DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is only 29 years old. She was not yet born when civil war took hold of her native Nigeria, but she's lived through its legacy. Adichie grew up in the presence of survivors and in the shadows of the dead. Her new novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, tells the story of the Ibo people's failed fight to form the independent nation of Biafra. The war of secession began in 1967 after thousands of Ibo were massacred and driven out of northern Nigeria by the Hausa, another ethnic group.
When the fighting ended nearly three years later, between half a million and two million people were dead, most from starvation and disease. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says Biafra has special meaning for each of the three main characters in Half of a Yellow Sun, Richard, Olanna and Ugwu.
Ms. CHIMAMANDA ADICHIE (Author, Half of a Yellow Sun): For Richard it means finally having a sense of belonging, because he's an Englishman who in many ways has been looking for a home and finally finds that in Biafra, and he finds love as well, because he falls in love with this woman who is Biafran, and then he falls in love with the idea and the cause behind Biafra.
I think for Olanna, I think she's a character who's a bit more ambivalent about Biafra, because Biafra disrupts the comfort of her middle class existence. She does believe in the cause, but I think in the end she comes to believe in it much more than she did at the beginning. And so it becomes for her a means of mending her relationship with her sister, Kinina(ph), and it also affords her, I think, the opportunity to come into her own. And for Ugwu it's the center of his life, I think.
ELLIOTT: Ugwu is a houseboy at the start of the novel. He seems very unsure of himself, he's young. He isn't formally educated. Tell us a little bit about him.
Ms. ADICHIE: Ugwu actually was inspired by the houseboy my mother had during the war, and hearing about this houseboy - whose name is Malitzus(ph), and the book is partly dedicated to him - I thought a lot about him, and I tried to imagine what his life must have been like, and Ugwu really came from that.
And I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of a boy who really isn't an insider, and I wanted him to grow. And so when he comes to master's house, he's very young and very raw, but also very bright and very discerning. And he grows. At the end we really find that Ugwu is the one who's done best at surviving.
ELLIOTT: I was struck in reading this book how it's very engaging and entertaining, and I'm learning about these people and their lives and personalities, and then when the war begins there's a completely different tone, and you take the reader to a completely different place emotionally.
Ms. ADICHIE: Writing it really was difficult. When I was writing the war parts, it was quite difficult, and I went to difficult places emotionally. I would often stop to cry, but I was also very set on portraying war as I think war really is.
ELLIOTT: What do you mean by that?
Ms. ADICHIE: I didn't want to gloss over things. So when I was writing the scenes of the massacres, I didn't want to use vague language, for example.
ELLIOTT: You know, you talk about how you would have to stop and cry. I mean there were moments in reading this book where I would have to just stop reading for a moment because during your scenes in this war, there are some very disturbing images.
Ms. ADICHIE: To really write the truth of Biafra one had to confront those things. I mean you couldn't - I felt I couldn't write about Biafra truthfully without writing about, for example, the woman who fled the north with her child's head.
ELLIOTT: An image that recurs throughout the novel.
Ms. ADICHIE: It does, and I read about this in many books, and I just found it so haunting. I found it so - just so terrible and so believable. I can see a mother doing this. And I wanted to write it, and I sort of didn't want the reader to forget.
ELLIOTT: I'd like for you to read a passage for us, if you would. This is where the war has brought Olanna and her twin sister back together for the first time since Olanna had the affair with Richard, her sister's boyfriend.
Ms. ADICHIE: Olanna wondered where Richard was. Kainene glanced at her. Richard left very early today. He's going to Gabon to visit the Kwashiorkor Center next week, and he said he needed to see to the arrangements. But I think he left so early because he felt awkward about seeing you.
Oh. Olanna pursed her lips. Kainene stared with a careless confidence past potholes in the road, past palm trees stripped of fronds, past a thin soldier pulling along a thinner goat. Do you ever dream of that child's head in the calabash? she asked.
Olanna looked out of the window and remembered the slanting lines crisscrossing the calabash, the white blankness of the child's eyes. I don't remember my dreams.
Grandpapa used to say about difficulties he had gone through, It did not kill me, it made me knowledgeable. (Speaking foreign language) I remember. There are some thinks that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable, Kainene said.
There was a pause. Inside Olanna something calcified leaped to life. Do you know what I mean? Kainene asked. Yes.
ELLIOTT: So when you put these characters' personal problems or rivalries up against that image of this mother who's carrying her child's head away from a war zone, you understand the balance of things.
Ms. ADICHIE: You do. I think in the end what war did for these people, and I think for many people, is that it makes you realize what really matters and what really should matter.
ELLIOTT: How much of a presence was the Biafran war in your family as you were growing up?
Ms. ADICHIE: It was present, but it was present in a vague way, in that often when my father talked about his father, often my father would end by saying, you know, then the war took him, or he would shake his head and say, and then the war came, or something like that.
And my parents, not only did they both lose their fathers, my grandfathers, but they lost everything they owned, and they lost a belief in something. My parents believed very much in the Biafran cause, and I think that it really affected them. I think it affected a lot of people, a lot of Ibo people of that generation.
ELLIOTT: I'd like to talk to you now about Ugwu, the servant, who decides to write his own story of the war. Throughout your novel you scatter pieces of his book. I'd like for you to read a poem that he intends to use as the epilogue to his story.
Ms. ADICHIE: The poem is called Were You Silent When We Died.
(Reading) Did you see photos in '68 of children with their hair becoming rust, sickly patches nestled on those small heads, then fallen off like rotten leaves and dust? Imagine children with arms like toothpicks, with footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin.
It was kwashiorkor, a difficult word, a word that was not quite ugly enough as sin. You needn't imagine. There were photos displayed in gloss-filled pages of your life. Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly, then turn around to hold your lover or wife? The skin had turned the tawny of wheat tea and showed cobwebs of vein and brittle bone. Naked children laughing as if the man would not take the photos and then leave alone.
ELLIOTT: Is this how you feel?
Ms. ADICHIE: I feel very strongly that there's so much more that could have been done about Biafra that wasn't done. I think the number of deaths would really have been drastically reduced if, for example, the United Kingdom wasn't arming Nigeria; if, for example, the United States had done more; if, for example, Russia hadn't become involved with just the aim of spreading their influence in Africa.
ELLIOTT: You've said that Africa has long been written about, long been maligned. As a fiction writer, how do you go about setting the record straight?
Ms. ADICHIE: Well, I try very hard not to start off my writing with ideology. My aim is simply to tell the truth of Africa, of my experience as an African woman. And I think that in telling the truth, complexity emerges. I - you know, I also feel that more Africa stories should be told by Africans who have lived it.
ELLIOTT: Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her new novel is called Half of a Yellow Sun. Thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. ADICHIE: Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed this.
ELLIOTT: To read excerpts from the novel, go to our Web site, NPR.org.