Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus and the paradoxes of postcolonial redemption.
Analyses of the sacred have been one of the most neglected, and may be one of the most rapidly expanding areas of post-colonial study.
--Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back, Second Edition (2002)
Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's first novel, is a provocative text that gives rise to competing interpretations. This provocation has marked the classroom where I have taught it and the book group in which I have discussed it, as readers come away with vastly different readings: confronted by the text's representation of oppression and suffering in a postcolonial, patriarchal, Roman Catholic Nigerian context, but also by the narrator Kambili's development and the conclusion's tentative hope, readers disagree over whether to emphasize the text's painful critique or its final optimism. Especially on the matter of Christian faith, students and colleagues with whom I have discussed the book often disagree, as some applaud Kambili's reclamation of Christianity while many others worry over its ongoing force in her life as a colonial import, arguing in both cases that the novel as a whole supports their view. Still others express a vague uneasiness with the text, an uncertainty as to how to synthesize its various movements. A similar debate structures the critical reception of the novel since its publication in 2003: while many critics emphasize the novel's hopeful stance and Kambili's growth, several question whether the novel's hopeful conclusion is earned or whether it is an unsuitable optimism for a book suffused with sorrows. (1)
These competing readings have a great deal to do with hermeneutics--with readers' cultural locations and the interpretive practices invited by a text like Purple Hibiscus from its particular postcolonial location. Adrienne Rich famously names the need for a critical awareness of location in her 1984 essay "Notes Towards a Politics of Location," developing her realization that generalizing for all women from her own white, middle-class, Western experience elided important differences. Extending this line of thought more recently in her book Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, Kwok Pui-lan highlights the danger of "colonialist feminism," or the ostensibly compassionate desire to "save" "brown women" from their backward cultures, understood from a privileged Western perspective. (2) Colonialist feminism developed in the partnership of Christianity and imperialism, Kwok argues, as missionaries justified their colonizing presence by reference to the social as well as spiritual good their message could bring women. She writes,
The subordination of women was often cited as symptomatic of the inferiority of indigenous cultures, and saving colonized women from their oppression, ignorance, and heathenism became an integral part of the colonialist discourse. Shuttled between tradition and modernity, indigenous women were seen either as victims of male aggression or as pitiful objects of Westerners' compassion. ("Mercy" 8)
Few Western academics participate nowadays in the Christian missionary project of colonialist feminism. In fact, quite the opposite: feminist and postcolonial critiques, secularization, and the contentious relationship between the academy and faith have all contributed to a contemporary perspective of suspicion of religion among many scholars. (3) But I would argue that these shifts have led to a new temptation as we read Africa from a Western location: a neo-colonialist feminism that revises the earlier missionary message but keeps its attitude of "compassionate" superiority. Such a neo-colonialist feminism understands African women who maintain Christian belief as needing the Good News of a secularized culture freed from the constraints of religion. This perspective can arise from either of two common interpretive practices as Westerners read African women: first, from the propensity to read our own sufferings into the sufferings of women in other locations, interpreting their stories through our own experiences; or, second, from the tendency to read women in other locations as wholly other from us, lagging behind in matters of the spirit. (4)
Such neo-colonialist feminist tendencies contribute to critical dissonance around Adichie's novel, as does academic training to produce coherent readings that evince readerly mastery (a stance of mastery not so different from attitudes of imperialist power). But my argument here is that Purple Hibiscus is doing something fundamentally more complicated than most readers are willing to recognize, and that the text is therefore good for thinking with as we struggle with this challenge of reading religion of the Global South from a Western location. The novel certainly participates in a critique of Christian religion, aligning colonial whiteness, conservative Catholicism, and the rule of the father, and exposing their destructive power in the psyche (and body) of the novel's young narrator Kambili as well as her brother, Jaja, and mother, Beatrice. Yet Adichie also complicates this indictment through parallel critiques of Igbo culture and through contrasting characters whose own beliefs manifest the proliferated possibilities of a secular age: no repudiation of Igbo culture or of Christianity, but a dynamic process of critique and embrace. In order to do justice to its complex interplay of gender, religion, and nation, I read this both-and technique as a practice of the "cultural hermeneutics" suggested by West African theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a paradoxical blend of critique and celebration of both traditional African cultures and the Christian tradition within a postcolonial context that challenges both colonialist and neo-colonialist feminisms. Adichie repeatedly links suffering with silences, and she links healing both to a problematic sacrifice-as-redemption and to a coming-into-voice predicated on an empowering, contextualized mystical-political Catholicism. The novel's ambivalence, I ultimately argue--its undecidability, its engagement of readers in a difficult act of interpretation and judgment, in the ongoing and at points uncomfortable work of cultural hermeneutics--suggests a stance of critique that is also paradoxically a courageous fidelity to the troubled systems of family, church, and nation. To do justice to the text, readers in a Western location must resist the urge to overlook either side of this risky and difficult paradox.
