Voice of Authority and Language of Authenticity: Understanding Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun
Within the world of postcolonial literature, there are ongoing debates regarding authenticity—what it means to produce adequate and genuine representations of human stories that occur within a postcolonial context. In Africa especially, language choice is often at the center of these debates. This paper compares different ideas regarding authenticity in African literature: those put forth by Kenyan author Ngūgi Wa Thiong’o, and those expressed in Half of a Yellow Sun, a book centered around the Nigerian Civil War, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Through a close analysis of Adichie’s choices in Half of a Yellow Sun, I aim to show that Adichie’s construction of an African novel that assigns authorship in varying degrees to different characters constitutes an appropriate response to Ngūgi’s call for African authenticity, even as it deviates from the measures he lays out for achieving it. In so doing, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun illustrates a new way of understanding African authenticity in a contemporary postcolonial context. By utilizing the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, I aim to demonstrate how Adichie and Ngūgi exhibit different definitions of authenticity in the writing of African literature, and why their diverging definitions are of dialectical and dialogical significance today.
IN HIS 1986 POLEMIC Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Kenyan author Ngūgi Wa Thiong’o calls on African authors to write and publish in native African languages, in order to restore authenticity to African literature. Despite Ngūgi’s call, many current African authors continue to write and publish in colonial languages. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who tells the interwoven story of a group of individuals living during the Biafran War (or the Nigerian Civil War) in her novel Half of A Yellow Sun, is one such author. By using the theories of Pierre Bourdieu to understand the fields of power in which Ngūgi and Adichie were writing, and the literary field in which their works continue to accrue cultural capital, it becomes possible to put into dialogue their similar concern with authenticity in African literature, while noting that their concern is derived from different historical contexts. Applying Bourdieusian terms to Adichie and Ngūgi’s works and proceeding to analyze the voices of authority present in Half of a Yellow Sun also allows for a discursive analysis of the figure of the author as a way in which power’s distribution functions in both a postcolonial novel and a postcolonial context. Through a close analysis of Adichie’s choices in Half of a Yellow Sun, I aim to show that—given the constraints of her postcolonial education (and all it entails)—Adichie’s construction of an African novel that assigns authorship in varying degrees to different characters, constitutes an appropriate response to Ngūgi’s call for African authenticity, even as it deviates from the measures he lays out for achieving it. In so doing, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun illustrates a new way of understanding African authenticity in a contemporary postcolonial context.
I. Ngūgi, The Politics of Language in African Literature, and Authenticity
The question of authenticity in a work of literature is tied directly to ideas about a writer’s authority to write that work: if an author writes a story in a way or on a subject in which they have sufficient authority, the work that they produce seems authentic. Though interrelated, the concepts of authority and authenticity are in fact distinct: “authority” as a concept relates back to the producting of a work, while “authenticity” corresponds to the work that is produced. Central to the articulation of my analysis of Half of a Yellow Sun and Adichie’s authority as an author is an understanding of what her necessarily postcolonial education signifies in the construction of an African novel, and the kind of authority she is granted as a result of such experience. By explicating Ngūgi Wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, I hope to enrich the post-colonial context in which Adichie’s writing takes place, elucidate further the meaning behind her choice (or lack thereof) to write an African novel in English, and finally, to provide a meaningful framework that helps ground my application of Bourdieusian theory to postcolonial discourse. In so doing, we can better see how Adichie’s novel provides an answer to and complicates Ngūgi’s call for authenticity in African literature, and how, in a postcolonial African context, it becomes open for redefinition.
A. Ngūgi’s Approach
In Decolonizing the Mind , Ngūgi acknowledges that languages contain their own ontologies and serve as vehicles of cultural inheritance. As such, languages set both the context for how success is defined and the parameters whereby advancement may take place. Ngūgi explains: “The choice of language, and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment… language has always been at the heart of the two contending social forces in the Africa of the twentieth century” (Ngūgi 4). One of these forces he labels the “imperialist tradition” and asserts that it is
… maintained by the international bourgeoisie using the multinational and of course the flag-waving native ruling classes…reflected in its culture of apemanship and parrotry enforced on a restive population through police boots, barbed wire, a gowned clergy and judiciary; their ideas are spread by a corpus of state intellectuals, the academic and journalistic laureates of the neo-colonial establishment.
