Mama had greeted him in the traditional way that women were supposed to, bending low and offering him her back so that he would pat it with his fan made of the soft, straw-coloured tail of an animal. Back home that night, Papa told Mama that it was sinful. You did not bow to another human being. It was an ungodly tradition, bowing to an Igwe. So, a few days later, when we went to see the bishop at Awka, I did not kneel to kiss his ring. I wanted to make Papa proud. But Papa yanked my ear in the car and said I did not have the spirit of discernment. The bishop was a man of God; the Igwe was merely a traditional ruler.
I don’t normally talk about what brought me to read a book on here, mostly because a lot of them were simply there or looked good/pretty. With Purple Hibiscus, however, I think there needs to be an exception. Many of you may have seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Newsnight back in November, discussing the US election with Robert Emmett Tyrell, founder and editor-in-chief of conservative magazine ‘The American Spectator’. Tyrell was unable to see racism or even real fault with Trump’s campaign rhetoric. When Adichie responded he accused her of being emotional – and therefore apparently incapable of intelligent or logical thought. Adichie explained, quite calmly for a woman effectively being told to sit down and shut up, that as a white male he is in a privileged position and cannot define racism. Even if he could, all evidence points to Trump promoting hateful and dangerous attitudes towards people at disadvantage; people of colour, immigrants, disabled people and women. The way Adichie held herself with grace and elegance, despite being visibly upset and angered by these remarks was admirable. She dealt with this situation beautifully, especially considering that she was unaware she was to be on the show with another guest until she arrived. She is a strong, smart woman and her writing in Purple Hibiscus reflects this.
Purple Hibiscus was Adichie’s debut novel, first published in 2003. The novel is told through the eyes of fifteen year old Kambili’s, a Nigerian Igbo girl. She, along with her brother Jaja and mother, lives in the shadow of her overbearing and strictly Catholic father. She has an almost outside view of him – she is enamoured by the charitable, God-loving exterior that her wider community sees, but struggles to consolidate this with the abusive, cruel-hearted man only seen within the walls of their compound. Her world is flipped upside down as she begins to see through his shiny exterior.
What strikes me about this novel is its incredibly strong voices. Kambili, while submissive and oppressed by her father speaks eloquently – a reflection of both the character’s strict education and the writer’s own tone. She rarely actually says more than a few words, but her internal narrative is intelligent and mature. Of course this is in part Adichie’s personal writing style shining through, but fits Kambili well. Her Aunt Ifeoma is fiercely passionate and confident, laughing loudly and standing fearless in the face of both her brother and the prospect of losing her job. Her grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu is peaceful and respectful of his son’s faith, but strong in his own traditional indigenous beliefs while JaJa’s fiery temper increases as he becomes more disillusioned by his father’s behaviour.
Her Papa is by far the loudest voice, unsurprisingly. Of course this doesn’t, however, make him the strongest character. He is overpowering, speaking over those he considers lesser and ensuring he gets his own way – no matter the cost. We are shown shocking acts of violence and cruel outbursts, particularly against his wife. She is deeply afraid that as such a popular figure in the community he will be seduced by a younger woman and leave her, but believes that giving him another child would prove her worth. He is more concerned by his image, though I’m not sure whether he is concerned with his image in the eyes of God or the eyes of the clergy. He often appears to use religion and charity as leverage to work his way up the social ladder, rather than a way to please God, and yet insists on saying long, sermon–like grace prayers. Perhaps he just likes the sound of his own voice.
Throughout the novel I was prone to comparing it to The Poisonwood Bible, and in many ways they are very similar. Religion and colonialism are strong themes, and it was interesting to see such a similar story told by a native African voice. I intend to compare them in detail in a future post, but I will say this – the sensible, intelligent Kambili is a much stronger 15 year-old than American Dream obsessed Rachel Price.
I’ve rewritten this several times and still feel like I could revise it all day and not do the book justice, but I truly loved Purple Hibiscus – it is a harrowing, well thought out and engaging novel with a lot of heart. Read it and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
See you soon,
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