The Thing Around Your Neck
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called genius grant) in September, 2008, the foundation praised her two novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and called her “a young writer who illuminates the complexities of human experience in works inspired by events in her native Nigeria.” In Adichie’s new short-story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), she demonstrates the same insight into her characters and the same compassion for them, but she expands her range to include characters who have left Nigeria for a new life in the United States. The characters in the collection’s twelve stories struggle to determine where their home is, who their people are, and how an increasingly globalized worldeven a relatively peaceful oneshapes their identity.
Many of the characters in this collection are immigrants who have come to the United States for college, as Adichie did, or to follow their husbands, or to look for a better life. These stories join those by Jhumpa Lahiri collected in Interpreter of Maladies (1999), Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane (2003), and other works that illuminate the promise and ultimate disappointment of the immigrant experience. These authors present charactersmostly womenwith one foot back home and one foot in the new world, eager for new experiences but unwilling to sever ties with the old ways. Scenes of cooking and eating are important for all these writers, as they depict lonely women trying to fill the empty places inside them with food from home.
Where Lahiri and Ali ultimately offer hope that immigrants can find new homes, Adichie’s stories are overlaid with loneliness and regret. In “Imitation,” a woman in New Jersey whose husband travels back and forth between New Jersey and Nigeria learns that he has a mistress in Lagos. In “On Monday of Last Week,” a young, bored, and dissatisfied wife named Kamara is hired as a nanny for a privileged couple in Philadelphia. Kamara believes she has made an exciting connection with the mother, Tracy, but Tracy discards her as quickly as she picked her up. In “The Arrangers of Marriage,” Chinaza, another new young wife, finds that her arranged marriage to a Nigerian medical student in America will not be as she had dreamed: Her husband is critical, pretentious, and so eager to fit in that he has even changed his name from Ofodile Emeka Udenwa to Dave Bell.
The collection’s title story is about a young woman who wins the lottery for an American visa. Her extended family is excited that she will live in the land of plenty; her relatives tell her, “In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house.” Predictably, her actual experience is very different. She begins her life in the United States with an aunt and uncle but has to leave with no prospects after her uncle sexually abuses her. Her employers take advantage of her, paying her below the minimum wage, and they think she is Jamaican because she is black and has an accent. Told in the second person, the story is a heartbreaking depiction of loneliness. Like many of the immigrants in this collection, the young woman in this story is completely alone, aching but unable to tell her family what is happening to her. The narrator crystallizes this situation with a recurring image: “At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.” For a time, with a new American lover, she finds that “The thingstarted to loosen, to let go,” but, like many of the women in this book, she discovers that the answer to her desolation does not lie in the arms of a man.
Six of the stories are set in Nigeria, and for the most part they represent a Nigeria that is heavily influenced by the United States. “Cell One,” the first story in the collection, begins, “The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbor Osita whostole our TV, our VCR, and the Purple Rain and
(The entire section is 1,788 words.)