Evolution of African Literature with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sefi Atta

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“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete,” explains Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, and that is what they become.” Adichie’s famous words reflect the way African women are portrayed in African literature of the 1900s. The recurring image of female characters is that of silence, obedience, dependance, and servitude, “perpetuating popular myths of female subordination.” 

For instance, the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, published in 1958 and set in the late 1800s during colonization, is famous for its depiction of masculinity in a stereotypical patriarchal cultural context. As a result, the novel leaves little room for the projection of progressive female characters. Instead, it recounts that “a woman’s honour and dignity often consist in her strict adherence to idealized norms of wifehood and motherhood,” emphasizing females as the property of their male counterparts. 

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However, this biased representation of women in African literature is being redefined in the 21st century and has been replaced by female depictions of characters who are independent, assertive, and progressive. There are underlying obstacles to self-empowerment that African women face as a result of cultural restraint, lack of education, and barriers to power. However, in a more realistic light, women in these novels are successfully overcoming them. Contemporary feminist authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with her novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Sefi Atta with Everything Good Will Come (2005) aim to depict this progressive view of women. Both set in the late 1900s in Nigeria during the civil war, the authors depict the conditions of women in various social, political, and economic settings in which they face adversity. This essay will show the extent to which Atta and Adichie challenge the stereotypical representations of women in African literature through their novels Purple Hibiscus and Everything Good Will Come by analyzing the depictions of their female characters in relation to culture, education, and power.

Depiction of Women in Terms of Culture

In African culture, marriage and motherhood are what uphold women at a high social standing. As such, women are raised to aspire to the married life in order to feel respected and accomplished in their community. Their role ends up being a subservient one because the woman believes it is what society expects of her; a woman, especially a wife, supports the man no matter the consequences. Beatrice is a strong example of this stereotypical depiction of women. She is portrayed as the silent good women. This silence stems from the domestic violence and domineering presence of Eugene, the male antagonist, whom they endure in their home. This particular situation at home can be characterized as an archetypal depiction of a male dominated setting through which Beatrice stays docile. For instance, she states, “Where should I go if I leave Eugene’s house? Tell me, where should I go?” Do you know how many mothers pushed their daughters at him? Do you know how many asked him to impregnate them, even, and not to bother paying a bride price?” (Ngozi, 2003)” Through this conversation, Adichie reflects the common reality that women are only considered accomplished once they get a socially respectable husband and provide children, predominantly male children who provide an heir to the man. She would have nowhere to go if she leaves her husband as her community wouldn’t be accepting of her anymore. This would explain Beatrice’s fear of leaving her husband and being socially downgraded as a result, while another willing woman easily takes her place and provides the numerous children to Eugene that she is unable to, as she only had Jaja and Kambili. It is also why she is constantly devastated at her miscarriages, inflicted by Eugene’s violent treatment of her, but persists in trying to bring another baby into the world as it would provide her with more importance in her household and guarantee respect in the eyes of the community. She endures Eugene’s abuse of her and the children because she wants to maintain the security and standing the marriage provides her, as a way to “to honor the man that has honoured her.”

Enitan, in Everything Good Will Come observes, “Better to be ugly, to be crippled, to be a thief even, than to be barren. We had both been raised to believe that our greatest days would be: the birth of our first child, our wedding and graduation days in that order(Atta, 2005).” Atta presents the stigma of a woman being sterile just as Adichie discusses the importance of a woman providing her family with children in Purple Hibiscus. The value of a woman is constantly built around their ability to procreate, around pleasing the man and earning them respect through it. Not much else than that would earn them admiration as Enitan analyzes that even their personal accomplishments, such as graduation, which is generally an important step in one’s life, lies et at the lowest rank in terms of importance.

In the same respect, Kambili endures her father’s abuse as a sign of respect and love for him. Kambili has grown up with violence in her home, and being young and naive she believes that the violence is a symbol of her father’s care, love, and protection. Taking the case of what her father calls the ‘love sip’, Kambili expresses her inner thoughts: “The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue, and if lunch was something peppery, my raw tongue suffered. But it didn’t matter, because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me (Ngozi, 2003).” The tea signifies love for Kambili even though it burns her when she sips it, just as she feels when she is brutally handled by her father. In her mind, it is as though Eugene wouldn’t be harming her unless he wanted the best for her, which is why Kambili has a deep endearment for her father despite the violence repeatedly inflicted on her. It also inflicts a trauma for her, perceived through her constant silence. She is scared of talking or doing the wrong thing that will unleash her father’s wrath. Kambili always aims to please.