"What is specifically Christian is irresistible," writes Oduyoye in her contribution to Inheriting our Mothers' Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective, "But Christianity in Africa began by confusing Christianity with European culture" ("Be a Woman" 39). In Oduyoye's perspective, this confusion has led not just to the "propagation" of "Western norms" as "Christian norms," but also to a collusion between West African patriarchies and Christian patriarchies, whereby "Christianity reinforces the cultural conditioning of compliance and submission and leads to the depersonalization of women" (Daughters 9). In the decolonizing struggle, thus, Oduyoye resists the anti-feminist call of African men for women to reject "Western" ways (including critiques of patriarchy) in order to return to an authentically "African" way of being (3, 13). Theologian Musa Dube shares this perspective when she asserts that "postcolonial feminist strategies must confront oppressive aspects of one's own indigenous systems of gender" (116). Dube calls not for "total rejection of one's culture," which "closely befriends imperial strategies of colonizing," but rather a recognition that "[s]ince no culture is absolutely negative or wholly pure, room should always be made for reinterpreting the old, promoting the good, and imagining the new in the hybrid spaces of the native culture" (116).
"Cultural hermeneutics" is the name Oduyoye gives to this practice of "reinterpreting the old, promoting the good, and imagining the new." As Kwok, who cites Oduyoye extensively in her own postcolonial feminist theory, summarizes, cultural hermeneutics involves a series of linked interpretive practices, including a hermeneutics of liberation, a hermeneutics of suspicion, and a hermeneutics of commitment, all of which are brought to the constructed realities of everyday life ("Mercy" 15-16). The hermeneutics of liberation involves finding the "life-affirming" elements of traditional African cultures as well as Christianity, while the hermeneutics of suspicion concurrently interprets histories, scriptures, and folktales with an eye toward their oppressive elements. This combined practice of critique and embrace finds its ultimate expression in the hermeneutics of commitment, that interpretive stance that sees its final end in working to "change and transform those oppressive customs in order to bring about a fullness of life" (16). As theologian Letty Russel emphasizes, cultural hermeneutics is an especially important tool for women in a postcolonial context in that it is "different from the continuing project of inculturation," which tries "to affirm African culture and to posit it as the basis for African liberation theology" (28). Inculturation, Russel notes, typically overlooks the patriarchal oppressions of traditional African cultures (28). Rather than idealizing African culture, in contrast, Oduyoye's cultural hermeneutics allows for both affirmation and critique of both traditional African culture and the Christianity introduced by colonizers. In a certain sense, it is a redemptive perspective, doing the hard interpretive work to earn back the good from imperfect cultural sources.
Purple Hibiscus exemplifies the critical, or skeptical, dimension of cultural hermeneutics in its vivid critique of colonial Christianity as well as Igbo patriarchy, and also in its representation of the two as intertwined; at the same time, the novel exemplifies the liberatory and committed dimension of cultural hermeneutics in its representation of alternative, positive modes of Igbo Christianity that reject the oppressive elements while affirming the life-giving.
