The Language of Belonging

The need to belong, and be part of an “in” group, is something every person has felt. This longing becomes complicated when the power dynamics of empires and social hierarchies come into play. The relationship between former colonizers and the formerly colonized during the 20th century demonstrates this nuances and difficulties of this desire.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), follows the experiences of a young houseboy adjusting to University life after leaving a rural village, his master’s lover who becomes a sociology lecturer at the University of Nsukka, and her twin sister’s lover, an English writer who moves to Nigeria to learn about Igbo-Ukwu art. Throughout the chapters that center on Richard, the Englishman living and writing at the University of Nsukka, the narrator emphasizes the tension between him and Major Madu Madu, a close friend of his lover, Kainene. The tension between Richard and Madu finds equilibrium as the two battle over their opposing identities.

During their conversation on whether or not a second coup is probable at Kainene’s parents’ home in Lagos, the two men engage in a linguistic battle of sorts. Richard responds to Major Madu’s denial by saying: “I went to Zaria last week, and it seemed that all everybody was saying was second coup, second coup. Even radio Kaduna and the New Nigerian” (Adichie, 172). It is important to note that Richard said this in Igbo, to which Major Madu responded: “What doe the press know, really?” in English (Adichie 172). Richard believes that Madu responds to his Igbo in English in order to force the conversation back into English (Adichie, 172). This choice in dialogue, happening across languages, highlights a social interaction that places Madu firmly within the “in” group and Richard firmly outside of it. This shift, in which Madu refuses to engage in his own language with the foreigner—who is able to move to Nigeria as a result of his country’s conquest and destruction of the region—forces Richard to revert to the language of a colonizer.

The allusions in this passage to the media also underline the tension between the men. Richard is an academic, who believes in ideological debate and the importance of information. By mentioning “radio Kaduna” and “the New Nigerian,” Richard is presenting his sources. He makes an argument based on media-supported reports and statements. These specific sources also demonstrate Richard’s desire to integrate fully into Nigeria and Igbo culture, because he is using local sources, instead of the “Colonies Magazine” which offered his first look into Igbo art and culture. Madu, on the other hand, dismisses the media due to his position in the army. He knows that there is information that the press does not know, and understands that the press is looking for stories and therefore capitalizing on the tension that he claims has always been present.

This scene is punctuated with a letter from Richard’s cousin, following the outbreak of the second coup. The passage begins with: “Is “going native” still used? I always knew you would!” (Adichie 172). The narrator makes note that “Martin had… that superior smile of people who were born to belong and excel” (Adichie, 173). This passage highlights the condescension of the British towards the Igbo in Nigeria, but also establishes that Martin—the image of the British “in” group—does not believe that Richard ever belonged to the English as it was. Therefore the writer navigates his interactions with Madu with the understanding that his own nationality does not uphold his English-ness.

 

B4

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc, 2006.

Language as Beautiful as Magic

Sometimes meeting a new person is so unexpected that you don’t know how to react. You may be at a loss of words or find it extremely difficult to stop staring at your new acquaintance due to surprise, infatuation, or some other intense emotion. It’s as if your body is temporarily unable to function properly. Ugwu’s first meeting with Olanna in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is one that yields such a result: he is spellbound by her manner of speaking because he has never heard such beautiful English before.

Prior to moving in with Odenigbo, an eccentric university professor, Ugwu has limited experiences with the English language as he had to drop out of school to work on his family’s farm in a small rural village. But once he moves to the town of Nsukka as a houseboy, Ugwu rapidly improves his English, observing Odenigbo and his frequent party guests, who all converse in English. This habit of making mental notes about a person’s skill in speaking English becomes a prominent trait of Ugwu’s character, so it is no surprise that this action is exhibited when he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s lover. And when Ugwu hears her voice for the first time, his view of the English language is changed forever: “He stood still. He had always thought that Master’s English could not be compared to anybody’s…Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Here was a superior tongue, a luminous language…it reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice” (Adichie 27 – 28).

This first interaction between these two characters is the beginning of a friendship full of affection, learning, and trust. Ugwu’s initial impression of Olanna is one of admiration and fascination, as he finds her voice and command of language to be so lovely that he calls it “magic.” This is an example of metaphor since Ugwu compares Olanna’s style of speaking to magic, a concept that is not related to English, but shares the characteristic of being captivating. By labeling her voice as “magic,” Ugwu is emphasizing how charmed he is by Olanna’s voice and speaking abilities. Furthermore, there is the comparison of Olanna to Odenigbo: while Odenigbo’s voice is “music,” it cannot be compared to something as fantastical, otherworldly, and intriguing as “magic.” Ugwu even states that she has “a superior tongue” and speaks “a luminous language,” highlighting the amount of distance there is between the qualities of their voices.

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The other literary device that is present in this passage is analogy. This is shown when Ugwu compares the smooth flow of Olanna’s voice to the ease of slicing a yam with a new knife. Instead of simply stating how pleasant Olanna’s voice is, Ugwu goes into great detail by transforming the experience of listening to something completely different: food preparation. However, this is a familiar activity to Ugwu, which is why he made such a comparison. By doing so, it is easier for us readers to fully understand the level of satisfaction Ugwu feels when he hears Olanna speak English. Thus, these two literary devices work well together because of their similarities. Metaphor is closely related to analogy since both devices create comparisons to highlight a concept, such as Olanna’s English being compared to magic and easy yam slicing to show how enticing and pleasant her voice is.

