History and Artistry in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun


By Iortyer, MT; Avaa, T (2022). Greener Journal of Languages and Literature Research, 7(1): 24-30.

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Greener Journal of Languages and Literature Research

ISSN: 2384-6402

Vol. 7(1), pp. 24-30, 2022

Copyright ©2022, the copyright of this article is retained by the author(s)



History and Artistry in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun

Manasseh Terwase Iortyer1* and Terkaa Avaa2

1Department of English, Federal College of Education, Pankshin, Plateau State, Nigeria

2Department of General Studies, Federal College of Education, Pankshin.


Article No.: 060822062

Type: Research


Literature is not necessarily history but it can be history because it has the ability to pre-empt an unacceptable future as it provides a model in fiction to construct that future. To this end, literature relates to history. The artist could start from a dissatisfied present, peep into the past to see what it was like and make a selection from both to forecast a future, shaping its birth according to existing literary trends. This paper focuses on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s use of history in Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun to construct and arouse national consciousness by re-creating the history of the Nigerian Civil War through literature. Using content analysis, the paper examines the two novels as primary sources of data and other critical materials about the author. This paper adopts Marxism as interpretative theory to evaluate the novels. The research proves that creative novelists do not distort history; rather, they re-invent and re-construct the history of their societies, organizing them according to existing literary trends. The research aids a better understanding, interpretation and analysis of Adichie’s novels.
Accepted: 10/06/2022

Published: 05/07/2022

*Corresponding Author

Manasseh Terwase Iortyer

E-mail: manasseh.iortyer2@yahoo.com

Keywords: History, Artistry, Civil War, Novelist, Africa.


This research was funded by Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) under its Institution Based Research (IBR) intervention.


Literary arts are works of imagination and most of them are products of real life experiences. It therefore means that literary arts reflect the realities of the society at specific times by mirroring the developments within that society. It is in line with the above claim that Ngugi wa Thiong’o asserts in Homecoming that:

Literature does not grow in a vacuum, it is given impetus, shape, direction and even Areas of concern by social, political and even economic forces in a particular society. The relationship between creative literature and these other forces cannot be ignored especially in Africa where modern literature has grown against the gory background of European imperialism and its changing manifestations: slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism ( XV).

The above statement shows that there is a vital link between literature and history.


The literary theory applied in this work is Marxism as an interpretative ideology in Chimamanda Adichie’s novels. Marxism as a social and political theory seeks to interpret and explain the course of human history and the structure of past, present and future societies. It provides a unifying set of values for both the description of the present and for the prescription of the future. Apparently, there is an obvious connection between literature and history as observed by Andre Brink in Re- inventing a Continent: Writing and politics in South Africa, that: “ A literary text can never be a mere transcription of the historical document but a re- invention of it” ( 143 ). When this theory is brought to bear on the works of Chimamanda Adichie, it helps in understanding the artistic process of re- inventing social realities from historical antecedents as explored by Adichie in her novels.

Infact, Meyer Howard Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms asserts that Marxist Critics have “concerned themselves with the power of literary culture to intervene and to transform existing economic and political arrangements and activities” (151). Some of the key figures of this theory are Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Terry Eagleton, Edward Said, Franz Fanon and many others. Adichie’s novels present Colonial and post -colonial insights into Nigeria and indeed Africa because of the strong message they present, based on strong historical and political dimensions.


Literature is not necessarily history but it can be history because it has the ability to pre-empt an unacceptable historical future by providing a model in fiction to construct that future. In this case, literature relates to history by being a product of history upon which it depends for its various constituents. Literature uses what it takes from history to construct that history according to the visions of literature. The artist could start from a dissatisfied present, peeps into the past to see what it was like and makes a selection from both to predict the future, shaping its birth according to existing literary trends. The social needs of the present inspires the perspective with which the writer views the past but the benefits of such artistic revisiting of history are oriented towards future betterment of society. Chijioke Uwasomba in “Story as History, History as Story in Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun” affirms the above position that, “an artist does not merely illustrate a reality but tries to impose his/ her own conscious structure on the public” (1).

