride at Nnamdi in his uniform looking like “an Igbo warrior leading his hamlet in battle (but only a fair battle), shouting and charging with his fire-warmed machete, returning with the most heads lolling on sticks” and her home with its “marble staircase and airy verandahs.” At the same time she has an awareness of how she has “created [her] own truths and inhabited them.” Listening to both Nigerian and Biafran radio reports, she tries to discern the reality of what is happening when both sides claim they are winning the war. This dichotomy of propaganda versus truth exists simultaneously at the national level and on a very personal one as well.

Adichie uses Igbo sayings – such as “the maker of the lion does not let the lion eat grass” – to divide each section as well as to build tension. The Igbo words such as “gmelina” “anara,” “imakwa” that are interspersed throughout the text help bring the reader into a world that is largely unknown to most Americans aside from televised images of children with bloated bellies and fly-speckled eyes. Through the lens of history, Adichie wrings irony from a statement like “Ah, Biafra will save Africa!” Yet, her skillful use of detail and imagery makes for a story that could have been little more than a sweeping account, into an intimate look at a young woman’s very human experience. When the narrator and Nnamdi make love on his brief army furlough, she wishes “in a twisted way that the war would never end so that it would have this quality, this quality of nutmeg, tart and lasting.” Describing her hometown, she contends that “The air in Enugu smelled of rain and fresh grass and hope and new anthills.” In a less skillful writer’s hands, the ugliness of the war-torn landscape would have overshadowed the beauty that is to be found in the familiar, the loved.

In reading this story, I wondered uncomfortably – guiltily – if my sympathy for the main character arises as much from her loss of such Western luxuries as her mother’s “manicured nails” and her father’s Peugeot, as for the starving children and homeless refugees. In Adichie’s description of the new Biafran’s confidence that “It would take us only a week to crush Nigeria,” I am reminded of a more recent national hubris. And this is what the best of literature does – causes us to question what we know to be true, see what we have taken for granted, and understand our global community in a new way.

Reviewer's Bio:

Susan Lago is a freelance writer and marketing consultant and has Master of Arts degree in English (concentration in writing) from William Paterson University. Her work has appeared in Verbsap, Writer’s Post Literary Journal, UnlikelyStories, and Scriveners Pen Literary Journal. Susan lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.


Jamie Lin said...

A truly magnificent story.

T. J. Forrester said...

I agree. And kudos to Beverly Jackson for being the first editor to pub this story.