The other force Ngūgi labels as the “resistance tradition,” defined as
… being carried out by the working people (the peasantry and the proletariat) aided by patriotic students, intellectuals (academic and non-academic), soldiers, and other progressive elements of the petty middle class. This resistance is reflected in their patriotic defense of the peasant/worker roots of national cultures, their defense of the democratic struggle in all the nationalities. (2)
This is where the complication between Ngūgi and Adichie arises: given her socio-economic status and her decision to write in English, Ngūgi might cast her as part of the “imperialist tradition;” however, given her decision to write a novel about Igbo resistance to colonial borders, Ngūgi might also cast her as part of the “resistance tradition.” By understanding the field of power in which Ngūgi was writing, we can better understand why Ngūgi views African authenticity as intimately linked to language, and why he made the decision to only write in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, after his imprisonment.
B. Bourdieusian Approach to Literature
As a philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu’s theories mainly deal with the way in which subjective agents exist in a field of external influences, historical structures, and power relations. Often associated with practice theory, Bourdieu is concerned with how social structures and human agency affect one another, and conceptualizes a way of understanding power’s distribution and cultural formation through his construction of the habitus and fields of power. A habitus is a “structuring structure” which organizes practices, and the perception of practices. It is comprised of the cognitive or mental system of structures that are embedded within an individual (and/or a collective consciousness) that are the internal representations of external structures (Bourdieu 170). A habitus is part and parcel of society, divided into spheres of action that Bourdieu terms “fields of power.” He defines one of these as “a field of forces, whose necessity is imposed on agents who are engaged in it, and a field of struggles within which agents confront each other, with differentiated means and ends according to their position in the structure of the field of forces, thus contributing to conserving or trans-forming its structure” (Reed-Danahay 32).
Bourdieu approaches literature using the same general principles of fields and habitus by bringing together both external and internal layers of analysis: first, by analyzing the position of the literary field within the field of power; then, by mapping the positions of individuals, groups, and institutions in the literary field; and finally, by tracing the genesis of the studied agent’s (here, the author’s) habitus (Speller 44). His methodology is not a series of discrete stages, but rather a dialectic in which each level of analysis mutually informs the other levels in a near-cyclical manner. A key point in understanding Bourdieu’s field theory is to recognize that a field of power is “a relational concept, which tries to move us away from the study of isolated populations, agents, and groups, and towards the study of the structure of the relations that exist between them” (46). In this sense, what becomes important in articulating Adichie and Ngūgi’s different understandings of authenticity in African literature is not just their different geographic, temporal, or class location, but also their field of power.
Adichie and Ngūgi’s unique habitus shape them as authors and, consequently, their individual literary works within the literary field. Being highly educated, upper middle class authors and academics, Adichie and Ngūgi both possess varying amounts of what Bourdieu refers to as “species capital,” which breaks down into the categories of social capital (which consists of social networks, circles of friends, etc.), cultural capital (which consists of an individual’s connections, experience, and education), economic capital (the economic assets an individual has such as property or earning ability), and symbolic capital (which could be honor, prestige, or recognition accorded to an individual in a particular field) (Bourdieu 179). Bourdieu’s attention to the role that historical antecedents, subjective agency, and power structures play in the accumulation of cultural inheritance uniquely allows us to understand how species capital relates to the level or kind of authority that an audience will grant a writer.
If we are to begin plotting the positions of Adichie and Ngūgi in the “literary field,” it is worth noting that the literary field is “‘relatively autonomous’ from the field of power, enclosing the struggle between writers” (Speller 50). However, “autonomy… can take many, sometimes paradoxical forms, depending on the particular constraints and pressures operating on and within the field” (51). In other words, the autonomy of Ngūgi and Adichie’s post-colonial African literary fields creates forms of paradox, in that it allows for authors with similar kinds of authority, derived from different fields of power to exist together in the literary field. Although their literary works can be placed in dialogue in the same literary field, Ngūgi and Adichie themselves are writing at very different cultural moments in history, and by necessity, possess different definitions of authenticity. In other words, when Ngūgi writes his polemical work in 1986, he is not operating in the same field of power as Adichie when she writes Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006.
If we analyze the position of the literary field within each author’s field of power, we can see that Ngūgi is much more “structurally subordinated” than is Adichie at the time that he writes Decolonizing the Mind. Not only did Ngūgi live through the Mau Mau Rebellion (which helped hasten Kenyan Independence from Britain), he also witnessed the bloodshed leading up to Independence (Speller 47). Ngūgi is therefore more closely linked to Kenya’s colonial history than Adichie is to Nigeria’s. Further cementing his “structural subordination,” Ngūgi is imprisoned by the post-Independence Kenyan regime. He is thus uniquely aware of the power structures at work in his field of power, which are (as he points out in Decolonizing the Mind) uniquely embedded in colonial and postcolonial education. By recognizing the way in which English is prioritized above and beyond Gikuyu, Ngūgi illustrates that he is aware of his habitus and argues that it must be transformed.
