The Literary Hibiscus: A Complaint About Symbolism
February 19, 2011
Back from the near-dead. Seventy-hour work weeks, snow, freezing temperatures, lack of sun, topped off by a virulent head-and-chest virus that apparently laid waste to Baltimore before attacking Philadelphia—all have made this a miserable winter. Granted, we’re sissies here in the mid-Atlantic, and I admit that I could never live in Minnesota, even if Garrison Keillor dropped by nightly to tell stories. Still, I enjoyed pitying myself, and if this is the only happiness one gets for months at a time, that qualifies as misery, doesn’t it?
In these lost months I’ve managed to read just one book, Chimamanda Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus. I haven’t yet tried her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, or her story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.
Purple Hibiscus, as the reviewers said, is a classy debut. Though the background is the Nigerian political scene, the focus is on a single family with a domineering father, passive mother, and two children trying to cope with the impossible situation created by the parents—something that should hit home for me, since I’ve written an American novel with the same setup. And I did respond acutely, enjoying even the long stretches when it seems the teenage narrator-protagonist, Kambili, will never get up the gumption to strike out for freedom from the oppressor. Adichie gives her characters enough complexity to challenge our simple presumptions: the abusive father has many good points, and the more attractive characters, while never verging on evil, have quirks to keep us interested.
She’s good at description, offering simple but vivid detail about daily life:
Obiora was pounding a yellow mango against the living room wall. He would do that until the inside became a soft pulp. Then he would bite a tiny hole in one end of the fruit and suck it until the seed wobbled alone inside the skin, like a person in oversize clothing. Amaka and Aunty Ifeoma were eating mangoes too, but with knives, slicing the firm orange flesh off the seed.
And a moment later, when flying termites course past the apartment complex:
The air was filling with flapping, water-colored wings. Children ran out of the flats with folded newspapers and empty Bournvita tins. They hit the flying aku down with the newspapers and then bent to pick them up and put them in the tins. Some children simply ran around, swiping at the aku just for the sake of it. Others squatted down to watch the ones that had lost wings crawl on the ground, to follow them as they held on to one another and moved like a black string, a mobile necklace.
It helps that the scenes are exotic to Western readers. We can read a sentence like
Lunch was jollof rice, fist-sized chunks of azu fried until the bones were crisp, and ngwo-ngwo.
with a fascinated hunger that we might not feel if the ingredients were more familiar:
Lunch was baked beans, fist-sized chunks of breaded chicken deep-fried until crisp, and cole slaw.
Still, the power of description is in the vivid, accurate details, and Adichie gets those right—as far as this Western reader can tell. (The azu does sound good, whatever it is. Wikipedia says it’s a Japanese R&B singer.)
The one crispy bone I have to pick with Adichie concerns the purple hibiscus, the title flower. In the novel’s extended family, Aunty Ifeoma, the liberal, liberating force, happens to grow an unusual purple hibiscus that her neighbors all admire. The narrator’s brother, Jaja, takes some of Ifeoma’s purple flowers to plant in the garden by his own house, and soon afterward he plucks up the courage to defy his father. At the end of the first section, the narrator makes sure we see the connection: “Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom. … A freedom to be, to do.”
I’m on a bit of a crusade against standard literary devices, which seem to me all too pervasive in contemporary writing, and this kind of heavy-handed symbolism, which I suspect Adichie absorbed from evil Western influences, ticks me off. The innocent hibiscus plant itself plays little role in the novel; it’s there just to be loaded down with symbolism. Let it go free, I say, free from the burden of representing freedom! Liberate it from the novelist’s manipulation. And don’t make those flying termites into symbols either. If you build the meaning into the action, the characters, the setting—as Adichie has done so admirably—we readers don’t need symbols as a side dish with our crispy azu.