History is the pivot of every society. It is a double edged sword which has the capacity to change society either positively or negatively. For the creative writer, re-visiting history is always with a view to checking individual or community excesses or to re-live those good virtues of society and bring them to bear on a prevailing situation with a view to making amends. Every society has a history. Some have a history of bliss while some have a history of turbulent happenings. The creative artist weighs these happenings, makes judgment and predicts (if possible) the future. The process of an imaginative revisiting of the past helps in bringing out the developmental stages of society to its present position to judge the present and shape the future. By so doing, literature exposes corrupt and tyrannical leadership tenure but vindicates the just. To this end, the creative artist takes a keen interest in the politics and life of his/her people as he/she criticizes and warn where necessary. He is a historian and an artist who chronicles his people’s past as he projects the future. Such creative art does not fail to embody experiences that are already past or ongoing in his society.

Africa has a history of colonialism, a historical experience in which people were subjugated, humiliated and in most cases alienated from their ancestral lands. Before the advent of colonialism, Africa had different social values with established systems which were embedded in the culture of the people. These values were transmitted from generation to generation through oral narratives. Some of these values are still being practiced in some rural communities today because they are closely tied to the culture and beliefs of the people. The traditional welfare system took care of the needs of the people in diverse ways like respect for elders and community virtue, communal living system, extended family system, traditional medicine, religion and traditional education. All these were meant to meet the people’s needs so that they could live functional lives. These traditional mechanisms of community education were carried out by the observance of such cultural norms which facilitated the entrenchment of accepted behaviour by all. These mechanisms were also conveyed through myths and legends of the people in order to inculcate moral values in the younger generation. Therefore, anyone vested with any responsibility or leadership role was mindful of the community and family names to guide his conduct. Thus, these acceptable social systems were based on kinship or village council of elders which served as units of community organization that promoted mutual and peaceful co-existence. This means that communal living and social welfare were inherent in traditional African society and formed an integral part of the socio-economic and religious well- being of the people.

Tanure Ojaide in Emerging Perspectives on Abubakar Gimba, opines that culture has a history and a geography feeding it in a continuum of self-renewal. According to him, the process involves abandoning some aspects that are not relevant and appropriating some new things even from outside. This means that culture has a past and a present but the present reality is also bound to change with time (11). It is therefore necessary for the creative artist to re-visit his people’s history so as to re-create society along pre-colonial lines in order to learn lessons from the past to combat the present problems facing Africa today.

African novels therefore tell in a dramatic way the story of Africa from the arrival of the Whiteman through the period of armed struggle like the Mau-Mau revolution in Kenya, the Aba women’s riot in Nigeria and the Maji-Maji uprising in Tanzania, just to mention a few. Such novels continue up to the period of post-independence disillusionment and the neo-colonial era in Africa. Therefore, the very nature of African history, its tales of subjugation, oppression and their subsequent effects on African society makes a compelling demand on the African writer to act. Thus, Chimamanda Adichie’s novels to some extent re-create the struggle of her people against neo-colonialism and represents that past as a long period of recurrent exploitation and marginalization of the people by both internal and external forces, perpetrated by those in position of leadership.

This devotion by African writers to interpret the ever-changing African reality conforms to Katleen Greenfield’s assertion in The World of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, that:

Our pens should be used to increase the anxieties of all oppressive regimes. At the very least, the pens should be used to “murder their sleep” by constantly reminding them of their crimes against the people, and making them know that they are being seen. The pen may not always be mightier than the sword, but used in the service of truth, it can be a mightier force (27).

Judging from the above quotation, one could be right to assume in the words of Simon Gikandi in Reading the African Novel, that “the (African) novel’s primary function is to interpret, judge and pattern the ever-changing African reality” (147). This is the kind of commitment the reader finds in the novels of Chimamand Adichie, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other African novelists.

The unfolding socio-political realities in Africa have continued to form the central message in most contemporary African literary works. As social crusaders, the strength and power of African writers depends on how skillful they deploy their literary style to depict the society in which they find themselves. This confirms to Tirop Simatei’s assertion in The Novel and Politics of Nation Building in East Africa, that:


The novelist’s relevance to society is attained through a conscious intervention in the unfolding of history; an intervention which as a kind of artistic mission, is already over-determined by the inhuman politics of both colonial and post-colonial epoch (10).

Viewed from the above statement, literature is therefore seen as an important tool in the struggle for national liberation and the formation of a national consciousness. However, the specific historical conditions that dictates a writer’s response to such events differ from place to place. For this reason, Chimamanda Adichie, like many other African writers’ tone is certainly dictated by the collapse of the dreams of independence in Africa, an experience that is considered as a betrayal of the masses who are the sole producers of the nations’ wealth and who fought to see that Nigeria and Africa in general emerged independent from colonialism. Adichie’s criticisms and reactions like those of Ngugi are directed to the immediate historical forces shaping these events- the ruling class.