Adichie is aware of her habitus as well, and demonstrates that awareness both in the choices she makes in Half of a Yellow Sun, and in her own statements in interviews. She is however, much more distanced from Nigeria’s colonial history and the Biafran War, and is therefore less “structurally subordinated” than is Ngūgi in 1986. Adichie was raised in the university town of Nsukka, in an upper middle class family. She clearly recognizes that Nigerian education she received privileged English literacy over Igbo literacy, emphasizing that there were no (educational) structures in place that could really have facilitated what she calls “intellectual thinking” in Igbo (Adichie and Azodo). Because of the field of power in which she lived/lives, Adichie cannot make the same choice (to write in an African language that Ngūgi made 20 years before her.
We are able to better under-stand the various power relations at work in the intellectual formation of a postcolonial author by using Bourdieu’s theories, specifically his concept of “autonomy,” in the “literary field.” Bourdieu asserts that “the same intention of autonomy can in effect be expressed in opposite position-takings (secular in one case, religious in another) according to the structure and the history of the powers against which it must assert itself” (Speller 51). In exile from Kenya, Ngūgi argues his autonomy must be used to assert itself against the “history and powers” of the colonial project, and chooses to do so via language choice. Adichie’s autonomy is exemplified in Half of a Yellow Sun by her choice to authorize someone to tell an African story based on their experience rather than their language of choice. Bourdieu’s theories not only help to explain how and why authority is determined by audience, but also in mapping the genesis of Adichie and Ngūgi’s habitus, illustrating how it is possible for both Adichie and Ngūgi to have authority, (and thus produce authentic African literature), despite their definitions of authenticity having been formed in different fields of power and addressed according to different habitus.
III. Half of a Yellow Sun
In The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Bourdieu writes that “the goal of a true critic should be to discover which problem the author posed himself (knowingly or not) and to find whether he solved it” (Speller 45). The “problem” that both Ngūgi and Adichie pose is how authenticity should be apprehended in the context of African literature. Both attempt to “solve” that problem by determining who is authorized to tell African stories, and how s/he attains that authority. For Ngūgi, authority is premised on African language, whereas for Adichie, authority is premised on African experience, which is not limited to African languages alone. In order to understand how both Ngūgi and Adichie address the problem of determining authority in postcolonial African literature, I will examine Half of a Yellow Sun to show that the assignment of different levels of authorship to someone fluent in both an African language and in English is a valid response to Ngūgi’s call for authenticity.
A. Ugwu’s Formation as Author
Interspersed between the different characters’ sections and stories in the novel, are glimpses of a Biafran novel in the making. The audience is led to believe that this book entitled The Book: The World Was Silent When We Died, was the project of Richard, the British expatriate and Kainene’s lover, who wished to write a novel about the struggle for Biafran independence. By the end of Half of a Yellow Sun however, it becomes clear that The Book’s author is actually Ugwu. In order to understand and more fully appreciate Adichie’s decision to grant authorship of the definitive Biafran War novel to Ugwu and not Richard, we must first understand Ugwu’s formation as an author. The education he receives both from Odenigbo and his experiences as a houseboy and a soldier have heuristic value that Adichie seemingly deems necessary in an African author.
Ugwu’s formal education combined with the informal lessons he learns as a result of living in Odenigbo’s household, illustrate the tension of Adichie’s habitus (namely, her education) in that they demonstrate how an educated person can utilize postcolonial theory to combat unjust power-structures (as did Ngūgi), even as that anti-colonial expression takes place in English. Ugwu’s formation as an author is bi-lingual; he is fluent in both Igbo—a result of having grown up in an Igbo village, and English—learned from three years in the village school and subsequent years in the Nsukka school in which Odenigbo enrolls him. He also learns about postcolonial studies via Odenigbo’s dinners with other Igbo academics. These “salons” that Odenigbo hosts clearly affect Ugwu’s intellectual formation. Adichie writes that “late at night, after Master was in bed, Ugwu would sit on the same chair and imagine himself speaking swift English, talking to rapt imaginary guests, using words like decolonize and pan-Africanism, molding his voice after Master’s” (Adichie 25). Odenigbo’s intellectual anti-colonialism is presented again in a later scene. Upon learning that Ugwu never attended school after “standard two” level due to his father’s inability to continue paying tuition, Odenigbo tells Ugwu, “‘Your father should have borrowed!’ [in Igbo]… and then, in English, ‘Education is a priority! How can we resist exploitation if we don’t have the tools to understand exploitation?’” (13). Odenigbo then enrolls Ugwu in a school in Nsukka where his education continues largely in English, which demonstrates the paradox Adichie herself embodies: that a postcolonial education can be anticolonial, while still taking place in a colonial language such as English.
