Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Story of Biafra
Half of a Yellow Sun, Metro International, 2013
From The New Yorker:
Sitting in Baltimore, Chimamanda found that writing her Biafra novel was arousing in her a degree of obsessiveness that she had not experienced before. She did nothing else. She was nominally enrolled in an M.F.A. program at Johns Hopkins, which gave her a stipend for two years, but for weeks at a time she avoided classes and stayed inside to work, leaving only to go downstairs to buy bananas and peanuts, or to pay for a delivery of Chinese food. If she felt restless, she jumped rope.
When she wanted to reset her mind, she read Derek Walcott. It didn’t matter which poem—she just wanted to hear his voice. She liked some other poets, too, but only modern ones. If a poem had a “thee” or an “O” in it, she turned the page.
When she did venture out to campus to teach, she dressed in a way that she felt conflicted about. She had noticed that, in American academia, a girly style—bright colors, patterns, frills, bows, ruffles, heels, eyeshadow, pink lipstick, all the accoutrements of femininity that she had always loved—was taken to be the sign of a silly woman. She felt she had to prove herself, so she had decided to dress in the businesslike, anhedonic manner of serious American feminists.
It had been nearly ten years since her first stint in America, as a college student, when, as she later put it, she discovered that she was black. Her roommate at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, learning that she was from Africa, had been amazed that she knew how to use a stove, that she didn’t listen to “tribal music.” She had since imbibed, bit by bit, the semiotics of race in America, which she had initially found mystifying. She now understood why people got offended at the mention of watermelon, or fried chicken, or hair.
She had decided to set her Biafra story in Nsukka—the town in Igboland where she had grown up, and where her father had taught statistics at the university—and to center it on the household of a radical professor. It was a mark of her obsessiveness that she felt almost superstitiously particular about where she wrote each part. To write the first section, which described the early sixties, before the war began, she moved back into her parents’ house and wrote in her childhood bedroom.
“our women who follow white men are a certain type, a poor family and the kind of bodies that white men like.” He stopped and continued, in a mocking mimicry of an English accent, “Fantastically desirable bottoms.”
To write about the early months of the war, she went to Abba, her ancestral home town. She wanted to smell it.
“They thought Ojukwu had arms piled up somewhere, given the way he’s been talking, ‘No power in Black Africa can defeat us!’ . . . our men are training with wooden guns.”
But to write the last part of the book, when the war was going very badly for Biafra, she didn’t want to be in Nigeria at all: she needed distance. Thus, Baltimore.