Book salon questions institutional authority

For the second time this academic year, the Africa and the Americas Program and the Race and Ethnic Studies Department combined their resources to host a book salon for students, faculty and the Northfield community. On Thursday, Nov. 12., these academic departments – with help from the Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE) and the student group Karibu – supplied participants with free copies “Purple Hibiscus,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The event continued in the same vein as the fall’s first book salon, which brought themes of family, race and politics into a discussion of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman.”

Chair of the Africa and the Americas program Professor Joan Hepburn said she decided to offer a series of one-time book salons as a way to increase consciousness of African studies on campus and to promote the Africa and the Americas concentration. On a broader scale, however, Hepburn seeks to encourage interdepartmental discussion about relevant themes within the selected literature.

“I see the salon as something we can embrace to create a dialogue. There’s not enough of that,” Hepburn said. “We stay too busy; we stay tied to our own departments and we are too preoccupied with what we have to get done to really enjoy the considerable resources we can bring to discussions.”

In order to achieve this goal, Hepburn invited Joseph Mbele from the English department to add context to the evening’s discussion. A professor specializing in post-colonial literature, Mbele opened the evening’s dialogue by attesting to Adichie’s significance in the lineage of contemporary African writers.

“The writer we are talking about is one of the new generation of African writers, and she is really very young,” Mbele said. “But as young as she is, she has a big wisdom about how we should refrain from having one perspective and we should learn to look from different angles, whether talking about a country, culture or an individual.”

Adichie is considered one of the most prominent new generation writers in Nigeria, and according to Mbele, she follows in the footsteps of one of her nation’s most acclaimed writers, Chinua Achebe.

Adichie’s first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” earned her the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy award—just a few of many accolades the author has accumulated throughout her writing and speaking career. The novel depicts the experience of a young, wealthy Nigerian girl living amidst the political turmoil of a military coup. In addition to overt political conflict, the novel’s protagonist copes with the burden of hidden domestic abuse at the hands of her devoutly religious father. Adichie’s sophisticated reflections on the intersection of family relations, religion, and institutional corruption contribute to her esteem within the writing community.

“[Adichie] manages to suggest that however unstable [her nation] presently is and how annoying it is to live with tyranny, there is a process of becoming democratic that demands the world be more patient,” Hepburn said. “[Adichie] comments on the judgment that democracies are not born in a minute. Even though she is young, her ability to show – not just declare – that type of open mindedness is one of the reasons why people take her as a writer we should listen to.”

According to Hepburn, the universal themes present within “Purple Hibiscus” also make the novel an accessible text to discuss, even for students not accustomed to analyzing literature.“There is a lot going on in the thematic development of the book that fits into people’s everyday lives. We don’t have to think of it as story unique to Nigeria and its political history. We can see ourselves in it, even in Northfield, because we do come off the Hill, and we do raise questions about administrative governance and student and faculty voice.”

Although the salon provided an array of opportunities for students, staff and the Northfield community to open a dialogue, the event saw a significant decrease in attendance in comparison to the first salon in October. Despite the limited turnout, Hepburn hopes the salons are a first step toward encouraging greater student and staff interaction.

“I would love for [the salons] to start looking at ways student groups and faculty programs feed into one another more readily. There are so many organizations on campus that operate in satellite ways,” she said. “I think academic programs can have more partnerships with student groups.”

Hepburn will work toward this goal by continuing to partner with CUBE and Karibu for the next book salon, which is scheduled to take place on April 1, 2016 and will discuss “God Help the Child,” by Toni Morrison.