The paradox of attempting to destroy the occidental primacy of postcolonial education, while simultaneously seeking to excel by its dictates, is further highlighted when Odenigbo tells Ugwu what he must do to succeed in school:
There are two answers to the things they will teach you about our land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass. You must read books and learn both answers. I will give you books, excellent books. They will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger. That is rubbish. Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park’s grandfather was born. But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park. (14)
Here, Bourdieusian theory is applicable and elucidating once more. Odenigbo’s description of the education Ugwu will receive at school versus the one that he will receive at home, points to both the inherent bias in a Nigerian academic’s habitus and Odenigbo’s awareness of that bias. Odenigbo is thus aware of the field of power in which he operates while still being complicit in the formation of its habitus, as he tells Ugwu to “write that it was Mungo Park.”
Odenigbo presents Ugwu and Adichie’s audience with a new possibility for viewing the postcolonial education that contemporary, middle-class Nigerians receive. When trying to defend his mother’s Igbo superstitions to Olanna, Odenigbo says in front of Ugwu, “The real tragedy of our post-colonial world is not that the vast majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world” (129). Being a vocal and active part of the intellectual formation of Biafra, Odenigbo manages not only to excel academically based on the standards set by the colonial heritage of his education, but also to then use that education to reject colonial borders. In this sense, his fluency in English can be seen as a “tool to negotiate this new world.” In post-Independence Kenya, Ngūgi views the English education he has received as a tool of the colonizers; rather than rejecting the fluency attained via that education, Adichie’s characters view it as a tool for criticizing the remnants of the colonial project. The education that Ugwu receives from the school in Nsukka might be based in neocolonial pedagogy, but the informal education Ugwu receives from Odenigbo utilizes postcolonial theory to illustrate how one might retain African authenticity and connection to the Igbo language and culture, while utilizing colonial languages to reject colonial borders and values.
B. Richard’s Disqualification as Author
Unlike Ugwu, Richard’s intellectual development took place in the U.K., prior to his arrival in Nigeria—in other words, his habitus has been thoroughly shaped by its original formation within a British field of power. Although he tries to alter his habitus by attempting to be an active part of the “new” nation of Biafra, he ultimately cannot: his largest tie to Biafra lies in Kainene, his Nigerian fiancé, and when she is lost behind enemy lines, he realizes that he does not have the same stakes in the Biafran War as other Biafrans. It is significant then that Adichie deems him capable of writing Biafran War journalism and not the Biafran War novel or story. Through Richard’s evolution and self-realizations as an author in Nigeria, Adichie is able to argue that—though outsiders have authority to write on certain topics for certain audiences—it is ultimately only someone whose life experience is grounded in an African field of power who can write African stories.
Richard attempts to decipher what are and are not authentic representations of Africa by grappling with the kind of authority he and the other writers around him possess or lack. He recognizes the ignorance of other non-Africans, while his interactions with Nigerians help him to realize his own ignorance at times. When he first arrives in Nigeria, Richard—a former journalist for a British publication—states that he is there for the purpose of writing a book on Nigerian art. Adichie expresses the tension of Richard’s attempt to become an African writer amongst other British expatriates. The other expatriates clearly do not value African culture: “When Richard mentioned his interest in Igbo-Ukwu art, they said it didn’t have much of a market yet, so he did not bother to explain that he wasn’t at all interested in the money, it was the aesthetics that drew him” (66). Despite the fact that Richard’s peers clearly do not have the same interest in or understanding of Nigerian art history, Adichie writes that Richard’s friend Susan “spoke with authority about Nigeria and Nigerians.” Richard rejects Susan’s authority on the topic, yet accepts her authority when she talks about his own writing: “At first when [Susan] introduced him as a writer, he wanted to correct her: journalist, not writer. But he was a writer, at least he was certain he was meant to be a writer, an artist, a creator. His journalism was temporary, something he would do until he wrote that brilliant novel” (69). Richard’s unstated qualification of Susan’s opinion shows his natural assumption that he and other British expatriates have the authority to write African literature, while he also ironically assumes that he is destined to be a Biafran novelist. Just as Richard views his journalism as temporary, the Africans in Half of a Yellow Sun view his experience in Africa as temporary as well, and do not grant him authority except that which they tacitly extend to write propaganda and articles that Colonel Madu later recruits him to write.
