Silence and speech are important motifs throughout the novel, to the point that the contrast between the two becomes a recurring theme on both the personal and political level. The titles of two of the novel’s sections deal with this theme as well: “Speaking with our Spirits” and “A Different Silence.” Silence is associated with the fear of Papa that Mama, Kambili, and Jaja experience at all times. Kambili, especially, rarely speaks, because she is afraid to stutter and also never wants to anger her father. She and Jaja have a “language of the eyes,” speaking only with glances, as they are rarely left alone together and never mention Papa’s abuse out loud. Kambili’s silence then becomes more conspicuous in the presence of Aunty Ifeoma’s family—who are always laughing, singing, and speaking their mind—and Father Amadi, who breaks into song during his prayers. With Ifeoma and Father Amadi’s encouragement, however, Kambili starts to speak more, and even to sing. Jaja also grows more comfortable speaking, and he then turns his silence (which is no longer a fearful one) into a weapon against Papa by refusing to speak to him.
On the political level, Papa and Ade Coker most strongly represent the power of free speech, as their newspaper is the only one to speak out against the corrupt government. Aunty Ifeoma too criticizes the corruption she sees, unlike most of the other professors. Ade Coker is silenced by a package bomb, and Aunty Ifeoma is silenced by losing her job—yet they are both powerful examples of the importance of free speech. Ultimately Adichie always portrays the freedom of speech and music as a positive change over frightened silence and censorship.
Silence and Speech ThemeTracker
Silence and Speech Quotes in Purple Hibiscus
Papa was staring pointedly at Jaja. “Jaja, have you not shared a drink with us, gbo? Have you no words in your mouth?” he asked, entirely in Igbo. A bad sign. He hardly spoke Igbo, and although Jaja and I spoke it with Mama at home, he did not like us to speak it in public. We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English. Papa’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, said once that Papa was too much of a colonial product. She had said this about Papa in a mild, forgiving way, as if it were not Papa’s fault…
“Mba, there are no words in my mouth,” Jaja replied.
“What?” There was a shadow clouding Papa’s eyes, a shadow that had been in Jaja’s eyes. Fear. It had left Jaja’s eyes and entered Papa’s.
“I have nothing to say,” Jaja said.
I lay in bed after Mama left and let my mind rake through the past, through the years when Jaja and Mama and I spoke more with our spirits than with our lips. Until Nsukka. Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.
“They are always so quiet,” he said, turning to Papa. “So quiet.”
“They are not like those loud children people are raising these days, with no home training and no fear of God,” Papa said, and I was certain that it was pride that stretched Papa’s lips and tightened his eyes.
“Imagine what the Standard would be if we were all quiet.”
It was a joke. Ade Coker was laughing; so was his wife, Yewanda. But Papa did not laugh. Jaja and I turned and went back upstairs, silently.
I did not say anything else until lunch was over, but I listened to every word spoken, followed every cackle of laughter and line of banter. Mostly, my cousins did the talking and Aunty Ifeoma sat back and watched them, eating slowly. She looked like a football coach who had done a good job with her team and was satisfied to stand next to the eighteen-yard box and watch.
“I hear he’s very involved in the editorial decisions. The Standard is the only paper that dares to tell the truth these days.”
“Yes,” Aunty Ifeoma said. “And he has a brilliant editor, Ade Coker, although I wonder how much longer before they lock him up for good. Even Eugene’s money will not buy everything.”
“I was reading somewhere that Amnesty World is giving your brother an award,” Father Amadi said. He was nodding slowly, admiringly, and I felt myself go warm all over, with pride, with a desire to be associated with Papa.
Father Amadi led the first decade, and at the end, he started an Igbo praise song. While they sang, I opened my eyes and stared at the wall… I pressed my lips together, biting my lower lip, so my mouth would not join in the singing on its own, so my mouth would not betray me.
Amaka and Papa-Nnukwu spoke sometimes, their voices low, twining together. They understood each other, using the sparest words. Watching them, I felt a longing for something I knew I would never have.
I laughed. It sounded strange, as if I were listening to the recorded laughter of a stranger being played back. I was not sure I had ever heard myself laugh.
“Why did you become a priest?” I blurted out, then wished I had not asked, that the bubbles in my throat had not let that through. Of course he had gotten the call, the same call that all the Reverend Sisters in school talked about when they asked us to always listen for the call when we prayed. Sometimes I imagined God calling me, his rumbling voice British-accented. He would not say my name right; like Father Benedict, he would place the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.
Ade Coker was at breakfast with his family when a courier delivered a package to him. His daughter, in her primary school uniform, was sitting across the table from him. The baby was nearby, in a high chair. His wife was spooning Cerelac into the baby’s mouth. Ade Coker was blown up when he opened the package—a package everybody would have known was from the Head of State even if his wife Yewande had not said that Ade Coker looked at the envelope and said “It has the State House seal” before he opened it.
“I should have taken care of Mama. Look how Obiora balances Aunty Ifeoma’s family on his head, and I am older that he is. I should have taken care of Mama.”
“God knows best,” I said. “God works in mysterious ways.” And I thought how Papa would be proud that I had said that, how he would approve of my saying that.
Jaja laughed. It sounded like a series of snorts strung together. “Of course God does. Look what He did to his faithful servant Job, even to His own son. But have you ever wondered why? Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn’t He just go ahead and save us?”
“I started putting the poison in his tea before I came to Nsukka. Sisi got it for me; her uncle is a powerful witch doctor.”
For a long, silent moment I could think of nothing… Then I thought of taking sips of Papa’s tea, love sips, the scalding liquid that burned his love onto my tongue. “Why did you put it in his tea?” I asked Mama, rising. My voice was loud. I was almost screaming. “Why in his tea?”