Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1720
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 Thriller videotapes our father had brought back from America.” Immediately then, in the book’s first sentence, Adichie introduces a Nigeria that may be unfamiliar to many of her Western readers: Her characters are highly educated, they are wealthy enough to travel and own electronics, and their videos show the American pop stars Prince and Michael Jackson. Many of Adichie’s Nigerian characters are teachers or, like the author herself, children of teachers, and they live sheltered lives generally removed from the poverty and corruption that inform the rare news stories picked up by the international press. In “Cell One,” Adichie depicts a Nigerian teenager who could live in any wealthy suburb in the United States He is privileged, a little bit spoiled, a mystery to his parentswith his music and clothing imported from American rap cultureand utterly unprepared for the harshness of prison.
“A Private Experience” is reminiscent of Adichie’s novel of the Nigerian Civil War, Half of a Yellow Sun. Set in the mid-1990’s during the presidency of General Sani Abacha, it tells the story of Chika, a wealthy young medical student from the University of Lagos who becomes separated from her sister during a riot while they are visiting their aunt in the northern city of Kano. Chika takes refuge from the violence in a small store, “smaller than Chika’s walk-in closet back home,” guided by another woman who seems to be experienced with hiding from riots. The two women shelter together on the floor of the store for hours and reach a particularly female connection. When the local womanwho is never namedshows Chika her dry, cracked nipples, Chika draws on her medical training to give the woman advice and false comfort. The woman in turn takes a matter-of-fact approach to the danger that calms Chika when she is rattled by the shocking violence and by a glimpse of a dead, burned body. She is unused to such experiences, thinking, “Riots like this were what she read about in newspapers. Riots like this were what happened to other people.”
Hovering over the two women is the specter of religion: Chika is a Christian member of the Igbo ethnic group, idly fingering rosary beads as she worries. The other woman is a Muslim of the Hausa group who washes her feet and prays facing Mecca even in their hiding place. Religion is at the heart of the tension in the northern areas of Nigeria, and “Later, Chika will learn that, as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones.”
Several of the stories set in Nigeria have danger, violence, poverty, or corruption in the air, but their focus, as it is here, is on individual people and the choices they must make. Adichie does not seem to have a political agenda; she is not writing about current events to advocate a political position. She is more interested in what happens within individual minds and hearts, in showing the humanity of the people involved in big events. Two women in danger, she demonstrates, can reach across the divides of religion and social class. In the end, both survive, and both suffer great loss.
Before she turned thirty, Adichie was already a rising star. She was called the literary heir to the great Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian and Igbo author of the novel Things Fall Apart (1958), which has been translated into more than thirty languages and is something of a staple in both African and Western high school and college classrooms. In “The Headstrong Historian,” Adichie confronts her literary heritage directly, writing an homage and feminist response to Things Fall Apart. The connections are overt: Adichie employs familiar names from Achebe’s novel, including Obierika and Okonkwo. Both stories are set in a small village during the time of the first white missionaries. In Things Fall Apart, a colonial district commissioner is preparing a book called Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, while in Adichie’s story the protagonist grows up to write a book called Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria.
The headstrong historian of the story’s title is Grace, a young woman educated by missionaries, who eventually becomes a history professor. Rejecting Christianity and chafing under the European dismissal of all things African, she is determined to learn about and reclaim the history and culture of her people. She starts spending more time with her grandmother, Nwamgba, a potter who draws her power from the goddess Oyi, “the protector of women, the reasons women were not to be sold into slavery.” Nwamgba lost her spiritual connection with her son, Grace’s father, when she sent him to a missionary school to learn English, but even as a young child her granddaughter demonstrated a “solemn interest in her poetry and her stories,” as well as a “fighting spirit.”
Grace becomes for Nwamgba the keeper of the family legacy that Achebe’s Okonkwo is denied. At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that, in her later life, Grace legally changes her name to the one her grandmother gave her at birth, “Afamefuna, ’My Name Will Not Be Lost.’” This story, the last one in the collection, ends on a hopeful note, unlike the other eleven. In the end, it is the historianthe writer, the storytellerwho finds peace by creating a way to inhabit the modern world while still claiming her heritage.
It is too soon to tell whether Adichie will be as great as Achebe, but there is a renewed interest in Nigerian literature outside Africa, and Adichie has a lot to do with that interest. For sixty years, Nigeria has produced important and exciting writers, including the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, novelists Buchi Emecheta and Ben Okri of an earlier generation, and contemporary novelists Helon Habila and Helen Oyeyemi. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie claimed her place among them. With The Thing Around Your Neck, she reminds readers that there is drama and significance in the little things; that clashes over culture, class, and religion are acted out two people at a time; and that, in order to remain alive, people must remember and tell their stories.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68
Booklist 105, no. 7 (May 1, 2009): 66.
Books & Culture 15, no. 4 (July/August, 2009): 30-31.
The Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 2009, p. 25.
Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 9 (May 1, 2009): 43.
Library Journal 134, no. 7 (April 15, 2009): 88-89.
The New Republic 240, no. 17 (September 23, 2009): 52-55.
The New York Times, July 3, 2009, p. C21.
The New York Times Book Review, August 30, 2009, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 14 (April 6, 2009): 27-28.
The Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 2009, p. 20.
Vanity Fair, no. 586 (June, 2009): 62.
World Literature Today 83, no. 5 (September/October, 2009): 61-62.
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