By Drew Wilcox, AmeriCorps member serving on the Comcast NBCUniversal team with Jeremiah E. Burke High School
The freshmen students in my English Language Arts (ELA) class at the Burke High School in Dorchester are currently reading a novel titled Purple Hibiscus. Written by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and published in 2003 by Algonquin Books, Purple Hibiscus takes place in post-colonial Nigeria and follows the coming of age of 15-year-old Kambili Achikie.
In the novel, Kambili begins to shed her childhood identity as she embraces a more empowering self-image of herself. I can tell that many students easily relate to Kambili’s story: many of them have expressed that they resonate with her growing desire for independence and self-determination, as well as her ongoing struggle to have her voice heard by the world around her. Because of this strong connection between the characters and my students, Purple Hibiscus is an important book for my students to read as they navigate their own coming of age stories.
Through the author’s narration of Kambili’s inner thoughts, readers gain insight into the world of a young Nigerian woman growing up during a difficult period of her life. Although she loves her father, she is constantly afraid of displeasing him. This fear is justified by her father’s authoritarian approach to parenting and fanatical adherence to his religious doctrine; Papa regularly resorts to physical abuse to reprimand his family when the don’t meet his expectations.
Kambili grows up learning that silent obedience is the best way to survive her household. As a result, Kambili rarely shares her speaks her mind or acts upon her inner desires. When Kambili and her brother Jaja visit their Aunty Ifeoma, however, Kambili experiences more freedom and begins to speak up. Through candid conversations, new activities, and even a touch of romance, Kambili starts building an identity for herself apart from her father.
Purple Hibiscus doesn’t end in happily ever after. But Kambili’s journey towards greater self-advocacy isn’t meant to be a fairy tale. The reality is that growing up is exciting yet difficult, and the earlier my students at the Burke High School learn that lesson, the more prepared they will be to make their own impact on the world. Purple Hibiscus provides a template for any young adult trying to find their voice, and for this reason I highly recommend it to any teenage student in Boston.