Author in Focus: How to #Write #War like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

English: Chimamanda Adichie

English: Chimamanda Adichie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Author in Focus Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  (born 15 September 1977) is a writer from Nigeria. She has been called “the most prominent” of a “procession of critically acclaimed young anglophone authors is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature”.

Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (2004) and awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, named after the flag of the short-lived nation of Biafra, is set before and during the Biafran War. It was awarded the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. Half of a Yellow Sun has been adapted into a film  and is set for release in 2014.

Her third book, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), is a collection of short stories. (Wikipedia)

How does Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Succeed in Writing about War?

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Half of a Yellow Sun is set both before and during the Biafran War. Those of us of a certain age, may remember ‘Biafran babies’ being one of the first poster children for starvation. A nation of starving children when Biafra attempts to become an independent republic in South East Nigeria in the 1960’s

In a nutshell, the reason Adichie’s work is so powerful is because she makes us care about her characters, and in doing do she personalizes the experience of the war. The extended family involved is an ordinary family with their own familial ups and downs, and the core nuclear family, is middle class, like many people who would read the novel. They had leftist views, but many of us do. So when their life takes a turn for the worse , we can relate to having our lives gradually stripped away. We can imagine what we might do in the same situation.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The other reason is that clearly she did her research. The reasons behind the conflict, and how it plays out are shown in meticulous detail without bashing us over the head with a history lesson. Again, because she shows us through the characters. So we learn about what happened and why it happened. But it’s done in such a way, we don’t realize we are learning. We keep reading because we want to know what will happen next, will things get better or worse. Who will survive and who will not?

 Why Write about War?

War is difficult to write about. How do you show the horrors  of war without the violence being gratuitous? Why write about it at all? Don’t we have enough coverage with our 24/7 news coverage these days?  There have been some excellent war reporters who have shown us front lines, shelled cities, and injured people, with truth and heartfelt coverage that is as unbiased as reporting can be. But a novel takes us further. It takes us into the hearts of the characters, and what it was like to actually live day to day in a wartime setting. I believe it’s important to keep writing about wars, both past and present, not to grind the same old saw, but so we can review events with a fresh perspective, and so ultimately we will never forget.

“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Cambridge April 2013,,a.k.andrew

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Cambridge April 2013


What are your favorite novels set during a war? Have you ever considered writing a short story or novel set during a war? If not, why not?

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Author in Focus is a blog series featuring vignettes of some of the greatest writers of the 20th & 21st century.

 “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  

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  1. Why Write About War is an engaging topic. To answer your questions “All quiet on the Western Front” is probably my favourite book where war is the primary topic, because it humanizes the common soldier on the side that most consider the enemy. I have never considered writing about war and hope that I never do, because I am fortunate to not have been directly involved in one and believe we should write of what we know. I am deeply grateful to those who do have the experience and choose to share it with us.
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    • All Quiet is certainly a good one. Keeping the story personal is the key to making it readable, otherwise it really is just a history lesson in sheep’s clothing. I was interested to hear you say you only like to write about what you know. It’s definitely helpful to draw from one’s own experiences, and indeed it definitely takes research to go beyond that. You never know you might like it. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, and for stopping by.
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  2. I had heard about this writer but had not read any of her books. I think I should. I do believe writing about a conflict or war and how it affects a life and family give us a view into the obvious challenges they would face. That in depth view makes it so very personal and hard to miss how we would feel in the same circumstance. 🙂
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    • She really is an excellent writer Susan, and not all her books are about war. I always find it incredibly inspiring to read a good author who writes about war, as it does give insight into how far we can endure as individuals, and makes me wonder how I might cope if faced with such difficulties. I hope I never have to, but I appreciate having a better understanding for others who have. Thanks Susan:-)
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  3. Doesn’t war fall into the same category as crime and sex? Reading about it enables people to escape their normal life and routines. And, not to forget, enables them to feel some excitement. She sounds like a good African writer.
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    • I don’t know about war writing being the same category as crime & sex – I guess it depends on how the novel is written. I suppose you could argue that any piece of fiction is escapist, but I wouldn’t say that reading a novel that deals with people’s suffering provides me with excitement. Now if you’re talking about something like the Guns of Navarrone that’s a difficult kettle of fish. Thanks for stopping by Catarina.
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      • Reading about other people suffering makes them feel content with their own life, no matter how boring. The same people love reading about celebreties having problems in the tabloid press. By the way,war sells so it’s always headline news.

