Listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's BBC Reith Lecture
On 30 November 2022, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered the first of the BBC’s 2022 Reith Lectures on the subject of freedom of speech. Listen to it here
In this personal essay, Sarah Gwonyoma recalls the life-changing effect of reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel - and how she observed elements of her own life in fiction for the first time
There are certain life events that happen to us all, be it on a personal or mass scale, where, years later, we can accurately pinpoint where we were and what we were doing at the time. For example, the first time you may have heard a particular song. Nine out of ten people may also confidently be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing when Princess Diana died.
Books you have read, devoured and loved can also have this effect on you, leaving a strong sense of time and place.
Chiamamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hisbiscus is one of those books for me. I can remember exactly where I was; how the light changed in my room that day as new characters were introduced to me on the pages in front of me.
In fact, this book had such a profound effect on me that when I think back to that summer, I often smile to myself knowing, yes, this book was my true coming of age.
It was the summer of 2008 and I had just returned from a holiday in Uganda, where I’d been staying with my aunt. My parents had fled their home in Uganda for the UK in the early 1980s, due to the war that was raging at that time, in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their children.
Having run some errands for Mum that morning, I took a detour to our local library to pick out a few books to get me through the rest of the summer holidays before heading back to university.
As I browsed the new fiction section, the librarian who was busy placing books back on the shelf stopped and said: ‘I think you’ll enjoy this one. My niece read it last week and can’t stop raving about it.’
She winked and carried on pushing her trolley down the aisle. I opened the book and started to skim the pages in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time ever, here was a girl who not only looked like me, with her ‘cornrows under her black scarf’ but as I later learnt, shared similar life experiences to me, too. After lunch that day, I closed my bedroom door, lay on my bed wrapped up in the summer’s warmth and drifted off into the world of 15-year-old Kambili.
Very early on in Purple Hibiscus we are introduced to Kambili and Jaja, siblings growing up in Nigeria under a very strict religious patriarchal cloud. I remember having to remind myself that her brother ‘Jaja’ wasn’t her grandmother because in Uganda, ‘Jaja’ means ‘grandmother’.
Religion plays a huge part in Kabili’s life, both at home and at school. It is at home, however, thanks to her strict father, that we see how much it governs her day-to-day life. Growing up in a Catholic household, prayer was always a big part of my family life, too. Mass every Sunday was non-negotiable. Always in a dress or skirt - never trousers. God forbid! From the age of 11, I attended a convent school; prayer time and mass were an integral part of the Catholic experience, as was being governed and taught by strict nuns. It wasn’t unheard of for students to be spanked with a ruler in the years before I joined, and the threat of it still lingered, which for me was almost even worse. The idea that so much of your life was being judged by a higher being and may be deemed ‘sinful’, with consequences, was always at the back of your mind.
For my parents, the pull to go ‘home’ to Uganda has always been there. I don’t think it ever goes away. Maintaining a strong sense of Ugandan culture was important to us and Mum regularly cooked traditional Ugandan staples: chicken and rice; goat’s meat; matoke and beans. I’d eat these meals in breaks in between reading Purple Hibiscus, and they were almost an extension of the reading experience, as food plays such a huge part of the book, as it does in African culture generally.
Purple Hibiscus is the first book I read where both English and a native African language - in this case, Igbo - was used. Growing up in England, Luganda - my native language - was often spoken at home. My parents would also speak in our native tongue when they didn’t want us to know about ‘grown-up stuff’, not knowing that we were able to understand it enough to know what they were talking about. They would also speak Luganda to us when they were angry. There is something about reading or hearing another African language. It feels visceral. It evokes memories of ‘home’ for me every time.
It’s no surprise to anyone who has read any of Chimamanda’s books that her writing leaves you wanting more of her magic. Thankfully it wasn’t too long after reading Purple Hibiscus - which was longlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize - that Half of a Yellow Sun was published and, thereafter, Americanah. But it is her most recent book, Notes on Grief, that I most relate to, having experienced loss on a personal level over the last few years. In it, and having just lost her Father, Chimamanda explores grief in a way I haven’t read before.
And so if Notes on Grief is my go-to bible when it comes to loss, Purple Hibiscus is my coming-of-age book, with the protagonists Kambili and Jaja front of centre and us readers as the spectators, loudly supporting them both from the sidelines. And while their life is overshadowed by their father’s dark cloud, we do see hope for them both at the start and end of this book.
The flower - purple hibiscus - represents the movement towards independence and the freedom to pursue goals and values of your own choosing. The symbolism of this alone gives anyone reading this book a sense of hope.
In Fiji, my family’s home for 13 years, we had red hibiscus - a symbol of love and passion - growing abundantly in our garden. While the shades may be different, I’d like to think that there is also love offered up to both Kabili and Jaja in this book too.
As Kabili recalls: ‘I waited for him to ask Jaja and me to take a sip, as he always did. A love sip, he called it, because you shared the little things you loved with the people you loved.’
Follow Sarah Gwonyoma on Instagram at @whatsarahreadnext