By Erin Stott
To paraphrase Ebony Utley’s review of ‘Purple Hibiscus’: the power of this narrative is that we readers – through Kambili’s perspective and cognition – sense and feel the oppression that laces the novel, without ever naming it. Whilst young Kambili’s voice cannot fully articulate the effects of colonialism, strict catholicism or hypermasculinity that permeate every element of her life from dining table to scheduled study time, we readers know that it is there. The power of this novel – why it matters – is that we not only see Kambili’s internalised oppression for what it is, but we wait eagerly for her to realise it herself. We celebrate for Kambili as she opens her eyes to the possibilities of the world, and our hearts break when she cannot see or cannot escape her hardships. Adichie places us inside Kambili’s mind, following her notions of how she is “supposed to” act, and so inspires us to be mindful of our own thoughts. Just as Kambili is often too blinded by love or fear to realise the confines placed upon her, Adichie leaves us no choice but to ask ourselves: am I so absorbed in my own situation that I cannot see it critically?
Adichie brings us into Kambili’s home and sits us at the painfully tense dinner table, where she paints Kambili’s mindset clearly: the mindset that is always second-guessing, worrying, predicting the reactions to every action; the mindset that has internalised her Papa’s assertions of how the family and their lives “should be”.
“Say something, please, I wanted to say to Jaja. He was supposed to say something now, to contribute, to compliment Papa’s new product. We always did.”
Anyone who has learnt the tensions of an overbearing and grievous relationship will immediately empathise with the silent self-policing that Kambili employs. It is the same tense rationale that many are forced to learn in order to predict and avoid outburst. Indeed, even those of us privileged enough to not have experienced such a relationship can still feel its overbearing pressure from Adichie’s writing. Kambili’s every thought is dominated by whether or not her father would approve, whether he would be proud, what might he say. She is gripped by desire for his approval, and all too often she is consumed by the fear of his disapproval and what it may lead to. When the mind rewires itself to the power of someone or something other than the person who owns that mind, the independence of conscious thought is oppressed. When the independent mind’s freedom is limited by fear or discomfort, it is an injustice to one of our most basic human rights: free thought.
But the grip of Adichie’s narrative does not come from this clear image of oppression alone: instead, the reason we keep reading is our desire for Kambili to realise and articulate the unfair confines she has internalised, and our desire for her to escape them. We readers are detached enough from her mindset that we are not shrouded by love for Papa Eugene as Kambili is; and we are attached enough to her narration that we can, and do, root for Kambili as she unravels the desires and beliefs of her father from her own. Kambili has internalised many of her father’s values, and they are strengthened by her love for her father and her desire for his approval. But not totally. Even her beloved father’s convictions are questioned when they must compete with other ideas. As Kambili moves out of the isolated family unit and is exposed to new concepts other than the strict Catholic doctrine enforced by her father, she begins to understand that she does have a free will, and that she does have independent wants and desires. By interacting with other world views – rather than remaining the passive reciprocant of her father’s faith – Kambili begins to uncover her own perspective.
Just as the subtlety of Kambili’s thoughts is what makes them realistic in the novel’s beginning, the slow victory of the learning mind is subtle too – and therefore realistic. None of us can hope to shake the world, or ourselves, free of our hindrances and internalised oppressions overnight, but instead we make progress in the same way as Kambili. As her life entwines with Aunt Ifeoma, she sees independence; with Amaka, she sees awareness; with Amadi, she sees her own beauty; with Papa-Nnukwu, she sees power and religion outside of her father’s version. All of these combine and help Kambili realise that she does not have to stay as she is. If we are to learn from Kambili, the most important part of her journey is realisation: realising that the current way is not the only way, and even when we feel powerless, we have the power to change.