Throughout history, injured people have had to resort to arms in their self-defence where peaceful negotiations fail. We are no exception. We took up arms because of the sense of insecurity generated in our people by the massacres. We have fought in defence of that cause (Half of a Yellow Sun, 411).

The above quotation is illustrative of the events in the novel- the Nigerian civil war in history.

The historical reality of present day Nigeria is better understood from the context of colonialism whereby different federating units with different cultural, traditional and religious affiliations were lumped together to form what is today Nigeria in the popular amalgamation of Nigeria in 914 by the British colonial administration. Right from that mistake, there has been constant suspicion and mistrust among the various tribes. The British colonial government adopted indirect system of administration by using the Emirs in the north to colonize the various tribes through Islamic jihad. This generated a lot of conflicts. Usman Dan Fodio, with his Muslim background, employed the jihadist mechanism to bring the hither-to existing independent tribes under the Sokoto caliphate for easy administration. This resulted into wars of resistance from the various regions. The scheme failed in many places. Nigeria then became divided into the dominant Christian South set against the dominant Muslim North up till today. From this brief background, the British, right from inception, gave the Muslim North an edge over the other regions because of their administrative set up. Power rested dominantly with the North. An experience that makes the North feel that it is their birth right to rule up till today. Infact, Thahiya Afzal in “Warring Identities: Metaphor of war in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun” describes the above scenario more succinctly:

The British simply drew lines on the map in order to create political entities while colonizing Africa. When the map of Nigeria as drawn, two different ethnic groups- Hausa and Igbo were put together. The predominant differences among them were Hausa who were largely Muslims followed feudalism whereas Igbo mainly Christians pursued a democratic society. After independence of Nigeria in 1960, the conflict between Hausa and Igbo became crucial to their identities (4731).

Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun focuses on Nigerian civil war as it explores the suffering of a people and provides a definitive account of the war on the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria. The civil war was occasioned by the 1966 coup which initially looked like a nationalistic move but later became ethicized and many Northern politicians were killed. The counter coup by Northern officers in the army eliminated the Head of States, General Aguyi Ironsi who was an Igbo general and many other Igbo officers. Many other Igbo citizens in the North were massacred. The responses of Igbo people to these events led to the civil war. The novel exposes Adichie’s courage as a good creative writer to preserve the history of her people in a most ‘catchy’ manner of the nature of the suffering of a people who desire freedom in a most excruciating manner. The novel centres on the Nigerian civil war of 1966-1970 which Adewumi Falode describes as a revolution- “a war fought between two antagonists”. He summed it up in these words:

On the one hand were the Igbos in Eastern part of Nigeria while their opponent was the Federal Government of Nigeria. The Federal Government fought the war to maintain the corporate existence of Nigeria while the Igbos harping on the principle of self-determination, were basically interested in creating an independent state called “Biafra”, carved out of Nigeria (123).

The above quotation sums up the main crux of the novel in which Adichie weaves the story of the war, focusing on the monumental effects of it on individuals and the capacity to survive in the midst of hostilities.

Purple Hibiscus, even though it was published first, focuses on the socio-political realities of Nigeria within the historical military period of General Ibrahim Babangida and the effects of that dictatorial regime on the people. The novel explores the effects of dictatorial regime on the socio-political development of Nigeria. For example, the novel beams its searchlight on press censorship and assassination of Dele Giwa, the then editor-in-chief of Newswatch Magazine. This is illustrated in the murder of Ade Coker with a parcel bomb in Purple Hibiscus. The murder of Dele Giwa with a parcel bomb marked the first of its kind in Nigerian history. Adichie captures this clearly in the story of Ade Cooker, the editor in-chief of the Standard Newspaper owned by Mr. Eugene and noted for its criticism of government policies that had no direct bearing on the people. In the case of Dele Giwa, all hands pointed to the then military government of Ibrahim Babangida. In Purple Hibiscus, Ade Coker’s death is equally linked to the government. He is also killed with a parcel bomb, purportedly from the State House. What a coincidence!

Ade Coker was at breakfast with his family when a courier delivered a package to him….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 (206).

Even though Adichie weaves her story around fictitious characters, it brings back memories of the brutal murder of late Dele Giwa in the mind of her Nigerian reading populace. This is because even then fingers pointed at the government in power just as recreated by Adichie in her novel. The gruesome murder of Dele Giwa prompted the Afro King, Fela Anikolopu Kuti to sing:

Who kill Dele Giwa?

