This speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a lovely introduction to the importance of feminism in the world today, a reminder that equality still does not exist and a good way for us to understand the different characters in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.
You should also recognise in this speech the way the characters in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ conform to her ideas. Masculinity being based on strength, power and having overcome fear (Odenigbo and Madu), but leaving them emotionally vulnerable and unable to cope when things go wrong.
Women being taught that they should aspire to marriage above all else and having to make compromises and allowances for their husbands (Olanna and Aunty Ifeka). Olanna, in particular, is someone who should defies this role as she is more than Odenigbo’s equal having a high class European education, coming from a prestigious family and being beautiful; whereas, Odenigbo is a clever man, but with a local education and seems to wield influence through his assertive masculinity rather than through capability.
Think about how Kainene’s role may also mirror Adichie’s views on what women should aspire to. Does she fit? Or does she have to become masculine as a way of asserting authority? Interesting.
Anyway, if you want to look at some quotations from the novel and their significance when we are looking at feminism or the differing roles of men and women in the novel, click here.
On this page we’ll drill into some of the characters. Below are some of the questions I asked my class to think about while watching the video (and, usefully, some of the ideas we generated).
1 In what way does Odenigbo mirror the image of masculinity presented by Adichie in this speech?
Adichie’s Ideas about what ‘Masculinity‘ means in the world:
‘Hard man’ – men are not allowed to show weakness and need to conquer their fears.
Breadwinner – their is a historical hangover that means, even today, men typically earn more money than women despite doing the same jobs. Men are brought up to assume it is their job to be the head of the household and provide for their families.
Fragile Ego – associated with the idea of being a ‘hard man’. Your ego is your self-perception and when we talk about people being egotistical, we mean that they think a lot of themselves. However, as men are taught to hide their vulnerability, they do not learn how to deal with their ego being dented by defeated, failure or problems.
Odenigbo’s ‘Masculinity’ in the novel:
‘Hard man’ – he fits quite neatly with this. Olanna falls for him because of his ‘aggressive confidence’ and he seems unable to admit he’s made mistake or not have an answer. Think about his reaction through the novel as things get worse for Biafra: ‘War will not come’; ‘We’re safe’; ‘We will live in security!’ He places blind faith in the world to turn out for the best for him and his family, rather than heeding advice and warnings, making sensible decisions. Also, he refuses to show remorse or guilt for his affair and tries to place the blame on Amala (an innocent and terrified little girl) and his mother… oh, and the old, reliable excuse of ‘I was dead drunk.’
Breadwinner – whatever happens to Odenigbo later in the novel and the mistakes he continues to make, I believe we have to respect him. This is a boy from the village who has managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps to be extremely successful: he’s education, lives a life of luxury (relative to many other Nigerians at the time), teaches and is part of an intellectual community. To most families in Nigeria he would be a wonderful breadwinner, but in his relationship with Olanna we can see an example of what Adichie mentioned about women catering to their men and ‘shrinking themselves’. Her wealth, superior education and family status means that she is capable of much better than life in Nsukka, and yet there is never a suggestion that he will up sticks and come to live with her or follow her career. She gives up her privilege and superior opportunities in order to be with him and plays second fiddle to him in Nsukka. What does he give up for her?
Okay, so we’ve seen Odenigbo’s ego in the way he handles himself, his unswerving confidence and in his defiant manner after getting Amala up the duff. However, what happens when he’s wrong or when his life becomes problematic? He crumbles. His constant assurances to Olanna about the Biafran war effort disappear overnight when he is directly impacted by the loss of his mother and other close friends. Olanna is emotionally distraught through the conflict and struggles with her emotions throughout the novel (with Odenigbo’s infidelity and her own causing problems with Kainene), but ultimately is strong enough to pull her family through. Odenigbo always seems to be in control, but when personal disaster strikes he immediately collapses and his confidence vanishes. He turns to alcohol and Alice to seek comfort and when speaking about the war becomes the voice of doom and gloom. At the end of the novel we perceive him as almost the exact opposite of our initial impression of him as a swashbuckling revolutionary with the brains and heart to stand up for his people.
2 In what way does Olanna mirror the image of femininity presented by Adichie in this speech?
3 In what way does Kainene reflect Adichie’s own ideas about how women should behave?