By examining Richard’s authority (or rather, his lack of authority) in Bourdieusian terms; specifically, by analyzing his species capital, we can more clearly see how any “African” work of literature produced by him would be an inauthentic one. Although he has acquired some social capital in Nigeria through Kainene’s network of African friends and family, it is clear that—were it not for Kainene—his social network would likely consist entirely of other British expatriates, and despite having his own subjective experiences in his relatively short time in Nigeria, the majority of his cultural capital is tied to a British context, in which all of his formal education and most of his life experience has taken place. Furthermore, despite evidently having a fair amount of economic capital, the African audience around him will not grant him any of the symbolic capital that would be constitutive of the authority necessary to write an African novel. His book on Igbo-Ukwu art goes unfinished because both Okeoma (an Igbo academic and poet) and Kainene make him feel he does not have the authority to write it; and—though spurred by Richard’s infidelity—Kainene’s later burning of Richard’s manuscript can be seen as her insistence that his book attempt is beyond the scope of his authority.
When Okeoma inquires of Richard how his book writing is going he asks, “Is it a novel about expatriates?” Upon learning that it is a book about Igbo-Ukwu art, he no longer respects Richard’s writing and implies that his “love” of African art is actually condescending (141). Upon returning home with Kainene, Richard explains why he felt maligned by Okeoma, saying, “I do love the art. It was horrible of him to accuse me of disrespect.” Kainene responds, “It’s possible to love something and still condescend to it.” To which he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t even know if I’m a writer” (145). Once again, Richard’s interactions with Africans cause him to question his ability as a writer, but here he has not yet realized that the root of his disqualification is a lack of authentic African experience and not simply something he can overcome by being sympathetic to the Biafran cause. What determines his authority (or lack thereof) and thus the authenticity of his written work, is what he chooses to write about—Okeoma would have deemed Richard’s book on expatriates as within his range of authority, but asserts that a book on Igbo-Ukwu art is beyond it.
When Colonel Madu asks Richard to write for the Propaganda Directorate for public relations people in Europe, Richard initially rejects the request, saying that when Madu use of the word, “we [in reference to Biafrans] was edged with exclusion. The deliberate emphasis, the deepened voice, meant that Richard was not part of we; a visitor could not take the liberties of the homeowners” (382). Richard also thinks that “Madu [sees] him [Richard] as a foreigner, which perhaps was why he thought he would be good at this.” Madu confirms Richard’s suspicions saying that his white skin gives him authority in the realm of foreign journalism, and that foreigners “will take [him] more seriously because [he is] white.” He tells Richard, “The truth is that this is not your war. This is not your cause… If you really want to contribute, this is the way that you can. The world has to know the truth of what is happening, because they cannot remain silent while we die” (383). It is here that Madu also refers to Richard, not as a Biafran, but as “a white man who lives in Biafra.” Richard is allowed to be an author in Nigeria, but not a Nigerian author; Adichie qualifies him to write Biafran propaganda and journalism, the audience of which is largely European. This again suggests the audience deter-mines literary authority, and is thus the final arbiter in determining a work of literature’s authenticity. Adichie’s characters would not consider a novel by Richard to be an authentic Nigerian or Biafran novel, and—given that Ugwu writes The Book in English for the most part—Richard’s disqualification lies not in his speaking English, but in his lack of authentic African experience.
Richard believes that he can overcome his lack of authority in the realm of African literature by being an active part of Biafra. When Biafra secedes and its declaration of independence is announced on the radio, Richard thinks “this was a new start, a new country, their new country… He would be Biafran in a way he could never have been Nigerian—he was here at the beginning; he had shared in the birth. He would belong” (211). It is with this renewed belief in his own newly born authority that Richard goes on to attempt to write a Biafran novel, but quickly starts to realize that his putative authority is false. Richard’s repeated interactions with other Europeans and Africans cause him to experience a cognitive dissonance between his own perceived authority and his distance from the reality of the fate of Biafrans, resulting in his eventually relinquishing the writing of the Biafran War book to Ugwu.
Richard, having spent several years in Nigeria and later Biafra, becomes informed enough to recognize the inauthentic representations of the War in other foreign publications, though he does not recognize his own lack of authority until later. While reading Time magazine, Richard realizes that it deeply misunderstood a Pidgin word and has proceeded to publish an erroneous article alongside an equally inaccurate publication in the Observer. He notes that “there [is] a hollowness to all the accounts, an echo of un-reality. So Richard [begins] to write a long article about the massacres” (208). Kainene actually does seem to think Richard has the authority to write this particular kind of article, calling it “very fierce.” Previously, she had burned his book attempt, declaring his endeavor to write about Nigerian art to be condescending (and thus inauthentic). Kainene serves as a catalyst for Richard’s self-realization by deeming him capable of writing Biafran propaganda intended for European audiences, but not of writing or speaking as a Biafran.
