Saturday, January 8, 2011

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in 1977 in Nigeria, the daughter of Igbo academics. She moved to the United States in 1996. Thirty-three years old today she is the author of two very well-received novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). She was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008.

Purple Hibiscus is an accomplished first novel, expertly put together and well-written. It also hits quite a few of the tropes of contemporary African literature. I've been reading African (largely Nigerian) novels of the 60s and 70s over the past couple of years, many from Chinua Achebi's African Writers Series. In fact my novel before last was Onwora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys which has strikingly similar themes. It's interesting to see how much is the same and what has changed. The potential for cruelty inherent in a paternalistic society stands out as a motif of the West African novel from the 50s through today (Adichie is evoking Achebe's own seminal novel Things Fall Apart, 1958). The Nigerian novelist has also consistently tried to expose the role of the Christian church in the cultural excesses of colonialism (this theme is shared with the Irish writer). On the other hand the increasing menace of a strong national government, corrupt and militarized, is characteristic of more recent novels (Chris Abani, El-Nukoya).

Purple Hibiscus is structurally the coming-of-age story of narrator Kambili, a 15-year-old girl surviving through a time of family crisis, but at its core the book is a study of "Papa" Eugene, Kambili's father. He is a wealthy, self-made businessman, fanatically Catholic and dangerously conflicted. His religious righteousness has led him to cut off his own father and others. Out of the village, he rejects his own roots completely. He is motivated by powerful feelings of anger, guilt and shame. Eventually this evolves into monstrous behavior. It is impressive how well filled-in a metaphor for the modern Nigerian nation Papa is while still serving as a convincing portrayal of one man's pathology. The book is unabashedly vascular: everything is a symbol of everything else.

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