“Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history.”
(Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions, Page 18)
The first time I read Purple Hibiscus, I was in SSS 2, and it was in preparation for a Literary Contest at Wesley College, Ibadan, Nigeria. I was about 15 years old and I remember reading Purple Hibiscus with haste, not paying keen attention to details that are now very important to me. Writing and publishing my third book The Silence We Eat influenced my curiosity of women's silence and how typical it has become. Reading Purple Hibiscus again and now, makes silence glaring and it breaks my heart that there is so much to say about women's silence.
Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus uses the character of Beatrice Achike, known as Mama representatively for the silence that women often bear martially and in suffering violence. One of the most significant ways that Beatrice expressed her silence was when she constantly cleaned the étagère after her husband Eugene beat her. When the first miscarriage as a result of Eugene’s abuse was recorded in the book, after Beatrice returned from the hospital, she declined Sisi’s offer to eat and instead, asked for “water and a towel” to clean the étagère (Purple Hibiscus, 35).
The contrast of Aunty Ifeoma’s character who symbolized a feminist figure against the silence common to the female characters shed light on possible assumptions about the role of silence in women’s freedom. First, it demystified the idea that women’s privilege meant that they owned their voices and will use it. It also proved that the lack of privilege was not a hindrance to the use of women’s voices neither did it necessarily fuel their silence. Although Beatrice was privileged through her husband’s wealth and Kambili was well educated and grew in a wealthy environment, they didn’t own their voices compared to Aunty Ifeoma and her family who didn’t have so much.
The way Aunty Ifeoma’s voice and laughter was described in the book is also significant to how we often think of women who unapologetically and bravely own their voices. Aunty Ifeoma’s laughter was introduced as something disruptive and invasive compared to that of male characters like Ade Coker. Kambili stated that on the day Aunty Ifeoma visited, “Her laughter floated upstairs into the living room” where she was reading (Purple Hibiscus, Page 71).
Similarly, when Kambili and Jaja stayed at Aunty Ifeoma’s home for holiday, Kambili reported that “Laughter always rang out in Aunty Ifeoma’s house, and no matter where the laughter came from, it bounced around all the walls, all the rooms” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 140). Contrarily when Kambili described Ade Coker and his laughter, she simply said “Ade Coker was a small, round laughing man” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 56). The laughter of female characters in Purple Hibiscus was often over-analyzed and exaggerated as if it shouldn’t be a norm and to laugh loudly as a female is a radical way to own one’s voice or defy silence.
During Christmas, at Abba, after Aunty Ifeoma returned Jaja and Kambili home from the ride to see the Aro festival, Kambili recorded her dream about laughter. She wrote, “That night I dreamed that I was laughing, but it did not sound like my laughter, although I was not sure what my laughter looked like. It was cackling and throaty and enthusiastic like Aunty Ifeoma’s” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 88). It was through Aunty Ifeoma’s laughter that Kambili could see herself laughing and many times, through the voice of others such as Jaja or Amaka, that Kambili spoke.
Notably, there were several excuses for Aunty Ifeoma having such voice and laughter in a way that there wasn’t for the male characters who did. For example, Aunty Ifeoma’s laughter and freedom of expression were presented as though it resulted from her husband death and the liberation it gave her or her “university talk” or because she wasn’t as religiously committed as Eugene was. When Papa Nnukwu or Father Amadi laugh or spoke, it wasn’t presented as though there needed to be a significant or radical reason for it to happen. It was simply humane for them, and a norm to the context or situation.
Intergenerational silence was also revealed in Purple Hibiscus. Not all silence is learned from women’s oppression by men. Sometimes, children, especially daughters learn silence from their mother, and it is proof even in the way Kambili and her mother talked to each other through “their spirits.” One could see the difference between Aunty Ifeoma and Amaka’s relationship compared to Kambili and Beatrice’s relationship. Amaka embodied her mother’s loudness and inquisitiveness just as much as Kambili owned her mother’s silence.
The role of religion, family hierarchy, and politics in enforcing silence were presented in the novel as well. Placing the man as the head of the house and with men heavily invested in the church’s leadership, there were little to no opportunities for women to speak for themselves. While the men took leadership roles and had opinions that were poignant in the news and politics, the women took to the cooking and caring for the household and families.
Additionally, the women’s silence is seen as godly, showing humility and connoting respect while the absence of men’s voices on the contrary, was shown to be problematic or seen as weakness. Neither Kambili nor Jaja was fearful when their mother was silent in many parts of the book, but when their father was silent, it connoted that something was wrong. An example was in the earlier section of the book when Eugene didn’t offer Kambili and Jaja a love sip. One could sense intense fear from the way Kambili described her father’s silence. She wrote, “But papa didn’t say, “Have a love sip”; he didn’t say anything as I watched him raise the cup to his lips” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 8). Still, on that page, she continues Why were they acting so normal, Jaja and Mama, as if they did not know what had just happened? And why was Papa drinking his tea quietly, as if Jaja had not just talked back to him?” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 8). Even, when the outlet through which the men expressed their voices politically, for example, through the standard newspaper was affected, it indicated a problem in a way that the absence of women’s voices or the lack of it in church and political atmosphere didn’t.
“Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history” (Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions, Page 18).
The most extensive section of the book Before Palm Sunday held the history of silence that happened within the home and in the character’s lives, notably for the females in the book. The novel, being told through Kambili’s voice was also symbolic as it proved that it is not that women don’t have anything to say because we are as observant and as much of participant to the world as our male counterparts.
The significance of silence in Purple Hibiscus proves that silence is a way to be participants of injustices against women in the home and the community at large. It is evidence that the history of women and silence are relative and to shatter silence is to reveal women’s history. When women do not speak as much or speak for themselves or about themselves and the issues that concern them, there can’t be justice against the violence they face from their oppressors.