After his conversation with Colonel Madu and agreeing to write for the Propaganda Directorate, Richard interacts with ignorant American journalists who investigate and then inaccurately represent the War. Richard’s distaste for them, and the difference he sees between them and himself inspires him to begin writing a novel about the Biafran War, and to use the title (inspired by Madu) “The World Was Silent When We Died.” Upon hearing of this, Kainene “arch[es] her eyebrows. ‘We? The world was silent when we died?’” (469). Although Richard objects to Kainene’s use of an exclusive “we,” as he similarly resented Madu’s exclusive “we,” he has already begun recognizing that his stakes in the Biafran War are not the same as other Biafrans (particularly after reflecting on the airport massacre where his whiteness had protected him). Once again it was his attempt to write that helps him realize this. After confessing to Kainene that he wrote an article for the Herald and that he is worried its “formal and stuffy” style reveal that he is not feeling the stress and grief of the War as much as he ought to, Richard’s true fear is explained: “that perhaps he had been nothing more than a voyeur. He had not feared for his own life, so the massacres became external, outside of him; he had watched them through the detached lens of knowing he was safe. But [he thinks] that couldn’t be; Kainene would not have been safe there” (211). This scene demonstrates that Richard’s true fear is not simply being a bad or inaccurate writer, like the other foreign journalists, but rather of being removed from the realities of the war, and connected to Nigeria or Biafra only through his love for Kainene.
Richard tries to write about the massacre in the airport, “but he [stops] because the sentences [are] risible… too melodramatic… just like the article in the foreign press, as if these killings had not happened and, even if they had, as if they had not quite happened that way. The echo of unreality weigh[s] each word down” (211). The reiteration of the phrase “echo of unreality” that Adichie used on the previous page links Richard’s own writing, however superior it may be to the Times articles, to the note of false authority that Richard detested in Susan, in the American journalists, and now, in the foreign press more broadly.
It is no coincidence then that after this scene of a failed attempt to write a short story for his novel about the Biafran War, Richard wishes to solidify his link to Kainene more permanently, thinking “he would belong. He [says], Marry me, Kainene in his head many times but he [does] not say it aloud” (211). By marrying Kainene, Richard wants not only to make himself Biafran, but to garner the cultural authority that such a union would give him. This in turn implies that authors assume that a writer’s authority cannot be self-determined, but rather is determined by their audience and the wider culture around the writer. Later in the War, a Biafran guard who is standing at the blockade into Nsukka suspects Richard is a Nigerian sympathizer because of his white skin and chauffeur and questions him. Richard responds by saying in Igbo that he is Biafran, and “the man laugh[s]… ‘Eh, a white man who is saying that he is a Biafran! Where did you learn to speak our language?’” To which Richard responds, “From my wife” and then “he thinks thought about how easily those Igbo words had slipped out of him. ‘I am a Biafran.’ He [does] not know why, but he hope[s] the driver… would not tell Kainene that he had referred to her as his wife” (227). It is clear in this scene that once again Richard worries that other Biafrans do not view him as one of them, and so in order to assert that he has equal stakes in the fate of Biafra, he claims Kainene is his wife. His fear that his driver will tell Kainene that he told the Igbo guard that he is Biafran is not a fear that Kainene will be angry with him, but that she will once again point out that Richard is not really Biafran because his experience has not been historically rooted in the experience of the Igbo, which is at the root of Biafra’s nationhood. Richard also fears that if Kainene finds out he referred to her as his “wife” she will painfully correct his relationship to her, just as she has corrected his relationship to Biafra. If she were to become so angry that she cancelled their relationship altogether, Richard would not only lose the Biafran woman he loves, but his only real stake in the Biafran nation.
Kainene, as an embodiment of what it means to be an educated, upper middle class Nigerian, is uniquely qualified to serve as both a catalyst for Richard’s realization of his own lack of authority to tell the kind of Biafran War stories he wants to tell, and also, as Kainene speaks both Igbo and English, a representation of Adichie’s idea that African authenticity need not be premised on someone speaking an African language. Kainene helps elucidate the cognitive dissonance that occurs within Richard throughout his time in Nigeria. This cognitive dissonance is manifested in Richard’s writing (or attempted writing process), and cannot be overcome by his attempt at Biafran-British syncretism. He gives up on his art book because Kainene and other Nigerians make him feel that he does not have the authority or authenticity to write it, and he gives up on the Biafran novel because when he loses Kainene (who likely dies in the War), he realizes that he has not had enough experience, or the kind of experience that would make his book an authentic Biafran novel.
IV. Conclusion and Significance behind Ngūgi and Adichie’s Divergence
In the end of Half of a Yellow Sun, Richard relinquishes control of the Biafran War novel to Ugwu, saying, “‘The war story isn’t mine to tell, really.’ Ugwu nod[s]. He had never thought that it was… Ugwu [takes] the sheets of paper from Mr. Richard” (530-1). One might think that Adichie, in giving the authority to write the Biafran War novel to Ugwu in light of his authenticity of experience, she herself—having not been a part of the Biafran War—is disqualifying herself to write a Biafran War novel. But what she is writing is not explicitly a Biafran War novel. Rather, it is an African novel set during the Biafran War. In an interview about the writing of Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie states that she created The Book because she “wanted to make a strongly felt political point about who should be writing the stories of Africa” (Adichie in “The Story Behind the Book”).
