Talking about her first published book, Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how, “in a sense it’s kind of my first baby and it’s the first baby that I’ve sent out into the world, and when I wrote that book I didn’t think anybody would read it. I thought maybe four people would; three family and one friend!” Well, she couldn’t have been more wrong! Purple Hibiscus has since gone on to win the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. And many years later, it is now the first book to be read collectively by our Books That Matter community! But why did we choose Purple Hibiscus? Why is it a book that matters? Let’s explore together and find out…
As a broad introduction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel centers on a plethora of interwoven, communicative themes that are continually relevant today, for example, colonialism, domestic violence, patriarchal violence, and coming of age to name a few. The text is hugely performative in that the themes speak to each other and interact together as the novel develops: the violence breeds silence, which impacts Kambili and Jaja, our protagonists, as they grow and develop a sense of who they are; and the violence is bred by the imposition of colonialism on their Nigerian home. Describing how Purple Hibiscus came to be, Chimamanda explains:
“That books for me (Purple Hibiscus) is about nostalgia, a kind of romanticised remembering. I wrote it when I was in college in Connecticut, I was very homesick, it was the middle of a Connecticut winter and I just started writing because I just wanted to remember home. And I think it that sense there’s a kind of romanticising, and suddenly what you remember isn’t so much home as it is a construction of home. But, I like to think also that there’s a poetry in Purple Hibiscus that I don’t think I have in any of my other books.”
Let’s jump in to some of these integral themes that twist, turn, and develop throughout the book. Rest assured that there will be no spoilers in this blog post, just an introduction to the writing, it’s contexts, and what to keep an eye out for when reading this masterpiece of a novel.
Colonialism is described by Janani Balasubramanian (writing for BDG) as: “ a rampant phenomenon, but it’s also a specific one: it involves the extension of sovereignty of one people/nation over another. Settler-colonialism (like in the US) further involves settlers occupying colonized peoples’ lands. Colonialism is marked by psychological trauma as well as material domination, but it is not just a general term for racism. Similarly, decolonization is not a general term for anti-racism; it involves the removal of colonizers’ control over land, resources, bodies, and minds.” Colonialism is an exceedingly precedent and complex topic in Nigeria, and it is a topic explicitly spoken about and acted upon by the characters Eugene (Kambili’s father) and Papa-Nnukwu (Kambili’s grandfather), who have to polar opposite reactions to the colonisation occuring in Nigeria. For Papa-Nnukwu, the colonisation of Nigeria is an evil force to be feared, something that has enslaved the Igbo people and destroyed the traditions and religion he cares for dearly and remains leading his life in service of. However, for Eugene, a product of an English education and Western-influenced upbringing, colonialism is to be thanked for his access to higher education and finding of Christianity. Eugene was schooled by missionaries and studied wholly in English, and so he switches between Igbo and English when he desires. The wisdom he has brought back to Nigeria from this Western education has been informed by the same forces and oppression that colonized his country. He chooses to abandon the traditions of his ancestors, and no longer respects them, and chooses to speak primarily in English when in public, and live a primarily Westernised lifestyle.
Jaja and Kambili’s home in their large estate is filled with Western luxuries that are not afforded to their cousins and fellow townspeople, such as TV, radio, music, fully operating vehicles, and kitchen appliances. This leads to tension between Amaka and Kambili, as Amaka assumes that the pair prefer to follow white, American pop stars as they have access to their music, while she herself listens to musicians of Nigeria who embrace and reflect their African heritage. Ultimately, the home Kambili and Jaja live in is for appearances only, and their father does not allow for them to watch the TV or listen to the modern music Amaka assumes they readily consume. The falsified appearance of the house is to impress his guests, just the same as his English which is spoken with a “falsified” accent in front of white people to impress them and ‘keep up appearances’ so to speak. The novel follows as both Kambili and Jaja must come to terms with the after effects of colonialism which overshadow Nigeria, and they must adjust to life outside of their father’s grasp by either choosing to embrace (or at least, not challenge and comply with) colonialist ways, or to follow Nigerian tradition.