Purple Hibiscus is structured by Christianity: the first three sections bear the subtitles "Palm Sunday," "Before Palm Sunday," and "After Palm Sunday," indicating the organizing power of the religion over the temporality of the narrative. (5) The very first sentences of the text likewise highlight the importance of Roman Catholic observance in Kambili's family, and foreshadow the associations of her father's power, the church's authority, and violence. I quote at length here to show the foreshadowing at work on the novel's first page:
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. We had just returned from church. Mama placed the fresh palm fronds, which were wet with holy water, on the dining table and then went upstairs to change. Later, she would knot the palm fronds into sagging cross shapes and hang them on the wall beside our gold-framed family photo. They would stay there until next Ash Wednesday, when we would take the fronds to church, to have them burned for ash. Papa, wearing a long, gray robe like the rest of the oblates, helped distribute ash every year. His line moved the slowest because he pressed hard on each forehead to make a perfect cross with his ash-covered thumb and slowly, meaningfully enunciated every word of "dust and unto dust you shall return." (3)
The opening sentence, an allusion to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, invites readers to interpret Adichie's novel in light of Achebe's exploration of the patriarchy of Igbo culture and the arrival of colonizing Christian missionaries in a traditional village. (6) The first sentence goes on to emphasize Kambili's Papa Eugene's emotional and physical power, as he "flings" his "heavy missal" (the sound of the word recalls a different sort of weapon) out of anger at his son's choice not to take communion (3). This image of Eugene throwing the book of liturgical readings following the church calendar literalizes the power of religious texts within this household and their association with the violent father. That Kambili spends the first page describing the liturgical use of palm fronds in the church year further highlights the centrality of the Church's practices within her family and within this novel. Finally, the picture of Eugene "pressing hard" on parishoners' foreheads during the Ash Wednesday service, reminding them of their vulnerability and mortality with his words and his forceful hands, provides a chilling vision of the man's devotion: he is powerful, controlling in his home, exemplary in his worship. Throughout the text, Eugene manifests a fervent legalism, a fear and shame of the body, a distaste for Igbo language and culture, a preference for whiteness and the English language, and a hatred of traditional African tribal religion, as well as a pattern of domestic violence always linked to the patriarch's desire for his family's perfection in the eyes of God.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the opening scene is the repeated image of Kambili and her brother Jaja receiving ceremonial "love sips" from their father's tea on Sundays after church: while that liquid symbol of British imperialism is still nearly boiling, the children are each called to take a sip. Kambili recalls, "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" (8). As the tale progresses, it becomes clear that in the past before Palm Sunday that Kambili narrates, this burned tongue is not incidental: disciplined to be a passive and self-abnegating daughter, to fear her father's punishments and long for his approval, Kambili seldom speaks, and when she does she often stutters or whispers. She does not laugh or smile. Throughout her story, she repeats the phrase, "my words would not come" (48, 97, 139, 141). As Heather Hewett notes, Kambili's silence puts her in a long tradition of women writers and protagonists whose abuse disallows language until they can struggle against their oppression in order to come into voice (82). (7) The young woman's tongue is literally scorched and figuratively bound by the rule of her father, whose power mixes pain and love.
Indeed, Eugene's persistent emotional and physical abuse is suffused with the vocabulary of love and faith: when he pours boiling water over Kambili's feet, he tells her, "Kambili, you are precious" (194). Before beating his wife to the point of miscarriage because, stricken with morning sickness, she asks to wait in the car after church instead of visiting the British priest, Eugene leads the family in a long prayer after lunch that includes "ask[ing] God to forgive those who had tried to thwart His will, who had put selfish desires first and had not wanted to visit His servant after Mass" (32). After the beating, after the miscarriage, after the children clean up the trail of blood that marks the stairs, Eugene insists that the family "recite sixteen different novenas" for his wife's forgiveness (35).
As numerous commentators have noted, Eugene's abuses connect Christian fundamentalism with a fear of the body and sexuality related to the colonial association of Africanness with the bodily and the sexual. (8) This self-hating version of colonial Christianity is devastatingly critiqued by the novel as a whole. Yet the narrative also complicates its picture of Eugene as a violent patriarch. Eugene is abusive, but he is also a generous man who donates his wealth to worthy causes and runs a newspaper that resists the oppressive Nigerian regime. In this way, Adichie represents the linked functioning of fundamentalist Christianity, colonial self-hatred, and patriarchal oppression not in an abstract, demonized stereotype but as one tragic element of an otherwise admirable character, a man clearly seeking to do right in many spheres. In the words of Cheryl Stobie, Adichie "does not portray Eugene simply as a hypocritical villain, but reveals complexities and contradictions in his character, showing ways in which he is principled, courageous and justly honoured" (425). (9) The novel is self-aware in this regard, as Kambili relates her aunt's comment that Eugene is "too much of a colonial product" (13): Eugene's violence toward his wife and children has a clear source in his own subjugation to the colonial mission. For instance, after the boiling water punishment, he tells the children that he learned such a punishment from a missionary priest who soaked the young man's hands in boiling water after catching him masturbating; just as the "good father did that for [his] own good," Eugene seeks to do this for his children's good. In an important later scene of abuse, when Eugene punishes Kambili for hiding a painting of the "heathen" grandfather she is not allowed to love, his kicking and belt-whipping are accompanied by a clearly unhinged verbal refrain: "He talked nonstop, out of control, in a mix of Igbo and English, like soft meat and thorny bones. Godlessness. Heathen worship. Hellfire" (210-11). Eugene's psyche is marked by fear; his violence manifests his own brokenness.
