Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.
Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, was my first book for 2015. The first time I heard about Adichie was through her TED lecture titled The danger of the Single Story. It was both poignant and funny, but most importantly, it forced me to reevaluate some of the baseless assumptions that I held about other people (other cultures) because of stories that I’d picked up from the Internet, television and newspapers. It showed me how a storyteller can affect the way you see the world depending on the angle he/she decides to take.
Then I read Half of a Yellow Sun, which was all the rage at the time. It was significant to me because not only was it the first Nigerian novel that I’d ever read, it was my first African Novel. My first tiny viewfinder on a continent that I only knew through history lessons, reggae music, news networks, football and the discovery channel.
Last year I read my second Adiche novel, Americanah, which made me think of Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat (two of my favourite authors), who have written stories that try to illustrate the successes and failures of translating non-white cultures in predominantly white spaces. In Americanah, the two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, leave Nigeria for better opportunities, only to find new challenges that they are not prepared for. Americanah was about a lot more than this, but this is what stuck with me months later.
Purple Hibiscus is not only an excellent first novel but an apt symbol for Adichie’s writing. The story follows an astringently catholic Nigerian family, the Achike family, who try to hold on to their faith in the face personal, familial and political conflict. The problem with the Achike faith is its potential for blindness. Blindness to the cruelty that it inspired in Eugene towards his wife, Beatrice, and his children, Jaja and Kambili (the protagonist), when he suspects that they’re not walking the holy path. Blindness to the fact that Eugene’s rejection of his father, and traditions that would have existed before his apostasy and conversion to Christianity, is in fact a kind of rejection of a part of himself. Blindness to the fact that the families good fortune could not continue to go untouched by the political turmoil that Nigeria is facing in the story.
The only symbol of hope is the experimental purple hibiscus found in Eugene’s sister’s (Aunty Ifeoma’s) garden. This new flower not only represents a kind of personal freedom but it also represents a kind of syncretism, a marriage between the Catholicism brought by the European missionaries and the traditions of Eugene’s ancestors. The symbol finds its embodiment in Aunty Ifeoma and her children, who are much poorer but much happier and in Father Amadi (whom Kambili falls in love with) who dares to worship in Igbo, much to the disgust of Eugene who “… hardly spoke Igbo, and although Jaja and I spoke it with Mama at home, he did not like us to speak it in public. We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English.”
Adichie’s writing is like the experimental purple hibiscus because it seems to embrace all traditions, it shows a willingness or “…freedom to be…”, it flowers in the face of prescriptive dictums of those who think that African writers should be more Afrocentric or Eurocentric, but as far as I can see, Adichie’s stories are more people-centric.
*This book was read as part of The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge.