Purple Hibiscus is Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel. Set in postcolonial Nigeria, the story is told from the perspective of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old girl enduring both familial and external strains. Beyond the central plot of adolescence in the context of political turmoil, the book also explores broader themes about freedom of speech, conflicting religious ideologies and the abuse of domestic power. However, the analysis of Nigerian women’s position in postcolonial society during this period is particularly interesting as Adichie uses each different female character within the story to break down the relationship between gender and the postcolonial state.
Commonly viewed as part of the postcolonial feminist canon, Purple Hibiscus not only depicts intellectual, middle-class women, like Aunty Ifeoma, who are able to oppose established patriarchal power structures, but also more submissive characters like Kambili and her mother who gradually begin to subvert gender norms to resist Papa Eugene’s violent exertion of power. An intriguing contrast can be drawn between Kambili and Amaka (the daughter of Aunty Ifeoma): although they’re the same age, Amaka is a symbol of a new stage of postcolonial feminism whilst Kambili struggles to confront the patriarchal restrictions that her father embodies. For example, Amaka refuses to participate in her confirmation if it means having to adopt a Western name as a result, demonstrating her desire to reject the remnants of colonial rule. Papa Eugene is an active symbol for this continued colonial influence, something that further juxtaposes the intellectual freedom in Aunty Ifeoma’s house, in which Igbo is frequently spoken over English.
Through Purple Hibiscus, Adichie has become well-established in the canon of postcolonial Nigerian literature; she even references the famous text Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, in the first line of the novel (“things began to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion”). By being set in the 1980s, Purple Hibiscus captures the immense instability Nigeria was experiencing during this period. In 1983 a military coup ousted President Shehu Shagari’s democratically elected government, leading to the enforcement of General Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State. Like other pieces of postcolonial literature, the story reflects a public desire to reclaim traditional Nigerian languages and culture, whilst also highlighting the fragility of postcolonial society that led to many academics seeking work in the United States.
Purple Hibiscus features many autobiographical references; like Amaka, Adichie was raised in the university town of Nsukka as both her parents worked at the University of Nigeria. Although her experience was quite different to the lives of ordinary Nigerian women during this period, she grew up in a time when women’s education was beginning to increase. Prior to the dissolution of the colonial state in 1960, British officials had imposed patriarchal power structures that aligned with Western ideas surrounding gender roles. Adichie’s constant referral to Igbo culture within her writing is perhaps also a call to revive traditional Nigerian attitudes towards gender. The famous gender historian Ifi Adiume published an analysis of pre-colonial Igbo society in 1987 that illustrated fluidity in the construction of gender roles, as she describes the potential for there to be “male daughters” and “female husbands”. In both Purple Hibiscus and her later work, such as Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie may have been influenced by Adiume’s findings in her descriptions of changing attitudes towards women following the dismantling of colonial ideologies and authority.
Overall, Purple Hibiscus can convince anyone of Adichie’s storytelling talent and also, more importantly, of the need to engage with African literature. For many, Adichie symbolises a new age of postcolonial Nigerian prose as she is able to appeal to an international audience through her captivating use of language and insightful awareness of Nigerian national identity. If you are looking to get into Adichie’s writing or African fiction and history more broadly, Purple Hibiscus is a great place to start.
Image: Verity Laycock