A reading of the novel that would understand its critique as solely directed toward colonial Christianity is also challenged by several moments in the narrative that emphasize the problematic elements of traditional Igbo culture as well, especially in regard to women. In addition to the allusion to Achebe's Things Fall Apart with its violent protagonist, (10) Adichie's novel hints at traditional Igbo attitudes toward gender in the character of Papa-Nnukwu, Kambili's grandfather and Eugene's "idol-worshiping" father. At one point, Papa-Nnukwu speaks of his sadness over letting Eugene "follow those missionaries" and ultimately losing him as a son; his daughter, Ifeoma, challenges this mourning by reminding her father that she did not abandon him, but Papa-Nnukwu (perhaps teasingly) replies, "But you are a woman. You do not count" (83). These Igbo gender distinctions are later emphasized at a traditional cultural event where Papa-Nnukwu tells his grandchildren that women mmuo, or spirits, "are harmless" (85), whereas women "cannot look" at the powerful male mmuo (86). When Jaja asks a naive question about the festival, Papa-Nnukwu scolds him, "Don't speak like a woman!" (87). This section, with its condensed series of references to women within Igbo culture, seems almost calculated to highlight the devaluation of women as more than simply a colonial importation.
Such hints of Igbo gender expectations are further highlighted by the fact that Kambili's mother, Beatrice, honors her abusive husband for not choosing to take another wife in order to bear more children, as the cultural tradition mandates and as people from their village have strongly suggested (20, 75). Beatrice's decision to stay with her violent husband, likewise, seems tied to the traditional view that "[a] husband crowns a woman's life" (75). The Igbo expectation of women's self-abnegation is perhaps most vividly confirmed in the novel by the folk-story Papa-Nnukwu tells his grandchildren, in which a famine leads all the animals in the land to resort to killing and eating their mothers, one by one, to stay alive. Papa-Nnukwu reassures the children, "The mothers did not mind being sacrificed" (158). In a certain sense, this folktale might be read as a key to the puzzle of how we are to read Beatrice's compliance with her husband's abuse and also her ultimate decision to end it by poisoning him. The folk-story also complicates the question of the source of its characters' redemptive view of suffering that dominates the novel's ending--a question that, as I discuss below, contributes importantly to the novel's ultimate ambivalence. (11)
Yet while Christianity and Igbo culture are both exposed within Purple Hibiscus as sources of serious suffering, especially for women, they are also sources of healing and hope: following the paradoxical practice of cultural hermeneutics, the novel both critiques and affirms elements of these two traditions. The narrative may begin by representing the devastating effects of Eugene's abuse, giving readers an overwhelming sense of that pain and injustice, but as it progresses, it develops a contrasting, though admittedly more subtle, version of Igbo-Christian faith. Kambili's Aunty Ifeoma represents such an alternative mode of Christianity. Ifeoma is Eugene's sister, a widowed university professor who raises her three children in a very small house on a very small salary and whose parenting style appears to contrast with Kambili's domineering father and frightened mother in almost every way. As Kambili repeatedly notes, Ifeoma wears bright red lipstick and trousers, signs of feminine confidence Eugene does not approve of even in the 1990s. Her house is full of laughter and chatter; her children feel free to speak their minds and even discuss Christianity's ties to imperialism; as Susan Strehle argues, Ifeoma "de-colonizes the home, the African body, mind, and soul" (114). Papa-Nnukwu, whom Eugene condemns as a pagan, is welcome and honored in Ifeoma's home, and Kambili's cousins take part in numerous traditional Igbo rites. Yet Ifeoma's family is also devoutly Catholic: they kneel together for evening prayers, attend church, and often welcome the local priest to their table. Still, their saying of the rosary is punctuated by Igbo praise songs, an embrace of the traditional language Eugene views as unfit for worship. Ifeoma's family practices an Igbo Catholicism full of critical thinking, humor, and even joy. (12)