Na baba…

If you add ‘gida’

Na you sabi.

The above song can be translated in Standard English to read thus:

Who killed Dele Giwa?

It is Baba…

If you add “Gida” (to the “Baba” = Babangida)

You are on your own (for the consequences).

The two novels share common grounds in the development of their themes. They both explore life experiences of the people within distinct periods of Nigerian history. Even though both novels treat the theme of violence, Purple Hibiscus concentrates more on domestic violence in Mr. Eugene Achika’s house where his stiff handedness on his wife and children leads to his death through poison by his wife, Beatrice. Half of a Yellow Sun on the other hand treats violence as a result of the Nigerian civil war in which Igbo people were massacred and those who survived were starved. The level of violence in the two novels differ one from the other. Adichie explore these historical realities in developing themes in the two novels as she tries to portray the sufferings of her people right from independence through the civil war up to the present. The civil war had severe consequences on the development and unity of Nigeria. Many who survived the war have lost hopes and aspirations as they live with physical deformity or emotional trauma, affecting them in one way or the other. As a result of war, people are starved to death. This is illustrative in Half of a Yellow Sun:

About twelve people were lying on bamboo beds, on mats, on the floor. No one of them reached out to slap away the fat flies. The only movement Olanna saw was that of a child sitting by the door: he unfolded and refolded his arms. His bones were clearly outlined and the wrap of his arms was flat, in a way that would be impossible if he had some flesh underneath the skin (248).

Adichie foregrounds the violence of war through the sufferings of her characters in their day to day existence as seen in the lives of Olanna, Ugwu, Odenigbo and others. This is also seen in Olanna’s account of the massacre and the evils of the Muslim Hausa people in Kano where she witnessed countless dead bodies on the streets.

We finished the whole family. It was Allah’s will! One of the men called out in Hausa. The man was familiar. It was Abdulmalik. He nudged a body on the ground with his foot and Olanna noticed, then, how many bodies were lying there, like dolls made of cloth (148).

It also relates to the corpses during bombings of civilians as bombers rolled bombs in targeted Igbo areas. This is also seen during Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding in the village.

Apart from narrating the gruesome killings and starvation of Igbo people, Adichie portrays the effects of war especially on women and children. Women are most of the times, raped and left with children without fathers. Adichie shows this in the life of Anulika, Ugwu’s sister as recounted by Nnesinachi:

They forced themselves on her. Five of them…. They said the first one that climb on top of her, she bit him on the arm and drew blood. They nearly beat her to death. One of her eyes has refused to open well since (421).

Such is a common experience in war situations in which women and children pay the price. Nnesinachi, in her own case co-habits with a Hausa soldier whom she claim was so good to her during the war. Other victims like Anulika did not have that choice. She is raped and almost blinded by five soldiers against her will. These, and many more are some of the evils of war on women and children.

The civil war had serious implications on the lives of the major characters in Half of a Yellow Sun in diverse ways. It led to broken hopes of love between Olanna and Odenigbo on one hand and between Ugwu and Nnesinachi on the other. Their dreams of enjoying blissful lives in marriage were cut short by the war. Even though Olanna and Odenigbo enjoyed the company of each other, it was in the most difficult and trying experience. Ugwu’s case is total separation from his loved one. These relates to David Diop’s poem, “The Vultures” of broken promises as a result of violence:

In that time

Laughter gasped its last in the metallic hell of roads

O! sour memories of extorted kisses, promises mutilated by machine gun blasts (110).

Each of the major characters in Half of a Yellow Sun have their hopes and aspirations cut short because of the civil war.

Nsuka is so strategic in the two novels because of its centrality in Adichie’s historical ideology. In Purple Hibiscus, Adichie states that “Nsuka stated it all” (16). This is pointer to Kambili and Jaja’s change in perspectives as a result of Aunty Ifeoma’s ideological influence on the children, especially, Jaja.. According to Kambili, who is Adicie’s authorial voice in the novel:

Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsuka 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 freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do (16).

