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An Ecocritical and Postcolonial Approach to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Purple Hibiscus’

By Narendra Kashinath Mule & Morve Roshan K.

Introduction

The modern era faces serious environmental issues. To avoid its consequences human beings need to be aware of nature and its ecosystem. Many authors use literature as a medium to write about the environment and participate in environmental awareness. In this context, Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin write in Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (2010):

In April 2000, the American Magazine Time published a commemorative on Earth day issue. Featuring a beaming Bill Clinton in Botswana and more sinisterly, a series of double-page spreads advertising Ford Motor Company’s commitment to the environment, the magazine duly joined the millennial rallying cry to save the planet, issues on behalf of a country that has done far less than one might reasonably expect to protect the global environment but far more than it could possibly have hoped to ‘reinvent the imperial tradition for the twenty-first century.’ (1)

In The Unquiet Wood (1990), Ramchandra Guha expresses grave concerns to save nature from those who have been profiteering by felling trees. He supports the ‘Chipko Movement’ which emerged as a farmers’ movement in the 1970s. Environmental degradation started with colonialism, as nature was exploited and the connection between people and nature were destroyed. Thus, an important aspect of postcolonialism is ecocriticism which seeks to establish links between the idea of culture, environment, land, race and wilderness. This paper analyses Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus through an eco-critical lens to understand the relation of characters with nature.

Definitional Concerns

William Rueckert coins the term ‘Ecocriticism’ in his essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism” (1978) and defines it thus: “Ecocriticism means the application of the ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature.” Ecocriticism as a field of study started in the US from the 1980s and in the UK from the 1990s. The theory of eco-criticism is focused on the premise that human nature is strongly linked with the physical climate, such as one created by another or one that has a specific impact on another. Studying the human-nature partnership in literature, therefore, is important to understand today’s environmental condition. Ralph Nader considers Barry Commoner as “the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century.” In the first rule of ecosystem, Commoner says, “Everything is concerned to everything else” (Glotfelty, and Fromm, 1996, xix). For Commoner, the loss of life, corporate power, health, poverty, testing of nuclear bombs and the safety of beings were all part of the patterns connecting events that severely affect the earth and people.

As a consequence of environmental risks, research on environment has become crucial and critical. Whereas serious research on the environmental concerns started in the mid-eighties, literary research on environmental study developed in the early 1990s. Glotfelty and Fromm write (1996), “In 1989 Alicia Nitecki founded The American Nature Writing Newsletter whose purpose was to publish brief essays, book reviews, classrooms notes and information pertaining to the study of writing on nature and the environment” (xvii).

Some other scholars inaugurated a new institutional program with a cultural perspective on nature and environment. In the 1990s, the University of Nevada started a programme on the idea of environment and nature. The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) was established in 1992 with the following mission: “to promote the exchange of ideas and information of literature that considers the relationship between human beings and the natural world” (Glotfelty, and Fromm, 1996, xviii). The association’s key objective is a meaningful kinship between man and nature. In 1993, Patrick D. Murphy started a journal, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment which became an important medium for literary critical studies as well as art for addressing environmental concerns.

In 1996, Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm published an outstanding book, The Ecocriticism Reader where multiple theoretical concerns on ecocriticism converged. In their book, they define ecocriticism thus:

What then is Ecocriticism? Simply put, Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective. Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts. Similarly, the ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies. (Glotfelty, and Fromm, 1996, xviii)

The relation between human beings and the physical universe is the foundation of ecocriticism. Both impact one another as human beings interfere with nature because of greediness. The research of eco-critics demonstrates how nature is written as a portrait (book or text) and its centrality to the environmental crisis.

The idea of colonialism is based on human, nature and environmental exploitation. Western society or people use nature for their benefit. Regrettably, one country wants to exploit another by assuming the role of a superpower – their suppression is under the influence of neoclassicism as described in the work of Chinua Achebe’s novel A Man of the People (1966).