The priest in Ifeoma's town, Father Amadi, serves as another foil. Unlike Kambili's biological father, Father Amadi embraces elements of his Igbo culture, for instance, singing Igbo songs at Mass. Whereas Eugene prefers for his family to attend church with a white priest, with a blond Christ, and Kambili imagines God creating with "wide white hands" (131) and speaking with a British accent (179), Father Amadi tells her he sees Christ in the faces of local African boys so poor they cannot attend school (178). Father Amadi's ministry extends beyond the formal to include playing games with these boys. Also unlike Eugene, Father Amadi manifests not fear or shame of embodiment but an appreciation for it, encouraging Kambili to run and talk and laugh. Kambili develops her first crush and, at least by her narration, Father Amadi seems to have reciprocal feelings, but even their quasi-sensual relationship may be seen as a certain redemption of sexuality and the body (disproportionately associated with Africans in colonial imagination), as Father Amadi meets Kambili's declaration of love not with shaming distance but with tenderness even while honoring his vow as a celibate priest. (13)
Purple Hibiscus recounts Kambili's changed life catalyzed by time within Ifeoma's household and under Father Amadi's spiritual guidance. In the care of these two surrogate parents, Kambili's burned tongue begins to heal: she begins to speak, to smile, to laugh, to sing Igbo praise songs along with the tape in Father Amadi's car. Significantly, Kambili comes into voice singing Igbo-language songs of Christian praise. While for many contemporary Western readers the novel may present enough evidence of the suffering caused by the colonially-inherited Roman Catholicism in Kambili's family for us to desire repudiation of that faith, the marked development in her confidence, and her eventual final voicing of "No" to her father in a scene of horrific abuse, develops not as Kambili rejects Christianity altogether, but as she affirms another version of Christianity, one that values the body and Igbo language and culture. In other words, her healing comes through a practice of cultural hermeneutics that combines critique and embrace. This embrace is powerfully represented in a scene near the novel's end that often goes unaddressed in critical commentary: Kambili goes on pilgrimage with her aunt's family and Father Amadi to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary. While the others in her party claim not to see anything, Kambili has a holy experience. She recounts,
We stood underneath a huge flame-of-the-forest tree. It was in bloom, its flowers fanning out on wide branches and the ground underneath covered with petals the color of fire. When the young girl was led out, the flame-of-the-forest swayed and flowers rained down. The girl was slight and solemn, dressed in white, and strong-looking men stood around her so she would not be trampled. She had hardly passed us when other trees nearby started to quiver with a frightening vigor, as if someone were shaking them. The ribbons that cordoned off the apparition area shook, too. Yet there was no wind. The sun turned white, the color and shape of the host. And then I saw her, the Blessed Virgin: an image in the pale sun, a red glow on the back of my hand, a smile on the face of the rosary-bedecked man whose arm rubbed against mine. She was everywhere. [...] "I felt the Blessed Virgin there. I felt her," I blurted out. How could anyone not believe after what we had seen? Or hadn't they seen it and felt it, too? (274-5)
Kambili's experience of the mother of God, as Cheryl Stobie has noted, is importantly first witnessed by a young African girl in the village, undoing associations of Christian spirituality with hierarchy, patriarchy, and Western institutions, and also challenging denials of women's participation in traditional Igbo religious ceremonies (429). Even further, this mystical vision that confirms Kambili's Christian faith is manifested to her not just in the image in the sun as the (white) host, the body of Christ, but also on the back of her own hand--in her own skin--and in the smile on Father Amadi's face that highlights a Christianity marked by love and joy rather than anger and fear, a presence of the divine in African bodies and faces. This scene challenges any reading of the novel that would pin Kambili's faith solely on an acceptance of oppressive ideology: it is profoundly personal, experiential, and embodied. Ultimately, both the care and examples of Aunty Ifeoma and Father Amadi, and her mystical vision of the Virgin Mary, empower Kambili for the difficult days that end the novel, granting her hope on its final page. Paradoxically, then, it is a critically re-appropriated Igbo-Catholicism, one that values that body, the feminine, the African, that empowers Kambili to resist her father's oppression and the suffering it causes.