Postcolonial theorist Cynthia R Wallace summarises: “As a postcolonial text, Purple Hibiscus critiques the associated violences of a Christian religion, colonial forces, and patriarchal domination. Yet, it also complicates this indictment through parallel critiques of Igbo culture through contrasting characters whose own beliefs manifest the proliferated possibilities of a secular age: not repudiation of Igbo culture or of Christianity, but a dynamic process of critique and embrace that exemplifies the cultural hermeneutics suggested by West African theologian Mercy Amba Odyoye. To do justice to the text, readers in a Western location must resist the urge to overlook either side of this risky and difficult paradox.”
(A link to read the full paper by Cynthia R Wallace on Purple Hibiscus as a postcolonial text is available at the bottom of this blog post.)
Silence and Violence
It becomes apparent from the very beginning of Purple Hibiscus that Kambili’s voice is censored, controlled and silenced; owing to her upbringing and the patriarchal dominance her father reigns over the household and the community. Chimamanda explains that:
“I think there are ways that they (themes of silence and violence) are necessarily connected. Violence can breed silence. And, so speaking politically, the fact that you’re living under a military regime that doesn’t allow you to speak, in many ways the very point of a dictatorship is that you’re not allowed to speak, and it breeds that silence. I wanted to write about many things, but one of the things was that idea that you love somebody who is harming you, and somehow you’ve been socialized to accept it. I find this really insidious, because I think it’s much more difficult than being harmed by somebody you don’t care about or being harmed by a stranger, and so I wanted to write about that idea of having been so surpressed and pushed down by violence that you become almost totally voiceless.” “Kambili and her mother in particular I think of as voiceless, as having lost themselves to living with someone who is a monster. I thought that having a character who is in fact voiceless actually gives it (the book) a lot of power. There’s a lot that is unsaid in the telling, and I think there’s something powerful about that.”
As the book progresses, Amaka notices how Kambili is almost incapable of smiling or laughter, and vocalises no opinions of her own; positioning her as a person of ridicule amongst her cousins. This repression of emotion and opinion still derives from her father’s overbearing and violent presence in her family. This is where domestic violence and family relationships tie into this overriding theme, upon which Chimamanda has commented:
“You know, sometimes I did have compassion for Eugene (Kambili’s father). I did because I see him as a product of a kind of colonized religion. The way that religion came to Africa, it came hand in hand with colonialism and colonialism is a dictatorship: you have young Africans being indoctrinated, really, into not just a new faith but also somehow everything that they were was somehow unworthy, and he (Eugene) swallowed it all, it really messed up his head. So the basis of my compassion was that, but it was also compassion that was not at all in any way able to excuse or even understand the violence that he commits. I did call him a monster, and I did that because I think we should be able to call things out.”
Coming of Age:
Finally, another key aspect of Purple Hibiscus is the coming of age of both Kambili and Jaja. This book is a bildungsroman no less, which is defined in the Oxford University Dictionary as “a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education” (other obvious literary bildungsromans include that of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Bronte’s Jane Eyre). Purple Hibiscus actually opens on what would appear to be Jaja’s coming of age, as he defies his father’s strict parenting. However, the book is narrated by Kambili, and the novel truly begins three years after Jaja’s defiance occurs, which leaves a lot in the dark to begin with about how they have both developed as young people.Interestingly, many definitions of the name Kambili state that it means “let me live”. Both Kambili and Jaja advance towards adulthood through overcoming adversity thrown at them, and are each exposed to new thoughts and new ways of life as the novel progresses. It is these factors which truly create these fantastic, multifaceted characters, because after all, isn’t part of coming of age finding yourself and your own voice? If you’ve just started Purple Hibiscus, maybe you, like me, are feeling frustrated at Kambili’s lack of voice and agency, and want desperately for her to find it; but the beauty of this book is in its cadence and detail, and rewarding storytelling; so keep reading, and enjoy watching Kambili blossom.