However, through the progression of events, Adichie allows Beatrice and Kambili to shed this stereotypical depiction of the silent and traditional women and begin to reveal an inner strength. Kambili starts to open up and assert a certain defiance to Eugene. Through an encounter with him, Kambili chooses to not obey his orders for the first time. As he was yelling, “What has gotten into you? What is wrong with you? Get up! Get away from that painting!” Kambili, “lay on the floor, curled tight,” and did nothing (Ngozi, 2003). In addition, she recounts a time when she stopped herself from giving her father a hug which is contrary to her habit. This rebellious behavior, never before seen in Kambili, has its roots from her stay in her Aunt Ifeoma’s house. The buoyant environment in her aunt’s house has awakened a quest for independence in her own home. The freedom of expression, the lack of strict rules, and the care-free and easy going nature in that house has allowed Kambili to clearly see the difference with her own home, that is dominated by her father, and she craves the same energy. This has enabled Kambili to start speaking up and rebelling in such subtle ways as not embracing her father to welcome him. Beatrice’s change comes when she takes a radical approach to liberate herself from the confines of her marital situation by slowly poisoning Eugene to death. This surprising action symbolizes the peak of Beatrice’s endurance to all the maltreatment she faced. Instead of staying compliant she found a way to break herself from that position. From this, Adichie is presenting resilient characters even in the ones that are initially depicted as supposedly docile and emotionally dependent. However the servitude stereotype is not fully challenged as Beatrice never deals with her situation face on. She takes the easy way out and lets her son, Jaja, take the fall for her actions, which doesn’t quite make her the embodiment of empowerment. The stereotype is challenged to the extent that women will not stay docile but it isn’t challenged in the fact that women will rise above the situation. In a sense, it is challenged realistically showing that there wouldn’t be a drastic change but little steps.

On the other hand, Atta presents her female characters as survivors of the harsh and unfavorable social, economic, and cultural conditions that restrict women’s progress, which forces them to be observed as the weaker sex in contemporary Nigeria.[footnoteRef:5] Atta herself notes that her novel was inspired by being, “very frustrated about what I was seeing in the Nigerian community in America and what I had witnessed growing up in Lagos. I just needed to vent.”[footnoteRef:6] Thus, her personal ideals and opinions are reflected in the main character, Enitan. The novel follows the coming of age of Enitan; through the chain of events in her life, she grows into a very assertive and self-conscious woman that wouldn’t be controlled by anyone, especially the men in her life. At a young age, even through her naivety, that seed of independence was already planted in her, as observed in her conversation with her best friend, Sheri, she declares, “I want to be something like… the president.” “Eh?” “Women are not president. Our men won’t stand for it. Who will cook for your husband, “(analyze) replies Sheri. Enitan ends, affirming, “He will cook for himself(Atta 2005).” Once grown up, she starts to take action to protest against these inequalities through her marriage. She does not conform to the idea that wives have to cook for their husbands and silence themselves in the presence of others so that the male can assert power over them. For instance in this situation with her husband, Niyi,: “Enitan can you get these animals something?” “You have hands,” I said. “My friend,” he said, “Show some respect.” “Go to hell,” I said (Atta, 2005)” This evident boldness from Enitan’s part continues throughout her marriage until she makes the choice of leaving her husband because she felt that it wasn’t the ideal situation for her. When asked why she was leaving, she explains, “I have to. He wouldn’t have had to leave me to do what he wanted.”(Atta 2005) Enitan noticed that through her marriage, she was being somewhat controlled by her husband. 

Sheri, Enitan’s best friend, blossoms into a strong independent woman as well, despite enduring an assault during her childhood. Sheri rose above the physical, emotional, and mental constraints that her assault bestows on a being to create a name for herself and never cower in front of a man attempting to claim power over her through violence. “Raise your hand to hit Sheri Bakare, and your hand will never be the same again. Stupid man(Atta, 2005),” Sheri utters in anger after fighting back against her then boyfriend, Hassan, who struck her. After this incident, Sheri left Hassan, exclaiming “The man is jealous of me with all he has. He wants me to have nothing except what he gives me. He says he will take it all back. I said take it! All of it! I did not come to this place naked (Atta, 2005),” because she realized her value and individuality that wasn’t being respected in the relationship she had with him

Enitan’s mother, Ariola, is also portrayed as a strong female character because she left her husband when she felt that she was being mistreated by him. She suffered because of the fact that her only son passed away, therefore she was not given the chance to fulfill society’s ideal version of motherhood. Enduring grief as well as disagreements with her husband, Sunny, Ariola decided to leave the house and settle in her own home. She didn’t stay in the marriage for fear of what society would think of her, she did what she felt was right for herself.

