Characterizing Sex in a Novel: Chimamanda vs. Dibia by Jumoke Verissimo
In essay, I try to explore how sex is used for progressing emotional balance and, sometimes, imbalance in the characterisation of a story in two novels, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Jude Dibia’s Unbridled.
For one, even where it is not the intention of the novelists, sex is a character in the plot of the two stories. It is the microcosm from which the larger themes find meaning. In the two novels, the reader is not thrown into erotic passages with purely orgasmic readings; desire, sexuality, sexual identity and emotional commitment are represented as themes that find purpose.
In Nigeria, two acknowledged prose masters who are usually reference points for many Nigerian prose writers: Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. These writers have achieved a referential level of sexual differentiation in their novels – one, for the mastery of craftsmanship and the other for his prolificacy. In Chinua Achebe’s most read novel, Things Fall Apart, there is a vague memory of sex: and many readers will argue that there was actually no strong allusion to sex in the book – perhaps Achebe felt there was no reason to portray strong characteristic sex in Okonkwo, or other characters in the novel – picture an image of the strong and courageous Okonkwo jumping on and off his wives to depict dominance. That will be another story entirely.
However, Anthills of the Savannah has “adequate” sex scenes in it, it explores it to a vantage. What this could imply just like in the creation of characters, Achebe looks at the significance of sex in the plotting of his story, and the entirety of interpreting the wholesomeness of the plot. From referencing his two books, we come to understand that Achebe avoids being overdramatic where sex needs to be solemn, and when sex needs to be plentiful for integration in the body of the work, he lets it flow.
As for Cyprian Ekwensi, in his novel Jagua Nana – a rather controversial novel – which Ernest Emenyonu describes as the only novel which has so far been debated “on the floor of parliament where a proposed filming by an Italian company was arbitrarily stopped.” Its sex depiction cannot be said to have an erotica tradition, as the presentation of sex in the novel is significantly integrated in the development of the plot. In that sense sex is a character in the book, without it loses its “Jagua Nananess” – the urbanity and loud mouthedness.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jude Dibia, two (new) Nigerian writers in their (newest) books, Half of a Yellow Sun and Unbridled, broach the relevance of sex in literature, with what may be termed the broadness of appropriateness. But in actual fact, “this boldness” can only be discovered in a careful reading of the novels, as it depicts and confirms some level of humane value, which typically erotica would violate. And only when thematic preoccupations are sought is the “sexuality” discovered. This is because Adichie and Dibia have not removed their narration from using sexual intimacy as a way of relaying emotion. Intimacy drives their novels. And while many readers would assume that Adichie has written a story on Biafra, they cannot ignore the fact that she has portrayed sex as something that should be fussed about, because it is integral in the humanising and the dehumanising of people during the war.
Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of three characters, thirteen-year-old Ugwu, a houseboy for Odenigbo, an activist university professor; Olanna, the professor’s woman, and Richard, a lover to Kainene, Olanna’s twin. The love life of these three characters is the story that pushes the theme of loyalty and ethnicity. Half… is set in Biafra, before and during the war. The novel is divided into two parts, “The Early Sixties” and “The Late Sixties.” In the book, Adichie builds the sex life of Olanna and Odenigbo as an integral action in the progress of her story; with phenomenal presentation of realistic sex, which shows us the extent of their affection in the very good days before the war, and how sex is incidental character that shows how they sustain their affection after the war.
In Unbridled, Dibia treads a different route. Unlike in his first work, Walking with Shadows which has a polemical presentation of homosexuality; (some readers still do not connect with his plot and the sexuality in it). In Unbridled, Dibia sets his story with the mindset of connecting craftsmanship and passion – real, accepted and rejected. Dibia creates his story and his rather not too plentiful depiction of sex – when compared to Adichie’s. Dibia shows his reader the emancipation of Ngozi Akachi from incest and sexual molestation. It is the story of Ngozi, told in the first person, of a beautiful village girl who suffers abuse from her father. She is sent to Lagos to live with an Uncle. In Lagos, she suffers physical abuse from her aunt and because of an unsuccessful teenage affair with her friend’s brother. She moves to England and she meets more sexual and physical abuse, before she eventually discovers herself.
In the two books, sex is given roundness and life. It grows; it breathes, and maybe eats. It develops in Dibia’s Unbridled with disdain and grows into an expected pleasure. While in Half of a Yellow Sun it develops from an enactment of sexual bonds to the satisfaction of commitments and representing of nuptial obligations and romantic fantasies. In the two books whenever sex takes place, it always involves the readers. There is empathy and sympathy.