Manifesting the concurrent and at times competing moves of criticism and affirmation at work in cultural hermeneutics, Purple Hibiscus highlights not only the hopes but also the difficulties of faith in a postcolonial location. This paradoxical double-move helps explain the conflicting interpretations that have shaped conversations in my classroom and book group, as well as the professional discourse: those readers who are more prone toward a suspicious reading of religion resonate more with that movement of cultural hermeneutics, whereas those with a more affirmative bent resonate more with the novel's hope. Yet rather than simply naming this phenomenon, I would argue that to do the novel justice we ought to recognize the way in which these competing perspectives--of skepticism and hope--continue to struggle against each other. A certain ambivalence underlies the novel's tenuously related movements of criticism and affirmation, and to overlook this is to oversimplify the difficult but good work of cultural hermeneutics as well as the ethical claim Purple Hibiscus holds on its readers as a haunting text that poses questions demanding struggle and accountability. (14)
Oduyoye's term for Christians who, like Father Amadi and Aunty Ifeoma and ultimately Kambili, embrace elements of traditional culture, inhabiting cultural intersections, is "crossroad Christians." Of course, one who stands in the crossroads is in a sense inhabiting a cross, and it is not surprising that within the narrative Father Amadi and Aunty Ifeoma evince cruciform lives, as they choose self-abnegation for the sake, in Ifeoma's case, of her family, and in Father Amadi's case, of his mission. Both leave their homeland, taking their Igbo-Christian faith with them to a wholly new place that will require new negotiations. Even Kambili, as she gains her voice in this crossroad space, lives a life still marked by struggle. At the narrative's end, she admits that she still has nightmares about her life in the past, nightmares in which the oppressive silence "mixes with shame and grief and so many other things that I cannot name, and forms blue tongues of fire that rest above my head, like Pentecost, until I wake up screaming and sweating" (305). In light of Kambili's literally and figuratively burned tongue, these nightmares are especially disturbing. The Pentecost image, in a more positive frame, would signify the arrival of God's Spirit to dwell within human bodies, as well as the cross-cultural communication of Spirit-empowered speech. Within Kambili's uncanny nightmares, however, such flaming tongues emphasize the overdetermined symbols at work in Kambili's faith and psyche and leave readers at the novel's end with a sense that her work negotiating that faith is far from finished. After the silence brought about by her suffering, Kambili has gained speech, and the narrative as a whole may be understood as a witness to that suffering, even a lament, but there are still, as she says, many things she cannot yet name. Purple Hibiscus, thus, suggests hope through cultural hermeneutics, but not any tidy final answer to the very real pains of linked colonial, religious, and patriarchal domination.
The narrative's ambivalence is ultimately played out not just in Kambili's development but also in the plot's final movements, as Eugene is finally stopped from harming his family by his unexpected death. This is no supernatural intervention, however, but rather the result of his wife's choice finally to protect her children and herself: she poisons his British tea with tribal medicine. This choice leaves readers with an ethical quandary: how do we judge Beatrice's act? Is this an admirable choice? Is it an act of love? She risks her own suffering in order to end the unjust suffering of her children, but is her self-sacrifice fully redemptive?
The problematics of suffering and redemption are complicated even further by Kambili's brother Jaja, whose own psyche remains a mystery throughout most of narrative. Kambili's flourishing in a faith attained through the implicit interpretive work of cultural hermeneutics is subverted by Jaja's alternate experience. Very near the novel's end, after learning of their father's death, Kambili and Jaja have an uncharacteristic conversation about their faith, one that emphasizes how far apart their perspectives have grown during their time in Aunty Ifeoma's household:
"God knows best," I said. "God works in mysterious ways." And I thought how Papa would be proud that I had said that, how he would approve of my saying that. Jaja laughed. It sounded like a series of snorts strung together. "Of course God does. Look what He did to his faithful servant Job, even to His own son. But have you ever wondered why? Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn't He just go ahead and save us?" (289)
Kambili's narration of this scene shows an awareness of the deeply felt influence of her father as she reflects on his ongoing role in her understanding of God. Still, her faith by this point in the narrative is not just the faith of her father: it has undergone a critical transformation--or at least it has begun the process. Jaja, on the other hand, has not been able to find the good in a religion taught to him by the father who has abused him. Jaja's critical stance questions suffering more vehemently, wondering why suffering should have to happen at all. His theological perspective here shows a classic struggle with the problem of evil, with the conundrum of why the innocent should suffer, why, within the Christian imagination, redemption should have to be the result of sacrifice. Jaja's angry questions allude to his own experience as both a "faithful servant" and "son" of his own father, a father who caused his son pain while teaching him of a father God with a similar penchant for violence toward those who love and serve him. Jaja's brief comments here give voice to the agony of those who have been made to suffer in the name of redemption, whether that suffering be the result of familial, religious, or colonial oppression. They destabilize the narrative as a whole, inviting readers into a difficult reckoning, subverting a too-optimistic reading of Kambili's renegotiated faith.
Yet while Jaja openly questions the value of redemptive suffering, in the scene that immediately follows, Jaja's actions challenge his own theological grapplings. Their mother confesses her crime to her children and is apparently ready to offer herself up to the law in motherly self-sacrifice, a stance which, as noted above, is emphatically associated in the novel with both Igbo folk stories about mothers and Christian teachings about the cross. Jaja steps in, however. Just a few hours after his conversation with Kambili--just a single page later in the text--Jaja confesses committing a crime he did not commit in order to save his mother from the consequences of her actions. In other words, Jaja sacrifices himself to redeem his mother, effectively stepping into the role of the Christ whose sacrifice he has so recently and passionately challenged. Or, from another perspective, Jaja steps into the role of the Igbo son, responsible to care for his widowed mother's well-being. It is impossible to say which of these cultural modes of sacrifice is the source of Jaja's choice, and that impossibility is itself part of the point: the novel's postcolonial location renders questions of redemption untraceable to a single source--the complexity is inescapable.