        By the way, I’m not talking about me, but people in general.
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  4. I have heard about her but not read her yet. And why NOT write about war? Personally, I don’t need to feel comfortable when reading a novel…often not being so sparks questions and more thirst for knowledge. Not to mention it can often ignite the empathy gene and we can all use a bit more of that.
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  5. A Tale of Two Cities and A Farewell to Arms come to mind as two of my favorite books on the subject of war. I think the reason people have written and continue to write novels about war is that it not only puts a human face on it, but it also makes it much less black-and-white–human beings are on both sides of any conflict, but more than that, we tend to empathize with the suffering of others when reading fiction more than we do reading the news. As to the question writing about war–I don’t think I would write about it because it’s something that (for now, anyway) is so far removed from my own personal experience. But I’m glad others are out there writing about it and making us think about it.
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    • Tale of two Cities, is a great novel to bring up actually, because that is so moving, and we can see things from both sides of the fence. As well too it lets us see how an unlikely event of bravery comes to light in a way that I’m sure is the case. i.e. that ordinary people do extraordinary things during wartime. And I agree that fiction does give us a much better understanding than a report on the news. Particularly now when we are so bombarded by media. Thank you for your insightful comment.
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  6. The first time i visited Okinawa, i went on a war memorial tour. In this tour we spent time in a museum that houses a book written by the survivors of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This book has been translated into all the languages of the world. The book is a fascinating testament to our survival during the horrors of war as well as the suffering we go through in such times.

    Having lived through my own war (The first Gulf war) I avoid reading the things that can bring anything like that back. But I can spend time in fictitious wars and the stories that fall around such things.
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    • i can’t even imagine being in a war myself, so kudos to you Jon for enduring the first Gulf war.Thanks for mentioning it, and I can understand why revisiting anything to do with it would be intolerable. The book at Nagasaki sounds really incredible.To be honest, I find even lists of names at various museums or memorials I have seen upsetting. But then I do feel for myself that knowing what happened in different conflicts important, and fiction is often the best way to really understand it.
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  7. There was a time in my life during which I read a lot of books dealing with war, to name a few: All’s Quiet on the Western Front; Hiroshima (by JohnHersey); Ernie Pyle’s “you are there” books written as a WWII correspondent before he himself was killed on the battlefield); the Longest Day; the Painted Bird by Jerzey Kosinski; Sophie’s Choice. Then I had children of my own. Now, I cannot emotionally handle reading books that deal with the brutality of war. However, ever since visiting the WWI battlefields around Ypres, in Belgium, I’ve had this idea for a book which took shape when I learned that to this day, Belgian farmers are sometimes being killed by the “Harvest of Death” caused by unexploded WW I ordnance in their fields. Indeed, if you visit Flanders, you will find little piles of unexploded artillery shells that farmers have dug up in their fields and left for the bomb disposal squad. I’m not a fiction writer (nor much of a fiction reader), so I doubt “my book” will ever be written—by me, anyway.
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    • Funnily enough I’ve just re-read Farewell to Arms for a bookgroup. I think that empathy can come from different sources, and when it does then it changes everything. I felt very differently about peoples deaths for example after my own parents died, and shortly afterwards , some v. close friends also died. I have only heard snippets about unexploded bombs in Belgium. It definitely does sound like a story waiting to be told.Thanks for stopping by.
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  8. For myself I have never truly had to worry about being involved in a war and for that I consider myself very lucky. So I have never thought much about writing about war. It’s not a subject that interests me but Hotel Rwanda was an intensely powerful movie showing what one man and family could do when put in an impossible situation. As this writer does Hotel Rawanda made us care because these were middle class people we could identify with. We could see ourselves as the people desperately seeking sanctuary in the hotel and were mesmerized as we watched.

    Reminding us the people in war zones are people, human just like the rest of us is important. Rwanda has ended but there are still many conflicts happening throughout the world. When people care about these conflicts it puts pressure on leaders to do something to help solve these conflicts.

  9. I typically don’t read about war. I like fantasy & sic-fi because I can escape things like war. However, there are some authors who write well enough to make giving their work some time. Perhaps this is one of them.
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  10. War-time stories are indeed compelling. When you think about some of the world’s great movies over the past 5-+ years, they have a war theme throughout, and they are popular because as you say, they give us the chance to see how the war has affected the lives of the characters portrayed. It sounds like Chimamanda’s writing is equally compelling.
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  11. Can’t quite imagine being in a war A.K. and writing about it would be awful. I’d imagine its the kind of event that creates life-long judgements. It’d be hard to maintain creativity throughout. Thanks for a thoughtful read!
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    • I totally can’t imagine being in one either – in any capacity. And it would definitely be something it would be hard to put behind you, never mind about forgive. It’s incredible how people do maintain their creativity during conflicts, both inspite of , and because of it, in an attempt to make sense and/or survive. If we look at Picasso’s Guernica, it is such a gift to the world that has continued long after the event, but has the power to move us, even at this long arms reach. Thanks so much for your comment.
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  12. I can’t imagine the skill it would take to write well about war. I loved “A Farewell to Arms” and I just finished reading “The Book Thief”, both very different from each other. Novels do have a unique ability to make you comprehend parts of war that are just overwhelming or incomprehensible any other way.
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    • I agree with your last phrase Meredith, and I think that’s why fiction is such an effect way of understanding what actually happened to people in these conflicts. Farewell to Arms was the first book I ever read on war when i was in school. I’ve by chance just finished reading it for a book group and was rather disappointed. – I remembered it as being so much more romantic and moving when I was an adolescent. I guess age changes our perspective. Thanks for topping by.s
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  13. Why write about war? Why write about any topic at all? Without authors and poets and screenwriters we’re just left with the 24/7 news cycle, and that can’t even begin to get at what really makes people tick and the experiences they go through. I have my grandpa’s diary that he kept while on death march across Germany in WWII. I even transcribed it for a literary research methods class I took for my M.A. It’s mostly about what they ate (or were able to steal to eat) as well as who died and who got sick. I need to submit to the VFW magazine or other similar publication. He would never had said so out loud, but he was very pleased that I took the time to type the contents of his diary up as well as add researched footnotes.
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  14. I agree Jeri – especially now when we’re bombarded bu media 24/7, and it’s all so biased. Your grandpa’s diary sounds incredible. What an amazing document to have at your disposal. I’m sure he was thrilled you took the time. My aunt has a letter my grandfather received from a friend in the first WW. It’s written in pencil, and what really moved me was how beautifully written it was style wise. The guy was just an ordinary guy, but had taken the time to write “properly”, despite the circumstances. Thanks for your comment.
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  15. I read her first book and I’m afraid it’s been detrimental to African writers who tend to be effusive and elaborate because I somehow set her a benchmark of what that writing should be. I still have a hangover from that book two years later. She is an incredible talents, honest and truly. I have to buy myself a copy of half a yellow sun.
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  16. I usually resist reading books about war. I wish war were not necessary and I wonder if there would be any if women ran the world. Cat fights of course would be common. I have read a number of books about war and have enjoyed them. I think this one is one that I would like to read.