Nsuka is central to the two novels because it is both a Centre of academic excellence in Purple Hibiscus, and Centre of innovation in Half of a Yellow Sun. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Nsuka serves as the intellectual hub of Biafra because of its numerous Igbo professors who helped promote and sustain the Biafran cause through their ideas, innovations and ideologies. During the war, most of them headed different departments to keep the cause going. A good example is professor Ekwenugo whom Ugwu describes as “the one in the Science Group, the one who made great things” (355). It could well be said that they were behind the fabrication of ‘ Ogbunigwe’, the historic Biafran machine gun that caused havoc on the Federal troops before its capture in the course of the war. Professor Ezeka became the Director of Mobilization while Professor Odenigbo worked with Agitator Corps. Olanna organized classes for children in their compound in the yard to keep them going during the war. Ugwu, the house help, became a class teacher in the informal school which did not last long because of the shelling. It is therefore not surprising when the reader find Nigerian soldiers maltreating these University lecturers on the road after the war as portrayed by Adichie.

Ah! Nsuka University. You are the ones who planned the rebellion with Ojukwu, you book people… When Odenigbo climbed out, the officer slapped his face so violently, so unexpectedly that Odenigbo fell against the car… The second slap from the officer was not as loud as the first (416).

In Purple Hibiscus, Aunty Ifeoma’s intellectual ideology helped open Kambili and Jaja’s eyes to see the world around them in different perspectives because of her radical Marxist ideology as a lecturer at the University of Nsuka. This radical enlightenment changed things in Mr. Eugene’s house in Aba. This is because, Aunty Ifeoma made Jaja to understand that he can be defiant for a just cause, even to his father, Mr. Eugene. Jaja’s defiance back home in Aba began to change things in Mr. Eugene’s house. No wonder, Adichie states that ‘Nsuka started it all’. These instances accounts partly to the centrality of Nsuka in her two novels, coupled with the fact that she actually started life in Nsuka herself where the father was the Vice Chancellor of the University- Another historical relationship.

Adichie explore the symbolic meaning of these historical antecedents in her literature in a way that add meaning to her creativity. The title, Half of a Yellow Sun is symbolically and metaphorically used. Morve Roshan in “Representation of History in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun asserts that:

The half of a yellow sun is a symbol of the rising sun on the Biafran flag. It has a new hope for a bright and glorious future. It also identifies that the (sic) was one country like sun but it has parted into two states. This is how Nigeria and Biafra separated like the sun… The title of the book is influenced from the Biafran flag (152).

These two novels touch on the socio-political problems of Nigeria’s leadership problems. In these novels, the historical development of Nigeria is clearly and masterfully woven into the plots of the texts. This shows Adichie’s artistic manipulation of historical antecedents of Nigerian history to create master pieces in these two novels. Her artistic quality has attracted much applause from scholars because of her consistency with the themes of violence and freedom which keep recurring in the two novels. It shows her concern for the marginalized and oppressed masses of Nigeria and Africa. This corresponds to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s stance on social justice of the oppressed masses. Charles Nnolim, while commending Ngugi’s stance on violence and freedom of the masses of Africa, asserts that:

These themes which constitute a wound in the heart of Ngugi includes betrayal (especially of the masses by the emerging bourgeoisie), racism, tribalism, hopelessness of the masses even after flag independence, cultural alienation, colonial brutality and continued exploitation of the masses by the new government from which the masses had expected a better treatment (X111-X1X).

IT therefore behooves that writers draw inspiration from the history of their societies as they are at the time of writing and they depict the various changes obtainable in their societies. They express these happenings in the way they wish their societies to be. They draw attention to the prevailing problems and seek change from unacceptable practices to more humane social conditions.


It is obvious that most modern African novelists have become more radical in their approach to emerging socio-political problems in Africa because of their Marxist orientation. This to a large extent explain why many critics refer to them as radical or protest writers. This developing idea concerns the role of violence and revolution in the struggle for liberty and social justice. Ngugi for example, endorses violence as the only viable tool for change enforced by the masses. He expresses his contempt to bad governance in these words, quoted by David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe in Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of his Writings, that: “Violence in order to change an intolerable, unjust social order is not savagery; it purifies man. Violence to protect and preserve an unjust, oppressive social order is criminal and diminishes man” (24). According to Ngugi therefore, the oppressed masses of Africa have no option than to use violence to better their lives from insensitive governments in Africa.

This research indicates that apart from historical events in writers’ environments providing them with first hand material information of the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism on their various societies, Marxism has helped sharpen and directed their resolve in correcting the ills and evils perpetrated by Africa’s ruling elites. The resolve to educate and sensitize the teaming masses of Africa on the evils unleashed on them by their brothers who took over power from the White departing colonizers become stronger.


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Cite this Article: Iortyer, MT; Avaa, T (2022). History and Artistry in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. Greener Journal of Language and Literature Research, 7(1): 24-30.



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