The environmental decline reveals the effects of colonialism, globalization, neocolonialism and post-colonialism. Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People (1966) and Kiran Desai’s Guava Orchard (1995) depict the degradation of nature as well as the tranquility it offers. What Slaymaker (2001) writes in the context of African literature is applicable to other postcolonial countries: “[Ecocriticism] appears as one more hegemonic discourse from metropolitan west” (132). He mentions how ecocritical paradigms are avoided by many African writers because of their suspicion of western theory. While analyzing African novels of authors such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and other postcolonial writes, the term ‘ecocriticism’ is often avoided. However, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) carries ample evidence of her concern for nature.

Purple Hibiscus: Ecocritical and Postcolonial Perspectives

In Purple Hibiscus (2003), the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie depicts nature as a character, thereby helping the reader to understand the central characters’ moods. Adichie uses her own memories from early childhood to construct the plot and characters’ lives in Enugu, the location of the protagonist.

Kambili Achike, the central character in the novel, is an outstanding schoolgirl who lives under the oppressive presence of her father, Enugu Achike. Although he is from the Igbo society, he strictly practices the Catholic religion. Set in the colonial and the postcolonial period, the novel deals with issues of individuality, culture, domination, identity and nature. Adichie deploys nature to effectuate the emotions of her characters in the novel. Adichie writes: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother Jaja did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal” (3). As violence undergirds the novel, red and purple hibiscus flowers are described as “rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom” (Adichie 16). The garden of aunty Ifeoma is described as a space of silence, as the central character wants to feel a peace from the trouble of life. The children become particularly intrigued to see the purple hibiscuses when they visit their aunt in Nsukka since “[they] didn’t know there were Purple Hibiscus” (Adichie 128).

Not only the children find the new flower in Nsukka, they taste real freedom. It symbolizes Jaja’s independence and delight. Jaja secretly brings a purple hibiscus from Ifeoma’s garden when they come back home and plants it in their garden with the hope of a new good happening.

From the commencement of the novel, nature plays an important role in the life of each character symbolically. Many environmental elements symbolize different meanings in the novel, especially for Kambili. For instance, Kambili’s point of view changes as she become mature. The fruits and flower trees in her yard are signifier of wealth. The same garden after a storm stands for the loss of her life and mind. But she stares at the beauty of the trees. When she returns from Nsukka after her mother miscarries, she feels disgusted by the rotting fruit tree. The rot stands for the illness and sickness in the Eugene Achike household. But Kambili starts looking at her home with a new point of view. Like the trees behind tall walls, she too is stuck. As Kambili goes to change, she looks at the trees outside:

I sat at my bedroom window and changed; the cashew tree was so close I could reach out and pluck a leaf if it were for the silver-coloured crisscross of mosquito netting. The bell-shaped yellow fruits hung hazily, drawing buzzing bees that bumped against my window’s netting […]. It was the early rainy season and the frangipani trees planted next to the walls already filled the yard with the sickly-sweet scent of their flowers. A row of purple bougainvillea, cut smooth and straight as a buffet table, separated the gnarled trees from the driveway. Closer to the house, vibrant bushes of hibiscus reached out and touched one another as if they were exchanging their petals. The purple plants had started to push out sleepy buds but most of the flowers were still on the red ones. They seem to bloom so fast, those red hibiscuses, considering how often Mama cut them to decorate the church altar and how often visitors plucked them as they walked past to their parked cars. (Adichie 8-9)

Nature becomes a source of direction, joy, happiness and peace for Kambili.

The title of the novel Purple Hibiscus denotes nature, as red and purple hibiscuses form an essential part of the narrative on several occasions. Jaja finds a purple hibiscus flower for the first time in Aunt Ifeoma’s yard in Nsukka. The red hibiscus stands for anger, violence and blood. Kambili cannot focus on her studies as “the black typed blurred, the letters swimming into one another and then changed to a bright red, the red of fresh blood” (Adichie 35) and she goes into a trauma because of her mother’s problems. When Jaja sees a purple hibiscus, he revolts against his father because “‘Papa throwing’ a ‘Missal across the room’” (Adichie 3).

