Academic journal article ARIEL

Loving and Leaving: The Ethics of Postcolonial Pain in Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus

Academic journal article ARIEL

Loving and Leaving: The Ethics of Postcolonial Pain in Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus

Article excerpt

As coming of age first-person narratives involving young women in modern African contexts, both Chimamanda Adichie's 2003 novel Purple Hibiscus and Tsitsi Dangarembga's 1989 novel Nervous Conditions investigate the effect of despotic patriarchs on the structures of family. At the same time both novels also reveal the ways in which their narrators emerge as critically aware intellectuals with the ability to note intimate alliances between the domestic violence of the father and the sovereign violence of the state, intertwined as these are in a nexus of colonial and neo-colonial realities. However, it is precisely in the distinct mobilizations that lead to her protagonist overcoming the deadening influence of such autocratic figures that Adichie charts an intellectual and political trajectory radically different from the one Dangarembga's protagonist must follow. This radically different trajectory offers important new directions for thinking about the shifting semiotics of postcolonialism in the contemporary African situation.

Keywords: Postcolonialism, Exile, Sovereignty, Bildungsroman, Metropolitanization

Taking as a starting point her brother's act of defiance against their father, the fourteen-year-old first-person narrator of Chimamanda Adichie's 2003 debut novel Purple Hibiscus begins her story with the following declaration: "Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere" (3). Most critics have noted that the opening line of Adichie's narrative is a tribute to that seminal text of modern African literature in English, Chinua Achebe's 1957 novel Things Fall Apart. As Purple Hibiscus unfolds, it becomes clear that her narrator's first announcement is not the young novelist's lone nod to the mastery of Achebe's iconic work. (1) Purple Hibiscus draws on Things Fall Apart in ways that speak to the foundational categories of postcolonial diaspora, yet in so far as its more immediate intellectual and political frame is concerned, the novel stands at a respectful distance from its prominent predecessor. In keeping with this observation, I argue that for the purposes of understanding the current occasion in postcolonial African literature, it is valuable to consider Adichie's intimate engagement with a closer contemporary such as Tsitsi Dangarembga's 1989 Nervous Conditions. While this essay generates a conversation between three debut novels--Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions, and Purple Hibiscus--I first show how it is precisely from amidst the involved intimacies of the latter two texts that we can glean new insight into how young African intellectuals such as Adichie are re-visioning earlier understandings of postcolonial displacement and difference.

Susan Andrade argues that "[t]he history of the novel in Africa offers repeated examples of a triangulation that joins two female writers to each other and to the politics of their times" (92). In so far as Andrade brings into conversation the work of Achebe, Dangarembga, and Adichie, my essay draws on and extends her excellent observations, and I am particularly indebted to her insights in relation to the structural similarities between Nervous Conditions and Purple Hibiscus. (2) However, whereas Andrade shows that Purple Hibiscus articulates the relations between national, familial, and gender politics more sharply than does Nervous Conditions, I demonstrate that in terms of the shift from the margins to the centre that postcolonial displacement often follows, Adichie's novel marks a significant departure from its earlier counterpart. Both Purple Hibiscus and Nervous Conditions are unambiguously impelled by a concern with the formation of women as postcolonial African intellectuals. As coming of age first-person narratives, both novels investigate the effect of strong, even despotic, patriarchs on the structures of family, while also revealing the ways in which the tyranny of such figures functions as a refracting surface for modern regimes of discipline put in place by colonial masters and, more recently, the allegedly premodern violence of dictators empowered by puppet regimes. …

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