Adichie is not necessarily rejecting Ngūgi’s idea of authenticity altogether, but rather dramatizing the problem that will always be present in African literature. Bourdieu’s assertion that a literary critic should endeavor to find what problem the author posed and whether or not the author solved that problem allows us to see that, rather than “solving” the problem of authenticity, Adichie dramatizes it. Through representations of the African criticisms of Richard’s attempts to write a Biafran War novel and his own self-realizations, Adichie offers her audience a new way of defining authenticity and of determining who has the authority to write African stories. Ultimately, her work suggests that authority can be determined not simply by language, but by what experiences an author has had. Thus authenticity is determined by the kinds of “stories” an author is trying to write. Her character Richard has the authority to write articles and propaganda for Biafra because the audience is European.
In this sense, Adichie’s decision to write an English language story of Igbo resistance to colonial borders, while providing the dichotomy of authorship between Richard and Ugwu, provides a new way of approaching the idea of “authenticity” in African literature. Adichie gives the final authority of writing the Biafran War novel to Ugwu, who is representative of both formal English education and Igbo tradition. Ugwu’s use of a British colloquialism in his dedication of The Book to “Master, my good man” demonstrates not only the influence that the English language has had on him but also the influence of Odenigbo, who is not only an English speaker, but also the reason that Ugwu becomes educated and fluent in English and postcolonial thought. Adichie thus shows how it is possible to use the colonizer’s language to critique neocolonial practices.
Ngūgi’s approach to writing African literature appears to be based on his view that language and culture are integral to the formation of what Bourdieu would term one’s habitus and field of power: “Language as culture is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next” (Ngūgi 15). He states that language functions as culture in several ways: it is the product of the history which in turn reflects it; it is an image-forming agent for the one who learns it and uses it as a way of mediating between himself and his world; and finally, it transmits or imparts reality through the spoken and written word (16-7). Ngūgi’s understanding of language fits into the framework of Bourdieu’s habitus formation, but neglects to account for those like Adichie, whose habitus formation took place in both African and colonial languages.
Situating Adichie’s much more recent work of African fiction within Ngūgi’s paradigm creates conflict between authorship and authenticity. In Adichie’s novel, and in her contemporary Nigerian context, most culture formation and history formation takes place in both English and Igbo. Ugwu’s dedication to his Master (Odenigbo) mirrors the fact that postcolonial literature is uniquely indebted to post-colonial theory (such as that presented by Ngūgi), which is often (paradox-ically) written in the language of the colonizer due to the nature of formal education in postcolonial Africa. Yet this fact demonstrates that contemporary anticolonial intellectuals can critique the colonial project and its creators using the very language used to subjugate the colonized. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngūgi writes that “the bullet was the means of the physical subjugation, language was the means of the spiritual subjugation” (9). In the violent and repressive wake of post-Independence Kenya, Ngūgi views language as a kind of weaponry, and the use to which it is put as serving a violent neocolonial agenda. He then switches to Gikuyu, believing it to be a way of de-weaponizing the legacy of the colonial project. Ngūgi acknowledges in Decolonizing the Mind that in order for his vision to succeed, African people would need to retake ownership of their education completely. Adichie’s work is evidence that the educational project in Nigeria has not been completely reclaimed. That being said, her decision cannot be the same as Ngūgi’s. She has not de-weaponized the English language, but instead repurposed the weapon.
