In her first novel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes us through the life of a well-off Christian family in the midst of Nigeria’s political outbursts in the eighties. The story is narrated from the perspective of fifteen-year-old girl Kambili Achike, who becomes conscious of her voice while observing the instability within her family and country at the same time. Through the diverse trajectories of the story’s characters, Adichie explores the bitter aftermaths of colonialism and its resulting violence both at national and intimate levels. The novel strikes by its resonating silence, intense descriptions and the slow-paced narration that translates Kambili’s progressive journey to self-consciousness.
Silenced by Fear: “Speaking more with our spirits than with our lips”
Kambili is helplessly facing different forms of oppression. The first type of oppression she experiences is domestic. In Public, her father Eugene (Papa) appears as the most generous figure of the community, never faltering to help those in need, diligently attending all Catholic events, fighting for freedom of speech, and vigorously contesting politicians abuse of power. But in his private life, he dictates what his family should say, feel and act. He frequently whips Kambili and her brother Jaja, pours boiling water on them when they “sin” and beats his wife.
Eugene’s violence echoes the abusive acts he used to be a victim of while being raised by Catholic missionaries. He was conditioned to believe that punishment is the natural answer to any behavior that could be perceived to be against God’s will. Kambili was raised to do only what pleases God and her Papa. The few times she expresses herself in her family circle, she makes sure that she is in compliance with her religion and that her father would approve what she says.
Eugene’s fanaticism is contrasted to the more progressive and traditional religious practices of other characters. This opposition is used by the author as a way to highlight how Nigerians have reacted differently to the western religious and cultural domination. On one side, there is Eugene who worships white priests and forbids his family to speak Igbo. On the other side, characters such as Aunty Ifeoma, Grandfather Nnukwu and Father Amadi, who fully or partially reject this domination by only sticking to their traditional beliefs, or by blending them with their recent catholic inheritance. Exposed to these different practices during her stay in Nsukka at Aunty Ifeoma’s, Kambili progressively untangles her vision of religion from her father’s to choose her own faith although she knows she risks punishment for this.
The violence that follows a military coup, also affects Kambili’s life. She observes and is horrified by scenes of strikes and violent altercations between civilians and soldiers and feels desperate for being helpless.
“Soldiers were milling around. Market women were shouting and many had both hands placed on their heads, in the way that people do to show despair or shock…I saw the soldier raise a whip in the air. The whip was long. It curled in the air before it landed on the woman’s shoulder…. I thought about the woman lying in the dirt as we drove home. I had not seen her face, but I felt that I knew her, that I had always known her. I wished I could have gone over and helped her, cleaned the red mud from her wrapper… I thought about her, too on Monday, as Papa drove me to school “.
Through these episodes of violence that became casual in Kambili’s life, the author questions how identities are shaped in contexts of chaos. The protagonist is unaware of her voice because her father’s tough upbringing, combined with the political and religious reality that prone censorship, had taught her the risks of not containing her voice. She therefore “spoke more with her spirit than her lips“.
Expressing the Unsaid
The silence in the novel is translated by an extremely descriptive narration and very limited dialogues. Therefore, to express key ideas that the characters won’t allow themselves to say, the author uses several allegories. There are three symbols of oppression and liberation that strike the most: the figurines, the love sip of Papa’s tea and the Purple Hibiscus.
In the opening chapter, Papa breaks his wife’s figurines. Papa’s violence is never explicitly expressed by Kambili as a way to deny that he is capable of such things. She just evokes that she often hears sounds from her parents’ room, “like something being banged against the door” and that after this, she sees her mother sometimes with a swollen eye, comforting herself by polishing her ballet dancers figurines. But this time when Papa broke her figurines, she refused to replace them. This could be interpreted as a way of saying that she won’t need these figurines to comfort her anymore because she will no longer accept being hurt. When something breaks, it leaves a place for new things. In the case of Mama, not replacing her broken figurines might signify a turning point, or a new start for her.
Eugene always invites his children to take a sip of his burning tea before he tastes it. He calls it a “Love sip”. Kambili always looks forward to it as it is the only moment of affection she frequently shares with her father. “I knew when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me “. She adores her father and considers it a privilege to share something with him although it is hurtful. This can also be interpreted as a way of expressing Kambili’s approval of her father’s violence. The fact that she gladly sips the tea although she knows it will hurt her, means she even accepts her father’s passive acts of violence simply because she considers it as signs of affection that she cannot refuse.
The stay in Nsukka at Aunty Ifeoma’s house was determining in Kambili and her brother Jaja’s internal transformation. There, laughter floated in the air, Aunty Ifeoma spoke loudly and was not afraid of speaking her mind in criticizing her brother Eugene’s fanaticism. “He has to stop doing God’s work. God is big enough to do his own job”. Her children are also outspoken ”Words spurted from everyone, often not seeking any response. We only spoke with purpose back home”, explains Kambili. Aunty Ifeoma encourages Kambili to speak louder and to talk back to her cousins when she disagrees; eventually helping her to become more aware of her voice.
The awakening of the two teenagers starts in Nsukka. Therefore, when returning to their parent’s house in Enugu, they want to bring the piece of Nsukka that brings them a sense of freedom; the Purple Hibiscus is what symbolizes it. Jaja is the first one to notice it. He is struck by its color as hibiscus are commonly red. Because the Purple Hibiscus is rare and only blooms in Nsukka, the only place where Kambili and Jaja feel free, it represents a symbol of “a different kind of freedom” to them. “A freedom to be, to do”.
Purple Hibiscus is in summary, a powerful tale of oppression and liberation at many levels. The most horrifying experiences are told with the candid and smooth voice of Kambili, thus making them almost bearable or at least, giving hope that things will get better.