Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Purple Hibiscus, 2003

I found that I couldn't help but read this book through my psychologist glasses. The story is set in Nigeria and told by the adolescent daughter of a rich family, Kambili. Her lens is so very fitting for the narrative because it's somewhat limited in it's perspective. Throughout the story I found myself looking into her words and seeing beyond them and trying to figure out what an adult might say about the situation. But interestingly her limited perspective also kept me at times from seeing the obvious events right as they were happening. For example, it took me a little while to see the reality of the abuse that was occurring in their household. But once it was clear the signs seemed obvious and I felt a bit silly that I hadn't noticed it before. It is possible that the author intended for this to happen to the reader. Perhaps my experience mimics the narrator's own slow awakening and ability to verbalize what is going on around her.

Once the abuse became clear I found myself reading the narrater's emotions and reactions through my "educated about trauma but still affected by the details" eyes. It appears to me that the author got it right in terms of describing the daughter's conflicted emotions. Kambili loves her father desperately and is constantly trying to win his affection in some way but she is also driven by a paralyzing fear of what her father could do at any given moment. The control he has over her life is complete and full, in many ways he even rules her mind. As I read, I wondered about what causes someone to behave this way towards his own children. I also found myself wanting to grab the narrator and explain what was happening, to somehow help her see her worth and power. I think my reaction was in response to her own complete acceptance of the trauma she was enduring. This is where abuse really gets to me, because of course she was ruled by the tyranny of her father. She did not know anything else. She had never been taught to think for herself and her other parent, her mother, was also under her husband's complete control. He regularly used his wife as a punching bag for his frustrations.

The other things that were striking to me were the deep internalized issues around race and religion represented in the book. The father's character is so very complicated. So abusive to his family. A classic controlling male figure that tries to micromanage every aspect of his family's life. He's so abusive that you want to hate him. Some parts of me really did despise him. But as with all good human depictions, that just isn't the whole story. This man also gives generously and seems to genuinely care about his community. He publishes a newspaper that agitates against the ruling regime. He seems to sincerely believe in government reform and community justice. The paradox of the way he treats his family and the generosity towards the community is startling. Ultimately, I think his personal failings far outweighed his public goodness.

He also seems to be driven by a overly intense commitment to oppressive White imperialistic Christianity. His experience of being raised by White priests imprinted upon him a sense that faith should be harsh, cruel and unweilding. He also demonstrated some internalized racial oppression as evidenced by his continued hatred of things natively Nigerian. It appeared that becoming sanctified meant becoming as White as possible. Salvation seems to revolved around being perfect and presenting oneself as perfect. I found that I almost pitied him because of his childhood experiences living with these harsh catholic priests. I also found myself sad for the continued injustice perpetuated in the name of Jesus.

I wonder what the author will have to say about her depiction of Christianity throughout the novel? The father's faith lacks any true love and kindness of spirit while the Aunty and her family seem to embody a loving and kind faith. They practice the same Catholicism but with an open heart that does not create walls and instead builds connections. I wonder how the author considered this juxtaposition? The open and warm faith is primarily represented by Nigerians and the cold, harsh, angry faith seems to be primarily influenced by White priests and nuns.

Perhaps my favorite part of this book is watching the narrator begin to own her voice. She is almost mute throughout much of the book but through relationships with her aunt and cousins she comes alive. It is then that she is able to become more fully herself and even fall in love. The feminist in me simply loved seeing her take the control and power in her life back into her own hands.

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