The writing of African fiction for Adichie involves writing human stories and acknowledging a certain African experience. Because many of the people in Nigeria, especially those in Adichie’s socio-economic class, have had a postcolonial education that clearly emphasizes English over Igbo, there is a way in which not writing in English would be inauthentic for Adichie. In a recent interview, Adichie clearly asserts that in terms of writing literature, African authenticity is rooted in African experience, which could take place in several languages, and for many does take place in English. In other words, where Ngūgi rejects English, Adichie takes ownership of it:
I’d like to say something about English as well, which is simply that English is mine. Sometimes we talk about English in Africa as if Africans have no agency, as if there is not a distinct form of English spoken in Anglophone African countries. I was educated in it; I spoke it at the same time as I spoke Igbo. My English-speaking is rooted in a Nigerian experience and not in a British or American or Australian one. I have taken ownership of English. (Adichie and Azodo)
The kind of Gestalt-switch Ngūgi advocates is not a viable option for Adichie. For her, writing in Igbo would be inauthentic. In a separate interview, she speaks about her choice to write in English:
I’m not sure my writing in English is a choice. If a Nigerian Igbo like myself is educated exclusively in English, discouraged from speaking Igbo in a school in which Igbo was just one more subject of study (and one that was considered ‘uncool’ by students and did not receive much support from the administration), then perhaps writing in English is not a choice, because the idea of choice assumes other equal alternatives. (Adichie and Azodo)
She goes on to say in this interview that, due to the nature of Nigerian education, which devalues Igbo culture and hardly teaches the reading and writing of the Igbo language, her command of Igbo is insufficient to allow for “intellectual thinking.” Given that many Igbo speakers cannot read or write in Igbo, if she were to write in Igbo, her work would not reach many literate Nigerians. For Adichie, what is important in the discourse on African literature is not one language over another but rather an examination of “how African writers (and Africans in general) are educated in Africa.” While Ngūgi premises literary authority on language, Adichie premises authority on experience, which illustrates the breadth of form that African experience can take. Ngūgi’s explanation for achieving authority and creating authentic African literature is thus prescriptive where Adichie’s is descriptive.
In an interview with the African Literature Association, Adichie says:
I do not believe in being prescriptive about art. I think African writers should write in whatever language they can. The important thing is to tell African stories. Besides, modern African stories can no longer claim anything like “cultural purity.” I come from a generation of Nigerians who constantly negotiate two languages, and sometimes three if you include Pidgin. For the Igbo in particular, ours is the Engli-Igbo generation and so to somehow claim that Igbo alone can capture our experience is to limit it. Globalization has affected us in profound ways. (Adichie)
With Bourdieu’s articulation of the literary field, it becomes possible to see that both Adichie and Ngūgi have authority. What determines authenticity then is not who someone is, but rather what he or she writes about. Because “authority” relates to the producing of a work, and “authenticity” relates to the work that is produced, it is possible to understand Ngūgi and Adichie as having produced authentic works, but having authority in different ways. Ngūgi has the authority to write about the break from colonial languages because he knows enough Gikuyu to sufficiently write in it. He is also writing much earlier, when the trajectory of Kenyan education had not yet been determined. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngūgi writes that, despite the bourgeois European origins of the novel as a genre, “the crucial question is not that of the racial, national, and class origins of the novel, but that of its development and the uses to which it is continually being put” (69).
In giving Ugwu the voice of authority to write the definitive work of Biafran War fiction, Adichie illustrates that it is possible to develop and use an African novel in a contemporary postcolonial setting, to criticize the remnants of the colonial project, even if that criticism uses English as a vehicle for conveying that message. Furthermore, given the limitations of her Igbo, Adichie cannot have language-based authority (like Ngūgi). If her authority is derived from experience, switching to Igbo (without being truly fluent in it) would “erase” her postcolonial experience, and reflect a false nostalgia (akin to that of Richard’s desire to be Biafran) for pre-colonial times, of which she was not a part.
What Adichie does in giving Ugwu the authority to write the Biafran War novel is to assert that there is no one story, no single “African” approach to fiction, because there is no single African experience. Given Africa’s postcolonial history, there exist many attempts to understand and navigate one’s contemporary paradigm, and Adichie’s approach —reflected in Ugwu’s writing—is one among many. Her decision to emphasize African experience in Igbo and English in Half of a Yellow Sun constitutes a new idea of how we can negotiate the terms of African authenticity in a contemporary postcolonial context. Adichie illustrates through her characters how one can break from the inauthentic paradigm Ngūgi addresses, without doing so in exactly the way he suggests. In so doing, Adichie’s choice to select Ugwu as author exemplifies the inherent heuristic value present in a bilingual, postcolonial author’s work, when language choice is circumscribed by circumstance. ■
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “African ‘Authenticity’ and the Biafran Experience.” Transistion, no. 99, 2008, pp. 42-53. JSTOR.
—. Half of a Yellow Sun. Random House, 2006.
—. “Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Creative Writing And Literary Activism.” Interview by Ada Uzoamaka Azodo. 2008. http://www.iun.edu/~minaua/interviews/interview_chimamanda_ngozi_adichie.pdf. [Accessed 2017.]
—. “The Story Behind the Book.” Interview. Chimamanda.com. 2007-2017. chimamanda.com/books/half-of-a-yellow-sun/the-story-behind-the-book/. [Accessed 2017.]
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—. “‘It Was Defiance’: An Interview with Ngūgi Wa Thiong’o.” Interview by Neil Munshi. Financial Times, 16 Nov. 2016. http://www.ft.com/content/5305acae-aa82-11e6-9cb3-bb8207902122. [Accessed 2017.]