Seeking to Write Universal Truths
"I'd often drive past the houses on St. Paul and North Charles on my way to the train station, and there's just this sense of faded beauty about it all," she said. "There's something sad. Something like, 'oh, there's so much potential here'."
She returned this week to promote the paperback edition of her first novel and give a reading at the Barnes and Noble in White Marsh. Purple Hibiscus revolves around Kambili, a young Nigerian girl whose successful father is generous and well-respected in the community, but a tyrant at home. The novel explores issues of religion, politics and the forces that pull families apart and bind them together.
"I was very surprised that Americans would, sort of constantly, say, 'oh it's universal,'" Adichie said. "I think that usually the idea is that when a book is set outside the US, then it, of course, runs the risk of not being universal."
Catholicism's best and worst qualities manifest themselves in Kambili's father, Eugene, and the young priest who unintentionally steals Kambili's heart. Kambili finds herself pulled between her father's conservative ideology and Father Amadi's kind faith. Adichie explores her own struggles with the church through this conflict.
"I am Catholic, and the reason I have to qualify that is I have faith in God, but I worry about the version of God that the Catholic Church teaches," she said. "When I say 'I'm Catholic,' for some people it comes with so much baggage. I love mass, I love the rituals and the drama of the Church, but there are so many things I have trouble with."
The informal attitude some Americans have toward church surprised Adichie. She has seen Americans go to church in shorts, something unheard-of back home. A Nigerian woman must cover her head and arms before entering the church, according to Adichie.
"I think they attach a lot of value to what I like to call the lower values, things that don't really matter," she said. "The outward things: covering your head, wearing long sleeves to church, that sort of thing."
Adichie noticed another sharp contrast in how services are conducted. "I also found church here very boring," she said. "I found the songs really boring. Back home at the church the songs are very vigorous, very moving, which I like."
Colonialism brought to Nigeria the Catholic Church and the free market, and Kambili's father believes strongly and excels in both. Although some readers have taken Eugene to represent colonialism's evils, Adichie has gone to great lengths to prevent his sinking into such an easily symbolic role.
Eugene's fanatical devotion to the church justifies his abuse toward his wife and children, but also encourages him to give generously to others and use his newspaper to fight against a corrupt and oppressive government.
"I think that with him I was very careful, because I didn't want to create somebody who would become easy to hate," she said. "I was very keen to write a character who was extremely religious, but on the other hand that he cares about freedom."
The novel also highlights the conflict between Christian Nigerians and those who have retained indigenous religions and practices. Colonial Christianity brought with it "a sense that what we had wasn't good enough," Adichie said. "So we have to denounce our past."
"Because I think a lot of the Christianity that came to Africa didn't just come as faith; it came with the baggage of colonialism," she said. "And that, because of that, it affected the way people saw God. So, that for them, God became the white man with blue eyes."
Eugene denounces his own father as a pagan, and only grudgingly allows his children to visit their "Papa-Nnukwu" for fifteen minutes each Christmas. Even then, they are not allowed to eat or drink anything in his heathen home.
Raised Catholic, Adichie never experienced native religion herself, and has learned most of what she knows through books. "I will never grasp it entirely," she said. "And there's something sad about that for me."
She attempts to point out in Purple Hibiscus the commonalities between the Catholic and native faiths. Kambili witnesses Papa-Nnukwu's daily devotions, while reflecting on her father's rituals. She also sees the holiness in native funerary rites.
"There aren't many people, really, who have retained the old ways," Adichie said. "It's something that, when you're growing up and you're observing, and you think, 'but they're not that different from me'.
"And I guess it's also my way of, sort of, really saying that it's really all the same thing, that it's one God. That we're just worshipping this one spirit in different ways."
Adichie was surprised at the different ways Americans, Britons and Nigerians reacted to the novel. "You realize once you're done writing a book, the reader has authority, you don't," she said. Americans seemed to focus most on the domestic abuse, while the British--who colonized Nigeria--tended to interpret the novel through a post-colonial lens.
"In Nigeria, I find that they are more interested in the religion part of it, and I think it's because religion is so huge in Nigeria," she said. "People think that I unfairly criticize the church, I'm too harsh with the church."
An American woman at one public reading kept telling Adichie how sorry she was for what had happened to Adichie as a child, not realizing the novel is not autobiographical. Adichie had to assure her that Kambili's family experiences were not her own.
The novel does draw on aspects of Adichie's life growing up at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father taught and her mother was the school's first female registrar. Lecturers at the university still go unpaid for long periods of time today, just as in the novel. The scene where police thugs ransack Aunty Ifeoma's home is based on an incident that happened to a family she knew in Nsukka.
"The student riots, I observed happen. Me and my family actually came out and, sort of, watched," Adichie said.
Some characters in the novel complain about how Americans treat Nigerians who enter the United States. Although Adichie has not experienced any hostility herself, her father had a very different time when he first came to Berkeley, California.
"He just told me the most incredible stories," she said. "Going to look for a house and just seeing the sign, 'No dogs, No blacks'.
"He had this really wonderful professor, and he invited my father to his house, and my father said he was driving up to his house, and suddenly kids are running away because they haven't seen a black man [before]."
Adichie's next novel will focus on the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s, during which the Igbo succeeded and founded their own Republic. The new novel has required a great deal more research than Purple Hibiscus, and will deal with issues that are still fresh in many Nigerians' minds.
"I know I'm going to have people writing me mean letters," she said. "And, I mean I'm sort of prepared for that, but it's still a very big issue in Nigeria.
"The things that led to succession haven't been dealt with, and there's a new movement for succession again right now, so it's sort of politically serious, and I guess I'm taking my time, but it's coming along."
The new novel will revolve around the lives of three people before, during and after the war. "I'm just realizing how hard it is to get into different people's minds," Adichie said. "Sometimes I wonder, my God, what have I put myself into? But I'm determined to finish it, I think I will. I think it will be very different--well, maybe more complex--than Purple Hibiscus."
Ryan Sniatecki, a Baltimorean, is a freelance writer.
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This story was published on October 8, 2004.