As the purple flowers start to bloom, Jaja’s revolt grows too. When Kambili comes in close contact with the environment, it is reflected in her attitudes, inner anarchy and joy. When she discovers “an earthworm was slithering in the bathtub” (Adichie 232), she picks it up before bath and flings down the commode. This act symbolizes Kambili’s mood and establishes a register for her indefinite emotions. She sees a snail trying to crawl out of a basket – “Crawling out, being thrown back in and then crawling out [from the basket] again” (Adichie 238) – denoting similarities between her own condition and that of the snail, as she tries to wriggle out from the claw of her father.

Adichie uses pathetic fallacy to convey the thoughts of different characters. The crisis deepens in the novel as Jaja misses his communion. His father’s anger is depicted through the happenings in nature as “howling winds came with angry rain” (Adichie 258) which destroys trees. Once Jaja is arrested and sent to prison on the charge of murdering his father, Kambili and Mama go to meet him in prison. Adichie describes the scene thus: “clouds like dyed cotton wool [hanging] low” (Adichie 307). This description offers them a sense of ambiguity about the future as they go back to Abba, a village where they grew up. It makes Mama hopeful as she visualizes that Kambili shall “plant new orange trees… And Jaja will plant purple hibiscuses too” (Adichie 306). The references to red and purple hibiscus denote independence from an oppressive familial structure.

Conclusion

For a meaningful engagement with Adichie’s novel, Purple Hibiscus, it is important to analyze it through the prism of ecocriticism. This is one of those postcolonial novels that recognize ecological issues as an antidote to the rhetoric of global dominance and puts nature at the centre of global discourse. Since the developmental projects in the postcolonial countries are premised on an exploitation of nature, Adichie’s novel demonstrates how environmental degradation must be prevented. In order to save the earth, we must be eco-centred; otherwise, we would continue to encounter global pandemics, such as COVID-19. Due to exploitation of nature for fulfilling our greed, we are disconnected from nature. Thus, this disconnection has an abysmal effect on our life in the form of COVID-19 pandemic. There must be a balanced view of progress and development. Ecocriticism can contribute to global justice and sustainability by focusing on themes of environment and nature across different postcolonial literary works.

References

Adichie, C. N. (2003). Purple hibiscus. UK: Harper Collins Publisher.

Barry, P. (2002). Beginning theory. (2nd ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Essays, UK. (November 2018). “The Purple Hibiscus analysis.”

https://www.ukessays.com/essays/english-literature/the-purple-hibiscus-analysis-english-literature-essay.php?vref=1

Garrard, G. (2012). Teaching ecocriticism and green cultural studies. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Glotfelty, C., & Harold F. (1996). The Ecocriticism reader. Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.

Gogoi, G. (Nov. 2014). An ecocritical approach to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Journal of Humanities and Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) 19(11): 01-04.

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Guha, R. (1990). The unquiet woods: Ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalaya. Berkley, Los Angles, and London: University of California Press.

Huggan, G., & Helen T. (2010). Postcolonial ecocriticism: Literature, animals, environment. (2nd Ed.). New York: Routledge.

Nader, R. “The greatest environmentalist of the 20th century.”

Shiva, V. (1988). Staying alive. New Delhi, Indraprastha Press.

Slaymaker, W. (January 2001). Echoing the Other(s): The call of global green and black African responses. PMLA Journal, 116(1): 129–144.

Bio:
Narendra Kashinath Mule is a Researcher at Kavayitri Bahinabai Chaudhari, North Maharashtra University, Jalgaon, Maharashtra, India.

Dr. Morve Roshan K. is a Postdoctoral Scholar at Southwest University, China. She was previously an Honorary Research Associate at Bangor University, United Kingdom. She obtained her M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from the Central University of Gujarat, India. Her last teaching position was at Children’s University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India. She has translated seventy-four children’s literature books from NTM, India. She has published widely and presented her research at numerous national and international conferences. She has acted as an editor, associate editor, and an international advisory member for international journals. Her areas of interest are African Literature, cognitive studies, gender, diaspora studies, English literature, folk studies, and Postcolonial Studies. She heartily welcomes projects, translation work, and international research collaborations. Email: morve_roshan@rediffmail.com

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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