In creating an atmosphere of sex, Adichie and Dibia use some similar approaches to depict intimacy in certain instances. Hence, there is some sort of uniformity which can be accounted for as a conscious effort to retain artistry in recreating reality. In Half… when Olanna visits Odenigbo for the first time in his house in Nsukka, Ugwu hears that, “She was moaning loudly, sounds that seemed so unlike her, so uncontrolled and stirring and throaty. He stood there for a long time until the moans stopped, and then he went back to his room.” And in Unbridled when Uloma, who Ngozi stays with in Lagos (after she ran away from her Uncle), makes up with her activist boyfriend, Ngozi recalls, “I could still hear the muffled tears mixed with sighs of heated passion.” The reader is not let into the room. He does not see the act; he imagines the act. He has a luminous knowledge, which can only be discovered in this powerful display of what is sight through the “voice of sex”.
In Half… from the beginning of the novel to the end we understand that Adichie has succeeded in creating sex as a building block for familial relationships. Most times, “The form of sex that has been given least emphasis in patriarchal societies is mutual sex… This is not for lack of examples. There exist many love poems of delight and joy in mutual sex; novels in which mutual sex is integrated into families, communities; paintings and sculptures which expresses mutuality. Mutual sex exists in a different dimension from sex as a form of domination; it exists in the realm of pleasure, to which power is irrelevant.” (French 1989: 576). Sex between Olanna and Odenigbo in Half… progresses into different stages. Sex effectively portrays a disconnect and reconnect, and these scenes are so involving, that it seems as if this book will lack character without them. Sex is not portrayed as an unintelligent, unmoral, accidental evolution operating toward a selfish end – the reader sees the give-give and the take-take. The sex in Unbridled and Half of a Yellow Sun allows the reader to connect to the characters and gain an understanding, and a sympathetic attachment to them, which they would not connect with under different circumstances. Our first introduction to sex in Half… is through Ugwu, whose prurient thoughts about Nnesinachi, his village fantasy makes him masturbate. “They – her breasts – were images saved for last on the many nights when he touched himself, slowly at first and then vigorously, until a muffled moan escaped him.” Here sex is not about boisterous carnality. It is about self-discovery of a teenager.
Without being unnecessarily graphic Unbridled and Half of a Yellow Sun grasps successfully human challenges, deceptions, and reactions to life, by intimating them with distinct sexual presentation. The sex on display in these novels is not sex for sex sake; it is sex evolving around reproduction, full body, spiritual connections, and apparent body awareness.
Sex between loved ones has different usages to unaccepted sex relationships as in Half… when Odenigbo sleeps with Amala, the village girl who the mother brought to spite Olanna, and her a much deserved male child. Here Olanna’s choice of words is “You touched Amala.” There is an undertone of taboo – with the use of touch. He has impinged on what he should not. While in Unbridled when Ngozi has come to terms with her father’s abuse, after his death, and she tries to tell her mother about her father’s molestation, she says “… but she had a right to know what father did to me.” – “did” is the word that expresses contempt in this case. It is a disdainful act, which she hates.
In Half… and Unbridled, whenever sex comes in, there is a synthesis, which presents a realistic graphic and literary analysis of sex and its normalcy, creating thoughtful provocation of realism, not eroticism, when reading. In Half… sex between Olanna and Odenigbo is represented differently from the spring-less sexual relationship between Richard and Susan (the expatriate) or Ugwu and Chinyere.
In Unbridled and Half… rape is not overlooked; while the latter looks at domestic rape, Ngozi (Erika) and her white husband James, and Ugwu’s partaking in raping a bar girl during the war. Typically the sex is enjoyed alone by the rapist. In Unbridled, “The bed creaked and cried and shifted violently from side to side, objecting to this sudden and unexpected violation…” Compare this scene in Half…: “She was sobbing, ‘please, please, biko.’ Her blouse was still on, between her legs, High-Tech was moving. His thrusts were jerky…” In the two novels the writers’ choice of words, “jerky”, “sudden”, “violation” expresses an emotional detachment, a fury and a taboo. These two writers tell their readers that they can clothe sex scenes with emotions.
And while African novels may not have created blockbuster eroticas, Half… and Unbridled succeed in stating in clear terms that characterisation of sex is not baseless in novels, it serves an artistic value/purpose; a character in the plot.
Adichie and Dibia have succeeded in creating Sex as a character giving force to themes like Adultery, Childbearing; Rape, Conception, Fornication, Homosexuality, Masturbation, and incest are taking an entirely new dimension in the fray of modern moral liberation.
Characterizing Sex in a Novel: Chimamanda vs. Dibia by Jumoke Verissimo was originally published in the 2007 edition of ANA Review under the title ‘Characterising Sex in Two Nigerian Novels: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and Jude Dibia’s Unbridled’. It is published here in partnership with the Association of Nigerian Authors.