African women are often portrayed as lacking education because for a long time the chance to go to school has mainly been offered to men. However, in Purple Hibiscus, Ifeoma and Amaka who represent the open and independent women are that way because they are educated. They debate and give their opinions about religion, culture,and the political situation in the country, whereas in Kambili’s home news is just shared by Eugene who expects everyone to have the same opinion as he does, and they live without a male force dictating their lives. Aunt Ifeoma constantly fights for her rights and will not be silenced even when others are. For instance, she fights for justice at the university where she works even when her job is on the line, voicing, “I am not paid to be loyal. When I speak the truth, it becomes disloyalty.” Her friend tries to reason with her: “Ifeoma, do you think you are the only one who knows the truth? Do you think we do not all know the truth, eh? But will the truth feed your children?” (Ngozi, 2003) This conversation shows how upfront and determined Aunt Ifeoma is to stand up for what is right while her friend is more compliant with the way things are because she fears for her financial security. Ifeoma is a single mother due to the death of her husband and shows a strong independence in raising her children alone and fighting to provide for her family in this society that doesn’t privilege women. Even with her meager salary she takes care of her family and refuses to be subject to anyone’s controlling tendencies, even her brother Eugene, stating, “I want a new car, nwunye m, and I want to use my gas cooker again and I want a new freezer and I want money so that I will not have to unravel the seams of Chima’s trousers when he outgrows them. But I will not ask my brother to bend over so that I can lick his buttocks to get these things” (Ngozi 2003) Ifeoma even tries to shape Beatrice into fighting back against Eugene, warning her, “This cannot go on. When a house is on fire, you run out before the roof collapses on your head,”(Ngozi, 2003) because she is the type of woman that would do so compared to Beatrice. Amaka has inherited the strength of character in her mother. She always voices her opinion, for instance, telling Eugene that his juice is too sweet or wondering why she needs to adopt a Western name for her confirmation instead of choosing an African one which she relates to. She actively debates on subjects and doesn’t give up easily on anything that she holds to heart.

Through Aunty Ifeoma and Amaka, Ngozi is attempting to open an eye on another image of women compared to the stereotypical traditional version of them which is clearly shown in contrast to Beatrice and Kambili. It is the image of modern women who don’t conform to these stereotypical ideas of women in African literature where men are overvalued, but instead provide for themselves and are not silenced. Women that are not portrayed as docile, women that take charge in controlling their own lives and actions, women that act based on their own will and no one else’s.

In both novels there is the barrier to power in all female characters, be it with Beatrice who can’t assert herself through the violent attitude of Eugene, the female repressive setting at the university Ifeoma works at that doesn’t allow her voice to be heard, the government that doesn’t favor women activists like Grace Ameh. However both novels display a progressive view of these barriers. For instance, with the help of Enitan, Sheri opened her own catering/restaurant business which marked the start of her independence and success. Creating her business truly allowed her to be in control of her own life. Through it, she is granted the power of being financially independent. In addition, Enitan decides to be a political activist with Grace Ameh, a journalist and human rights activist reporting on the unjust political system in the country (who is also depicted as a strong woman for doing so), despite her father’s and husband’s disagreements. Enitan takes control of her own actions without letting the men in her life get in her way. She is determined to help advocate for more equitable treatment of women in the country and in the political system because she believes everyone, including women, should be able to speak up. She noticed that in Nigeria ‘women are praised the more they surrender their right to protest’ leaving them with nothing but selflessness to pass onto their daughters’. She remarks: “What a startling legacy (Atta, 2005).” Enitan is speaking up in order to make a change despite her gender and the threat of the government. Finally, Ifeoma demonstrates a position of power by being educated enough to be a university professor. Gaining the power to influence many students through her lessons.

Both Ngozi and Atta, through their novels have built whole female characters, taking into account different portrayals of women, that fight back against the patriarchy providing a connection to the feminist streak of both authors. However, where Purple Hibiscus portrays the way a woman would fight back in silence in addition to the way they would with strength of character, Everything Good Will Come has a more general depiction of the assertive modern woman with few who conform to the stereotypical illustration of women in the face of oppression in African Literature.

Feminist authors, Atta and Ngozi, are examples of the new direction in which African Literature is headed. Using their platforms and words to shift the traditional view of women into a more progressive depiction which disproves the usual stereotypes, they are creating a new image for African literature. In addition, such novels that present confident women have the power to instigate a change in gender roles in the societies in which the novels are held for as Ngozi concisely mentioned, “ If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

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