Jaja's theological musings challenge Kambili's redemption of Christianity as a source to resist the oppression that causes her suffering, yet his self-giving action further challenges his own words. The multi-voiced text confronts its readers with ambiguity, with ambivalence. Such ambivalence is finally emphasized by the question of whether Jaja's sacrifice has any clearly laudable effect: the text's brief final section portrays a devastated and broken mother and an emaciated son suffering after years of imprisonment in terrible conditions. Yet Kambili, while she has her nightmares, continues to accept grace as it comes to her, recognizing the mixed reality of her existence. While she still does not have language to bear witness to all her sufferings, this last section is the present setting from which she tells the story of the past, and the very existence of her narrative manifests her healing. The narrative ends with the news that Jaja will soon be released from prison on political grounds, and on the last pages there is a subtle increase of hope for mother and daughter, the promise of a new garden to plant and coming rain, even the sound of Kambili's laughter. But it is a tenuously happy ending, neither unambiguous nor triumphant. A stance of skepticism seems to war with a stance of hopeful commitment--the two sides of Oduyoye's cultural hermeneutics--leaving readers with the responsibility of judging for themselves, of wagering an interpretation in the face of such mixed and nuanced modes of suffering and reclamation. Perhaps most importantly, this ambiguity challenges readers accustomed to comfort with the experience of tensions and struggle that shape the work of redemption in a postcolonial location: reading Purple Hibiscus with a heightened awareness of cultural hermeneutics helps Western readers engage fully in that ambivalent space rather than over-emphasizing either skepticism or hope.
Ultimately, Adichie's novel offers a lesson in interpretive humility, perhaps paradoxically, a challenge to suspend one's own desire to master the text by attending to it on its own, conflicted terms. Its hopeful portrayal of re-appropriated tradition and its representation of self-sacrificing love are indissoluble from its devastating critique of the way imperialism, church, Igbo tradition, and patriarchy collude to mandate suffering as purportedly redemptive--like pains inflicted while voicing love. Again, Oduyoye's cultural hermeneutics helps here, reminding Western readers not only of the mingled work of skeptical and liberatory reading but also of the hermeneutics of commitment, the stubborn hope and effort to bring about some better future. Reading Purple Hibiscus with Oduyoye's postcolonial feminist theology thus enables readers in a Western location to recognize that despite the inevitable tangling of critique and affirmation, the hermeneutics of commitment gives hope an edge. In its representation of a reality too nuanced for simple reading--in Kambili's silence and voice, in Eugene's violence and brokenness, in Ifeoma's self-giving care for her family, in Beatrice's terrible choice, in Jaja's criticisms and incarnate love--the novel highlights the need for many particular stories, for a risky interpretive practice that can recover life-giving meaning from undeniably difficult beginnings. In other words, I am arguing, in its very difficulty, in its very undecidability, Purple Hibiscus is a story of redemption.
Loyola University Chicago
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(1) Scholarly attention to Purple Hibiscus has included readings emphasizing its "de-colonizing" power, its critique of patriarchal Christianity, and its role within a politically-concerned tradition of Nigerian writing. (For example, see articles by Lily Mabura, Madelain Hron, Ayo Kehinde, Sophia Ogwude, Cheryl Stobie, Heather Hewett, and Susan Strehle.) Susan Andrade, an important contributor to the discourse of African women's writing, provides perhaps the most blatant example of critical disagreements over the novel's ending, which she argues "suggests a welter of contradictory sentiments in attempting a resolution" (99). Such a judgment of the conclusion stands in stark contrast to the optimistic reading of Heather Hewett, which emphasizes Kambili's need to "find her way forward--slowly, resolutely, indefatigably--into the future" (90).
(2) Here and elsewhere Kwok refers to Gayatri Spivak's famous figuration of "white men saving brown women from brown men," revising it to read "white women saving brown women from brown men" in the missionary enterprise.