These descriptions of Olanna by Ugwu are significant because they provide insight on the relationship between the two characters. The metaphoric and analogical language used to describe Olanna’s English shows how much Ugwu respects and admires her because his observations are full of praise. As the story progresses, we see Olanna noticing his affection and the shyness that he feels when around her. She also realizes how much he wants to speak English to her: “He always responded in English to her Igbo, as if he saw speaking Igbo to him as an insult that he had to defend himself against by insistently speaking English” (Adichie 59). Though it seems as if Ugwu is jealous of Olanna, this is just proof of how highly he regards her English abilities and how much he wants to improve and sound like her, demonstrating the power of language as a way for these two characters to learn how to appreciate and respect one another.

B4

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. Anchor Books, 2007.

Olanna, Miss Adeyebo, and Projected Insecurities

The relationship between Olanna and Miss Adeyebo illuminates Olanna’s trouble balancing different aspects of her own identity. Throughout the novel, descriptions of Olanna indicate her concerns about fitting into Igbo society; she fears seeming uncomfortable, or unnatural around her family in Nigeria. At the same time, she does not feel natural in the University environment among Odenigbo’s friends either. Her insecurities are highlighted specifically in her descriptions of Miss Adebayo, and therefore their relationship is stunted, at least in part by Olanna’s private issues.

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One section of the novel begins with a description of Olanna’s first evening drinking wine and discussing politics with Odenigbo’s friends. Miss Adebayo greets Olanna with the exclamation, “He did not tell us that you were illogically pretty,” then adds “and what a proper English accent” (61). The narrator then explains that (according to Olanna) Miss Adebayo made these statements “with a pitying smile, before turning back to the radiogram” (61). After this specific scene, in which the characters debate philosophy and WWII and the Eichmann trial, Olanna’s narrative shifts into an overview of her developing relationships with Odenigbo’s friends. While she has short comments to make about Dr. Patel and Okeoma, a majority of her thoughts have turned to Miss Adebayo. Olanna explains, “It would have been easier if Miss Adebayo showed jealousy, but it was as if Miss Adebayo thought her to be unworthy of competition, with her unintellectual ways and her too-pretty face and her mimicking-the-oppressor English accent” (64). Olanna believes that Miss Adebayo does not respect her opinions, which makes her doubt the validity of her own opinions: “[Olanna] suspected that there was a glaze of unoriginality to all her ideas” (64). Near the end of the scene, Olanna’s mind races with assumptions: “Perhaps Miss Adebayo could tell, from her face, that she was afraid of things, that she was unsure, that she was not one of those people with no patience for self-doubt” (65). A passage that begins as an explanation of Olanna’s specific relationships with others delves into her own insecurities about herself.

This scene uses an omniscient third-person narrator which gives the readers access solely to Olanna’s thoughts. Olanna’s relationship to Miss Adebayo is defined solely through Olanna’s own perceptions, which hints that their relationship will be strained by Olanna’s insecurities. This illuminates Olanna’s insecurities both through her own direct descriptions of them, and through subtleties in her opinions about Miss Adebayo. For example, the sentence that starts with “It would have been easier if Miss Adebayo showed jealousy” does not explain what exactly would have been easier, but reveals that Olanna does not perceive Miss Adebayo to be jealous. The passage then reveals that “it was as if Miss Adebayo thought her to be unworthy of competition,” then lists three of Olanna’s own insecurities. The “as if” shows that this is Olanna’s assumption about Miss Adebayo, not an actual confirmed opinion.

This section also contains a lot of repetition, which gives a better idea of Olanna’s strained emotional state. For example, the line “her unintellectual ways and her too-pretty face and her mimicking-the-oppressor English accent” is written in a list form, beginning with “her” each time (64). She then repeats “she” when listing “she was afraid of things,” “she was unsure,” and “she was not one of those people” (65). The repetition of “she” and “her” gives a feeling that Olanna’s mind is wandering. She’s flipping through Miss Adebayo’s possible assumptions. This feature works closely with the narrator’s access to Olanna’s mind. The end effect is that Olanna projects her own insecurities onto other people. Although she is speaking about others, the repetition and the third person omniscient narrator (which focuses on Olanna) does not

These characters can therefore not have a real relationship, because Olanna’s opinion of Miss Adebayo is hindered by her own insecurities. Although it could very well be possible that Olanna’s views are correct (Miss Adebayo in all likelihood does leave the room or ignore Olanna’s comments), Olanna’s mind (as revealed through the repetition and the narrator) is concentrated mostly on her own issues, and not on the actual actions of Miss Adebayo. By solely using Olanna’s mindset to illustrate a strained relationship between Miss Adebayo and Olanna, the passage shows how difficult it is to separate another person’s actions from one’s own insecurities.

Works Cited:

Adichie, Chimamanda. Half of a Yellow Sun. Anchor Books, 2006.

What’s So Scary About a Female Academic?

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.

BP 4

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.