The Tragedy of Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Set in Enugu, Nigeria, on the eve of the military coup, Purple Hibiscus, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tells the story of fifteen-year-old Kambili and her walk towards freedom from an abusive home. Kambili and her seventeen-year-old brother, Jaja, live under the tyranny of their father, a fanatically religious man and father who demands perfection from his children at all times. Any infraction, no matter how slight, is met with his physical punishment, ranging from beatings to throwing boiling water at those he deems guilty. He beats his wife so badly that she suffers a miscarriage. This environment makes Kambili very shy and timid, so timid that she doesn’t even know the sound of her own laughter. The violence of Kambili’s home life is echoed in Nigeria, as a repressive regime takes power in a military coup. Her father’s newspaper, The Standard, is under pressure from the new government, lecturers have gone on strike at the university wher Aunty Ifeoma teaches, and corruption runs rampant throughout the country. It is a time of great turmoil, both personal and political.

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When Kambili and Jaja go to visit their Aunty Ifeoma, a professor at Nsukka University, their world suddenly becomes larger, louder, richer, and freer. Here, Kambili experiences an environment where both children and adults say what they think without fear, and everyone can laugh, argue, question, and challenge each other openly. Though Aunty Ifeoma is Catholic, she still embraces traditional African songs and beliefs. Her loving approach to life is a warm and welcome change from the rigid atmosphere of Kambili’s home. Immersed in this new world, Kambili begins to discover her own voice, her ability to laugh and make others laugh. She also begins to fall in love with a charismatic young priest who helps her to see her own worth, clearly, for the first time.

However, things take a turn for the worse when unable to cope with Eugene’s violence, Beatrice poisons him. Jaja takes blame for the crime and ends up in prison. In the meantime, Aunty Ifeoma and her family go to America to live after she is unfairly dismissed from her job as a professor at Nsukka University. The novel ends almost three years after the events, on a cautiously optimistic note. Kambili has become a young woman of eighteen, more confident than before, while her brother Jaja is about to be released from prison, hardened but not broken by his experience there. Their mother, Beatrice, having deteriorated psychologically to a great degree, shows small signs of improvement. In essence, a better future is possible for them all, though exactly what it may involve is an open question. In this beautifully written and poignant first novel, Ngozi Adichie offers a moving and nuanced exploration of the ongoing tension between the forces of opression and the irrespresible human desire to be free. The book mirrors the enchanting and richness of Nigeria without shying away from also capturing its trauma, tragedy, desparation, resignation and politcal tribulations.

For my piece of artistic expression, I was heavily inspired by the tragic story of Kambili’s mother, Beatrice. Beatrice, better known as ‘Mama’, mother and wife in the Achike family, is a quiet, maternal figure, presenting a softer, warmer presence in the home in contrast to the often tyrannical presence of Eugene. Passive is another term applicable to her, at least for a great deal of the book. During the novel, Beatrice experience a miscarriage due to her husband’s abuse. It is insinuated that she stays with Eugene partially out of gratitude for his unwillingness to marry another woman despite her infertility. So many women like Beatrice are trapped in the background of patrimony which is omnipresent in African societies. I wanted to create a piece of art that would encourage women to assert themselves irrespective of cultural norms and archaic traditions. In order to liberate Beatrice from the abuse she had to withstand, I chose to use illustration to return her own power back to her. Most importantly, I aimed to return the most important thing of all to her: her unborn child. 

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