By Riziki Millanzi
“’Imagine what the Standard would be if we were all quiet.’ It was a joke. Ade Coker was laughing; so was his wife, Yewande. But Papa did not laugh. Jaja and I turned and went back upstairs, silently.”
There’s a well-known saying in the English language that says that ‘sometimes silence speaks louder than words’. In Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows us how women can use writing to make their voice heard, even when they’re being silenced by those around them or society itself. To Ade Coker, the thought of being silenced is nothing but a distant possibility or prank. He can’t even fathom having his voice and agency stripped away, but for Kambili this her reality.
Silence can be a way of showing emotion, point towards something left unsaid or even offer up answers to otherwise unanswered questions, both in books as well as the world around us. Throughout history and still around the world today, women find themselves silenced or disregarded by society, those around them and louder predominant voices. However, Purple Hibiscus both explores and promotes how women can find and hone their voices through writing and sharing their stories or experiences.
I’d like to suggest that although it is important to explore how Kambili is silenced in relation to her gender, we must first explore how she is also censored by her situation and time. Purple Hibiscus is set in Post-Colonial Nigeria and its events coincide with the big Nigerian coup of 1985, led by Ibrahim Babangida. Babangida was one of Nigeria’s most corrupt and oppressive heads of state, and Adichie created the ‘Big Oga’ that we encounter within her novel as a stand in for the real-life president.
It is not just women’s voices that are oppressed throughout the novel, as we watch others be silenced for such things as refusing to adopt Catholic religion or disagreeing with current political policies or administration. Purple Hibiscus explores a kind of ‘double-silencing’. As a woman, Kambili is silenced not only by the censorship and tensions of her country, but also by the societal norms and expectations of her gender.
“Have you no words in your mouth?” he asked, entirely in Igbo. A bad sign. He hardly spoke Igbo […] he did not like us to speak it in public.”
Kambili’s Papa Eugene is one the main factors contributing to her silencing. It is not only Kambili that he silences though, as he suppresses those who do not share the same religion, political opinions or worldview as himself. Everything must be on his terms and align with his warped conceptions of what he considers ‘right’. Even the language of Igbo itself falls on the wrong side of what Eugene considers wrong or right.
Eugene’s newspaper ‘The Standard’ is published in the English language, rather than one of the native tongues of Igbo or even Yoruba. However, Adichie reclaims the use of her native tongue and uses it as a way in which her female characters find and use both their own voices as well as others. Kambili speaks Igbo throughout the novel, and so do all the strong and positive female role models within her life. Igbo is used and spoken throughout Adichie’s novel, from the ‘culturally conscious’ music that Amaka adores to Ifeoma and Father Amadi’s joyful hymns in Igbo. Most importantly, Adichie also writes in it – often not providing translation and forcing us to find meaning on her own terms.
“I watched every movement she made; I could not tear my eyes away. It was the fearlessness about her, about the way she gestured as she spoke…”
Purple Hibiscus is a novel that portrays silence but is not inherently a silent novel. Returning to the idea that sometimes silence speaks louder than words, the novel shows how women can break through their silencing and how they can find new ways make their voices heard or even make them louder. For example, Adichie’s decision to have Kambili deliver her story in First Person Narration allows her to find her own voice within the silence. The way in which Purple Hibiscus gives us Kambili’s observations, feelings and statements provides her with a voice louder than any dialogue she could give. Kambili is not as outspoken as her cousin or her aunt, but it is through sharing her experiences that she finds a new and effective way of making her voice heard.
In Adichie’s 2009 TED talk she stresses the importance women being able to find their own voices. She fears how if they don’t, they often “grow up to be women who silence themselves” and “women who cannot say what they truly think.” Kambili is silenced by her father and his unattainable ideals but never keeps her true thoughts and beliefs completely supressed. Even when she does not dare speak back to her father or connect with her grandfather like she wishes that she could, it is in her narrative that we find her true feelings, opinions and voice.
When Ifeoma berates Kambili for not standing up for herself (“O ginidi, Kambili, have you no mouth? Talk back to her!”) we long for her to do so. However, we as readers know just what a mouth she truly has, even if she does not use it in the conventional way. Books, as well as all kinds of women’s literature and artforms, give women a versatile and effective way to find their own voice and use it in a way they otherwise might not be able to. The last section of the novel is named ‘A different silence’ and is symbolic of Kambili finding her voice and the way in which Adichie uses it to share her important and powerful story with us. In Purple Hibiscus, the silence, at first a representation of oppression and powerlessness, becomes symbolic of peace. Through reliving and sharing her story, Kambili becomes at ease and no longer at odds with herself, her father or her feelings.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie champions the importance of multiple stories and women’s voices. Stories, both their creation and distribution, allow us to learn from and listen to others’ experiences. It is important that there are many different stories available to us and that they are written by women of all different races, circumstances, sexual orientations and communities than our own. If we’re going to champion and promote women’s voices, we’ve got to champion all women’s voices. We’ve got to listen and read every story, leaving our biases and prejudices at the door.
Purple Hibiscus provides us with just one of these stories. The way in which Kambili finds and develops her voice both inspires us as readers to listen to other women’s voices and take them forward within us when developing our own.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg – The danger of a single story – TEDGlobal 2009