#IntlYALitMonth: Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus

Content Warning: domestic violence, religious trauma, mentions of abuse, depictions of abuse, pregnancy loss, state-sanctioned violence.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a coming-of-age novel that juxtaposes the tumult of adolescence with the tumult of a changing nation. Set in 1980s Nigeria and told from the perspective of teenage protagonist, Kambili, Purple Hibiscus navigates big ideas that all young people eventually come to wrestle with as they determine their role in the world – what does it mean to be loved, to sacrifice? How do we determine the difference between what we’ve been told and what we believe?

The book begins with a shattering of both the figurines collected by Kambili’s mother and the fragile image of perfection curated by her abusive father when he throws a prayer book at her older brother, Jaja, who rebels by refusing to participate in receiving communion at church. In one strikingly crafted paragraph, we are introduced to the personal world Kambili lives in: one of gilded ideals, enforced and sterile religion, an increasingly emboldened brother, and an abusive father determined to break everything in the way of his presumed sense of purity.

This book is heavy. However, both readers and Kambili experience respite as she begins to spend more time with her aunt and cousins who, despite being directly related to her father, operate in a completely opposite fashion. Where her father has accumulated wealth as a businessman, her aunt is a poor professor working alongside student protests and growing government pressure. Where he disavows all Nigerian traditions as “heathen” – going so far as to not speak to his own father – Aunty Ifeoma weaves her Catholicism in with her deep love of her country and her culture. Most notably, perhaps is that while away from their parents, Kambili and Jaja are allowed laughter. They are allowed a vibrancy to their lives that has, quite literally, been beaten out of them at their home. Here they are encouraged to ask questions, and express their ideas openly. The contrast between their lives with their aunt and their lives at home with their mother and father is stark and chapters spent back home in her father’s large home are tense and jarring after spending time in such a loving environment. 

I was lucky enough to teach this novel for multiple years in my sophomore English classroom before coming to the library and found that my students both connected to the characters of Kambili and Jaja, as well as their cousins of comparable ages, and were able to grapple with large topics like colonization, class, religion, social upheaval through their reading. While many may not have the exact same experiences as Kambili, everyone must find their way through the world and build their own framework for understanding it. Purple Hibiscus is a nearly perfect novel for doing just that. 

Purple Hibiscus

Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

ISBN: 9781616202415 

Publisher: Algonquin Books, 2012. Originally published in 2003.

Awards: Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2004), Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2004), John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee (2004), Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction (2004), Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book Overall (2005).

Ashlan Christensen (they/them/elle) works in outreach and programming at the Denver Public Library. They hold their M.Ed in secondary education from Regis University, their BA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Seattle University, and are currently working towards their MLIS at San Jose State University where they hope to specialize in critical librarianship and youth services. 

JULIA E. TORRES is a nationally recognized veteran language arts teacher, librarian, and teen programs administrator in Denver, Colorado. Julia facilitates teacher development workshops rooted in the areas of anti-racist education, equity and access in literacy and librarianship, and education as a practice of liberation. Julia’s work has been featured on NPR, AlJazeera’s The Stream, PBS Education, KQED’s MindShift, Rethinking Schools, Learning for Justice Magazine, School Library Journal, American Libraries Magazine, and many more. She is a Book Love Foundation board member, Educolor Working Group member, a Book Ambassador for The Educator Collaborative, and a co-founder of #DisruptTexts. Her co-authored title Liven Up Your Library: Design Engaging and Inclusive Programs for Teens and Tweens is just the first of many forthcoming publications for librarians and educators. Learn more about Julia on her website juliaetorres.com or on social media @juliaerin80

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