Text Messages | Half of a Yellow Sun

The gripping, seductive opening line of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ was very slightly different from an earlier published version. What a difference a word made.

It is almost a decade and a half since Granta published The View from Africa (Granta 92, 2005), but the impact of some of its stories remains as powerful now as then. This is the collection in which Binyavanga Wainaina published his essay How to Write About Africa, which became celebrated – or notorious, to those of regressive outlook.

The issue features work by three South Africans, Santu Mofokeng, Nadine Gordimer and Ivan Vladislavic. The Black Albums is an essay and portrait collection compiled by photojournalist Mofokeng of African people and families taken between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th. Among those photographed are Bishop Jacobus G Xaba, his wife and two children, a pair of unidentified young men posing with their tennis rackets, and Mmamothupi Motsoatsoe, forced to move from what was then the Orange Free State to Ventersdorp after losing her home and livelihood through the 1913 Land Act. Xaba was from the Free State, too, the presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bloemfontein, a body that played a significant role in helping to set up the South African Native National Congress, forerunner to the ANC, in 1912.

Gordimer’s short story, Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black, was later to lend its title to a collection of her short fiction. Vladislavic’s piece, Joburg, is a nonfiction reflection on the city he has used as foreground and background in so much of his fiction, and an ambiguous Valentine to what he describes in the piece as “…a frontier city, a place of contested boundaries. Territory must be secured and defended or it will be lost.”

Helon Habila contributes The Witch’s Dog, a fascinating glimpse of twin boys in search of the spirit world, and an excerpt from his subsequent novel, Measuring Time. The Ugandan novelist Moses Isegawa presents The War of the Ears, a terrifying depiction of child soldiers in God’s Victorious Brigades. Their mission is “to spread God’s glory”; one of their ways of operating is to invoke and act on the age-old proverb, “Ears which don’t listen to their master get chopped off”.

Opening the issue is The Master, excerpted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s superb novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which was published the following year. She had published the novel Purple Hibiscus before the extract in Granta, but it was in reading The Master that one became aware a great writer had arrived. Readers keenly anticipating the novel did not have long to wait. Granta 92 came out in the (northern) winter of 2005, and Half of a Yellow Sun was on bookshop shelves in 2006.

Opening the hardback and turning to Part One, The Early Sixties, alert readers were surprised, or possibly even shocked, by the first word of the novel. If they had been expecting it to read exactly as the extract did, they were confounded by a simple, subtle, but nonetheless considerable change. Rarely has the omission of a single word made such a difference to the reading, sense and context of an entire book. The Master begins “The Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings and had too much hair.”

Half of a Yellow Sun, in contrast, begins “Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair.” The effect of removing the definite article from before Master was most simply to turn The Master into Master. More profoundly, in removing particularity, it endowed the character of Master with a universality that it had been denied in the extract, or at least one that was somewhat obscured.

From such small things do great notions grow. Adichie was taking on one of the largest of Nigerian subjects, the Biafran war between 1967 and 1970 in which more than a million people died. Using that as a backdrop, she examines murderous and moribund colonialism, ethnicity, race and class, as her three central characters, Ugwu, Olanna and Richard, navigate the war and their own tumultuous lives and loves.

Master is Ugwu’s university lecturer, and the book’s last words are left to Ugwu, in the dedication of his own book: For Master, my good man.

Adichie will be at the Abantu Literary Festival in Soweto this weekend.

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