Intellectual and empowered women have always been threatening. Or at least threatening to the structures of power that work to keep women in subservient positions and strictly domestic locations. There is no exception to this age old rule in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel Half of A Yellow Sun. The novel is set during the Biafran War in Nigeria and utilizes an intrusive narrator who provides three distinct perspectives on the unfolding historical event. The first narrative perspective is the young houseboy, Ugwu, then the high society beauty, Olanna, and finally the British expatriate, Richard. The novel opens by focusing on Ugwu’s characters as he makes the transition from village life into the home of a revolutionary college professor, Odenigbo. Odenigbo encourages his new houseboy to strive towards education and fosters a home environment in which intellectualism is central. In the opening chapter, Ugwu evaluates the many guests that Odenigbo invites to his home for intellectual debates. Interestingly, Ugwu’s character admires the male professors and writers but holds particular disdain for the reoccurring female guest, Miss Adebayo.
Though little attention is paid to the male guests of Odenigbo, Ugwu provides almost two pages of details about Miss Adebayo, focusing particularly on her intellectualism and agency in male dominated spaces. For example, in his lengthy description Ugwu notes:
“She had asked him to wait so that she could give him a ride back to the campus, but he thanked her and said he still had many things left to buy and would take a taxi, although he had finished shopping. He did not want to ride in her car, did not like how her voice rose above Master’s in the living room, challenging and arguing. He often fought the urge to…tell her to shut up, especially when she called Master a sophist. He did not know what sophist meant…” (24).
The first sentence of this paragraph introduces the idea that the dislike Ugwu feels for Miss Adebayo is deeply spurred by the authority she asserts despite her gender. The first clause in the first sentence gives power and the subjective position to the female pronoun “She” whereas “him” is used passively, as a direct object. However, Ugwu shifts this assertive feminine dynamic in the second clause where “he” becomes the subject and “her” becomes the direct object of the clause. Finally, by the end of the sentence Ugwu has erased the feminine pronoun completely. This technical structure mirrors the actual content of the sentence, wherein Miss Adebayo first attempts to help him, or assert agency, but is then rebuffed as Ugwu does not want to submit to what she “asked” of him.
Next, Ugwu shifts between talking about a personal experience to talking about Miss Adebayo’s relationship with his master with the words, “He did not want to ride in her car, did not like how her voice rose above Master’s”. Here, the only thing separating Ugwu from Odenigbo is a comma, showing the way in which Ugwu deeply associates his own identity with his master’s. Further, the way in which Ugwu desires to privilege Odenigbo’s “voice” over Miss Adebayo demonstrates the way in which Ugwu ascribes more value to male thought and intellectualism. Finally, Ugwu ends with the assertion that what he hates most is when Miss Adebayo calls Odenigbo a “sophist”, though “he does not know what a sophist meant”. Later on Ugwu is not bothered by other words he does not understand, such as “decolonize” and “pan-African”. However, he is bothered when Miss Adebayo uses a word he doesn’t understand and ascribes it to his master. Ugwu does not accept her use of academic words because of his privileging of masculine intellectualism. Further, he finds discomfort in the assertive way in which Miss Adebayo applies her intellectualism as an insult to Odenigbo, or Ugwu’s idealized picture of masculinity.
Though this may seem to be a minor detail in the text, Ugwu’s reaction to Miss Adebayo’s character highlights a current and persistent issue for women in Academia. Where a feminist reading may assert western cultural values into this non-western setting, the specificity of this moment’s academic landscape lends itself more easily to a feminist lens. Ugwu’s fear of Miss Adebayo affirms his position in a patriarchal bounds of academia, wherein women are not meant to over power male thinkers.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.