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