(3) Charles Taylor's A Secular Age offers a detailed and compelling account of the causes and effects of Western secularization. For more on the relationship of scholars to religion, see Buley-Meissner, Thompson, and Tan's The Academy and the Possibility of Belief
(4) In "Reading African Women Readers," Cynthia Ward names several challenges of reading African women from a Western location, especially the desire to read texts from Africa in order to learn about "the African woman" and either universalizing "her" experience of sexism or judging "her" authenticity (78-79). Susan VanZanten Gallagher also discusses the challenges of reading postcolonial literature from a Western location in her introduction to Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical Call for Justice. She cites Chinua Achebe to highlight this tendency to read postcolonial literature as lagging behind or derivative of Western art, noting his call to resist "colonialist criticism" (reminiscent of Kwok's colonialist feminism) and instead to practice interpretive "humility," recognizing the important distance between different cultural locations (18).
(5) The centrality of Palm Sunday in the novel's temporality also subtly supports its combined critique and affirmation in the work of cultural hermeneutics. Whereas each other Sunday of the year is marked by a cohesive tone, Palm Sunday combines the heights of praise ("Hosanna!") with the agony of the coming crucifixion; in doing so, it parallels the ambivalently mingled lament and optimism of the novel's own tone. Thanks to Dr. Sarah Powrie of St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, for this insight.
(6) The fact that things begin to fall apart at home in Purple Hibiscus further emphasizes the importance of the domestic sphere as opposed to the public sphere in the text. There is an established history of reading African women's writing in English as domestically-focused allegories for politics: Susan Z. Andrade's important 1990 essay "Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women's Literary Tradition" and her more recent "Gender and the 'Public Sphere': Writing Women and Rioting Women" exemplify this trend.
(7) Hewett cites Elaine Scarry's influential book The Body in Pain to name the "world-destroying" character of Kambili's suffering and the resulting impossibility of language (83). I would suggest, instead, the earlier work of philosopher-mystic Simone Well (in Waiting for God) and liberation theologian Dorothee Solle (in Suffering) as sources for thinking about Kambili's silence as a result of her abject suffering: Weil and Solle both recognize the spiritual dimension of unjust suffering but are more optimistic than Scarry about the possibility of healing through the compassion of another's attention and the struggle for a language of lament.
(8) For example, see Lily Mabura's argument that it is not a coincidence Eugene repeatedly beats his wife to the point of miscarriage, destroying evidence of their sexual union that is linked to both "original sin" and "animal origins" (218-19). Madelaine Hron further argues that Eugene is Homi Bhabha's colonial subject caught in mimicry, repeating rather than re-presenting British culture (31).
(9) Madelaine Hron, likewise, calls Eugene "somewhat of a paradox" (31), and Daria Tunca similarly uses the language of paradox to describe him (122). Sophia Ogwude asserts that Eugene, as "a socially and financially successful but fatally flawed personality," represents the "ambiguous gains of the 'converted African'" (115).
(10) Heather Hewett asserts that in this novel, "Adichie tells the story the Okonkwo's wife cannot tell" (79), revising Achebe's earlier novel with a feminist concern.
(11) Importantly, one of Oduyoye's most widely recognized practices of cultural hermeneutics is her own reading of folktales and proverbs in Daughters of Anowa. Papa-Nnukwu's folk-story is precisely the sort of cultural material Oduyoye interprets to highlight the need for new stories teaching different figurations of gender within African cultures.
(12) Adichie herself has commented on the positive nature of Ifeoma's balanced faith, telling Susan VanZanten that Ifeoma "represents the possibility of a middle ground. She's ostensibly a happy Catholic, but she still respects her culture and doesn't see it as a zero sum game. There's room for everything for her" (92).
(13) In suggesting such a reading I do not wish to oversimplify the troubling nature of Kambili's relationship with the priest. Numerous critics have discussed Father Amadi as a liberating force in the young woman's life (as I do here), but without attention to its dangers: a quasi-romantic relationship between a young woman and a priest inevitably occurs within a power differential, and Kambili's affection may be read as a troubling transferal of her love for her abusive father. In light of the recent history of sex abuse scandals, as well, Father Amadi's attentions, at the very least, highlight the risky nature of a close relationship between a young priest and a young woman in need of sexual healing, however redemptive that relationship may be. Ultimately, this relationship exemplifies the ambiguity structuring the text as a whole, whereby the good is enmeshed with the risky and even the bad.
(14) In a 2010 interview, Suzan VanZanten asked Adichie, "Do you think Catholicism is a western religion? How do you respond to those critics who see the growing presence of Christianity in Africa as a triumph of colonialism?" Adichie responded, "I feel ambivalent" (89).
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|Author:||Wallace, Cynthia R.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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