    • There is something compelling about novels set in wartime, though I think with a serious novel like Half of the Yellow Sun, for me it’s as much about learning about what happened, as she makes me care about the characters. I did a lot of research about ww2 in Italy , and there was so much I didn’t know. But again, it’s the people who dealt with the harsh conditions that were always the most interesting. Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
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  17. You have got me interested in this Author. I would love to read all about her experiences. I will check out her books on Amazon.
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  18. I don’t read much fiction about wars unless it is integral to the stories in my favorite genre — mysteries and thrillers. It’s interesting how many of them do revolve around conflicts.The older I get the more I read for pure pleasure. The Biafran War would be just too depressing to read about. There is so much misery in the world. I get enough in the headlines every day.
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    • I know what you mean about the Biafran war being too depressing, but I suppose she writes it in such a way that makes it readable. Which is not to say parts of it aren’t very grim, as they are. But there are certainly lots of mysteries set in war time. The 39 Steps springs to mind and Reilly Ace of Spies. I have to be in the mood to read a book like this. Sometimes I want something light and escapist too. generally like to have a balance.

  19. I read this post last week but just realized that I’d never left a comment. Apparently even reading about writing about war is too much for me. I admire her ability to write about war, it’s not something I could ever do. I can barely read about it …and if I’m honest, I can’t really read about it either. I don’t mind artificial horror, the lurking vampire or scaly monster, but human monsters give me nightmares.

    Despite my squeamish nature I do think it has to be done, how will we ever learn? How do we know that we have to intervene? I’m just glad there are folks out there brave enough to take on the task.
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    • Well thanks so much Debra for taking the time to come back. A lot of people have said they don’t like books about war. And really watching the Walking Dead is way less creepy than watching the news sometimes. I have real admiration for war reporters actually. Despite the adrenaline rush which I know attracts some peopleto the whole process, they are indeed far braver than I am to put themselves at such risk to get the story written. It was intersting in my research reading about the women who reported from Vietnam. They were few , and very much in a mans world , but they did it. Amazing role models.
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  20. That’s an powerful post and you told the story well. I grew up in postwar Holland and war, as horrific as it is, brings out unbelievable heroism and bravery in people. I will be getting this book.

  21. I have tried to write about war. Not one I was in, but one that I learned a lot about and got interested in because the “bad guys” were trained in the USA. This was the Salvadoran Civil War back in the eighties. Eventually I had to go to a Canadian protagonist who gets information mostly second hand, although sees some things like the bombing of villages from a distance. I decided it would be too difficult to get things right, even if I could read first-hand reports of open battle. Also, I found I just could not describe the massacres in my books because they were too awful. I had to think of my readers. This left me with the question of whether it was my squeamishness that limited my content. I just believed that the book had a lot to say, and I didn’t want the reader slapping it closed and not finishing it.

    I still believe the Salvadoran Civil War has much to say about many of our present dilemmas. That was the angle I took, to show the effects on various characters in whom my protagonist had become invested emotionally. The more important “facts” came out in the end at the truth and reconciliation process, which gave the reader (and myself) some objectivity.

    But I admire what Chimamanda has done and will read her works with great interest. Thanks, A. K. for brining her work forward.

    • Hi Kathleen, good to see you hear. I can totally relate to what you are saying, and in some ways I felt that what went on during the McCarty era was not a million miles away from the fear mongering of the Bush years, and using political issues to bypass a few civil rights’ for the greater good’ but the war in El Salvador would be a really tough one, both in terms of the bloodshed as well as getting the facts right. Chimamanda is really a beacon of hope in the literary world I feel, and to be able to write that novel as only your second novel shows incredible talent. Thank you so much for stopping by. Do kep in touch & I will do the same:-)
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  22. What fabulous quotes. If they are anything to go by plus your review, the book is well worth a read.
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