Thursday, April 28, 2016

Half a Yellow Sun

Prologue: l mulled over the review for nearly a year now. Actually, I mulled over the book itself for weeks after I finished reading it. I'm back to this review now after months because I read news about the upcoming Nigerian elections and about a political party that is reaching out to  Biafran sentiments.

***

Books are windows into different worlds. I knew so little about Nigeria except for some basic geography and that it was a British colony at some point. The aspirations of new generations I learnt through Americanah, and thought diaspora of English speaking developing countries reach out to the UK and the US in similar ways and we must all be the same.

Half a Yellow Sun showed me a different history and a different world I would have never known otherwise. I'm sure in today's world of polar divisional opinions there would be many Nigerians who reject the version from Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie. To them I would like to say that I may not know the whole story but I would have known none if not for her.

The story tells us about the nation of Biafra, a nation state for the Igbo people of the Nigerian region who wanted to separate from the Hausa and Yoruba peoples. And about war, conscription, rationing and starvation. The story unfolds through the eyes of various characters. Olanna is an idealistic beautiful and rich Nigerian who need not get into this fight. In fact her ex-boyfriend was Hausa and Muslim (like the majority of Hausa) and her parents preferred that relationship to her current Igbo boyfriend. Her twin sister Kainene, bold and unfazed who is business minded enough to make money out of the war, also ends up fighting it. Olanna's boyfriend, Odenigbo, whose intellectual superiority keeps his fire burning for the war, is the only main character who believes in Biafra as a concept. The White British misfit, Richard hopes to become a Biafran to truly belong to the same country as his girlfriend Kainene, mostly in order to be part of something and not be an outsider. Ugwu, the household help at Olanna's house has a completely different view to his rich masters and yet loyalty comes easily to the poor.

All of them are rooting for Biafra for various reasons. And history will tell you that Biafra lost. The book was not so much about the strategies of winning and losing the war as much as it is about how people root for the 'right' side. It's so very hard when you are on the ground to understand whether you are right or wrong or winning or losing. You also get swept by the people around you to do what others do, sometimes with little thought. When times are tough, you persist because of your faith/belief even though you may have an easy way out.

The story is entirely from the Biafran point of view and Adichie herself is Igbo. I know not whether Adichie believed in Biafra or not but some of the characters in the book are such staunch believers that it does not occur to them that they might lose. Some like Ugwu care little about who rules the world because it makes little difference to the poor. But for most part, people are in it because it gives them purpose. Sometimes you wonder what is that worth when people die and little history is remembered outside some confines.

***

Epilogue: I read a Lunch with FT feature with Adichie. Among many things that were discussed, one that came up was the character of Richard. She is asked often if it was intentional to make the only essential white character in the book such a dud. Richard originally comes to Nigeria to write a book on some African pots and he comes off as a wanna-be hipster who had his own whitewashed view of Nigeria. He finds Kainene who is a strong woman and clearly the domineering one in the relationship. He also has problems in bed. Some find that this is emasculating and question that intention of the author.
I was really surprised at this line of thought. It had never occurred to me. Of course he wasn't central to a plot that's about Nigerians in Nigeria !
Adichie's response - the Englishman doesn't have to be the superhero all the time. This was an eye opener. But I must appreciate the FT interviewer for including this snippet in spite of how it makes him look.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

I See You

I watched I See You at the Royal Court Theatre and give it a 4/5 rating.

The play, though set in post-apartheid South Africa, does find resonance across the globally confused young people of today.

It's a strong story line, introducing us to our posh African teenager Benjamin who meets Skinn, a local white girl living rough. She is more South African than he is, though judging by the looks people tend to think he is. They have a run in with the cops and there is a little of the insight into the politics within the system and the power the police have over the general public. But that's not the main story. Our cop Buthelezi  was a freedom fighter and fought against white people. And then he runs into Ben, with an English name and unable to speak his monger tongue. Buthelezi calls Ben a white boy and hates him for not being thankful for his freedom and becoming Anglicised. And Ben to begin with is just confused. The stand off between them escalates until the boy gives up because he just wants to go home.

But before he gives in, the boy 'sees' Buthelezi and he tells him that. He says I see you. What he sees is a ghost from the past, because Buthelezi died on the battlefield and never really returned. So according to the boy, only other ghosts like his African inside him can see the ghost that Buthelezi was. It makes sense. People tend to look for a past that gave them more meaning than the present. But after that I lose the narrative. The boy keeps telling Buthelezi that he loves him and reason is that he cannot say anything else.

For a small set and a small space, they've delivered well. I would have given it a 5 rating if not for the ending where the narrative tries to get something deep but falls flat instead.

Les Blancs

I watched Les Blancs at The National Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

After watching I See You, I was looking forward to watching Les Blancs because it is play about the world of settlers or the colonisers in a remote village in Africa and because it is playing at the Olivier Theatre.

The story is written elegantly with so many versions of the truth such that the truth becomes your own. The play is largely set in a village missionary clinic set up by the settlers.

The Truth is not defined by the colour of your skin. There are white people who believe this missionary is providing faith as well as medicine to these villagers. There are also white people who see this missionary as patronising and are dejected that they are party to it. There are black people who believe in the missionary at its purpose and there are those who want to fight for freedom. And then there are the others, who are black and white and understand that this difference is down to human beings and not the colour of the skin (as one character says, he has seen Ann Frank's attic). Our most sensible character, Tshembe, is also our least passionate because reason is stronger.
And yet it is him that Africa hugs because the love for your country is unshakeable, even if you have left it and created a life elsewhere. He doesn't want to take sides. What is it worth taking sides in a war that will burn the country no matter who lit the fire first.

The play ends with the set, the village missionary clinic, set on fire!

For Olivier, I think the sets were used less. But I suppose I said this the last time I watched a play at Olivier as well. I can't expect every set to use all that there is available to use at the Olivier. The set on fire and extinguished at will was indeed mesmerising.

Sheila Atim was purely haunting. She walks with such elegance dragging on the burden of colonial exploitation with pain but not dejection. She plays the spirit of Africa. She has no lines. Come to think of it the African women have no voice. Only women to have lines are the white doctor and madame, the lady who runs the missionary with her husband. Subtle but strong on the writer's part.

Danny Sapani as Tshembe was convincing and brilliant. Actually all the actors are remarkable, be it Eric kid who lost his way or the Martha with her blindness to her own racism.

It is a heartfelt production and one for the awards, in my opinion. You can still catch it at the National Theatre.