Of note: my writing about an excellent short story collection equates to a long post. But I do give you a few paragraphs (up to the asterisks) before ~brief remarks on each of the stories.
The Thing Around Your Neck : a collection of short stories
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Alfred A Knopf, 2009.
Hardcover, 12 stories. 218 pages. Library loan.
Adichie turns her penetrating eye on not only Nigeria but America, in twelve dazzling stories that explore the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Africa and the United States. […] Searing and profound, suffused with beauty, sorrow, and longing, these stories map, with Adichie’s signature emotional wisdom, the collision of two cultures and the deeply human struggle to reconcile them. The Thing Around Your Neck is a resounding confirmation of the prodigious literary powers of one of our most essential writers.—publisher’s comments.
Even as a voluntary (and paying) student of literature, I find myself making the mental preparations for a Literary short-story collection. Occasionally, this will mean that I forgo the read at the time, believing I will be more exhausted than pleased by the exercise—because it so often is. The Thing Around Your Neck reads like I am sitting down with a storyteller who is merely intent on relating something about someone they know. I found myself disarmed. The subjects are not easy, but the reading is and its enjoyment is effortless.
In the past few weeks since I finished this collection, I had occasion to read a few different conversations where female authors have said (to the effect): when I write my female characters into difficult situations, I am considering verisimilitude, but just as importantly, I have an aim to demonstrate an empowered female response. Oftentimes, this means changing the script written by popular cultural beliefs. Adichie writes women who are seen questioning and resisting. Many of her female characters do surprising things—not always the easiest in consequence but the unexpected (w/in the cultural responses dictated w/in the story). I am still lingering on “The American Embassy,” which trades in a familiar theme in the collection: human dignity and the cost/risk involved in having a voice. More than a few stories depict the female desire of another. Read this how you will, but I was drawn to the notion of envy—the sort of appeal that drives the desire to have what another has to positive consequence. This takes us back to demonstrating non-traditional choice-making. If memory serves, the parts of the body, the spirit, the vocations that attract the protagonist are significant, especial to their experience of said desire. Adichie employs eroticism in an enviable way…I’m telling you, her work has a rich eloquence that is both medicinal and sweet.
The majority of the pieces are told by a first person female, but not all. There is a particularly lovely implementation of the female protagonist’s use of second person in two, and a fascinating first person male in another. Adichie situates exchanges of assumptions and generalizations the narrators themselves would find chaffing, but she provides more often than not that voice the reader can respond to with a ‘I know what you mean;’ ‘I am not alone.’ She is both foreign and achingly familiar.
The Thing Around Your Neck is not to be dismissed as “women’s fiction” as there is much to realize about social & personal situations that go unobserved, let alone considered and discussed. Much of Adichie’s success in provoking such thinking is in how she works with characters, not caricature, sampling representatives or some such didactic alienating force.
“Cell One” (pp 3-21) finally instills fear and selflessness into the brother of narrator Nnamabia who observes the complicity and enabling actions in the negative consequences of her culture.
We are introduced to structures of privilege and corruption, and of both son and gender preference.
“Imitation” (22-42) wherein resides one of my favorite lines in the book:
“One of the things she’d come to love about America, the abundance of unreasonable hope” (26).
Though pages in, it reflects the tone of the collection. In whom or what may Nkem place her hopes and her happiness. How does one define “happy” (40); the inhabitation of a role set down by whom? The conversation on the female body as a commodity not just prior to marriage but after is beautifully touched upon.
A gorgeous meditation on assimilation; the first, but not the last on this.
“A Private Experience” (43-56) moves in and out of time as two young women of potentially polarizing differences find commonality in a form of sisterhood whilst hemmed in by the violence that surrounds them.
The insight into the culture of Lagos and Nigeria continues; of varying outcomes…
“Ghosts” (57-73) introduces an old professor who runs into someone whom he believed dead. The appearance of a ghost does not alarm him for particular reasons and the meeting spurs further self-reflection.
This is the point where it really struck me that I was having tea with someone, not a paper preparation conference.
“On Monday of Last Week” (74-94) a young woman observes her new home (America) and its inhabitants to whom she is serving as nanny—particularly an affluent father of her helicoptered charge and the artist wife who appears, much to her distraction.
“She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one’s child were the exception rather than the rule.” (82)
What Kamara comes to understand continues into more than a criticism but an observation of those tensions between maintaining an appearance and reality; of desire and repulsion. Appearances, the making them (e.g. the wife) and creating them (façade) is of enjoyable import in the story.
Different stories make me self-conscious in different ways; and sometimes one will contain all kinds of self-reflective appointments.
“Jumping Monkey Hill” (95-114) is the resort where Ujunwa is attending a writer’s retreat w/ other representatives of their African countries.
Here is one for writers, readers, and cultural studies with questions regarding type casts; authenticity; What is Africa; which Africa?; verisimilitude in fiction; who writes the narrative; the male gaze; the presence of the white foreigner; relevant issues like religious oppression, homosexuality, sexual harassment, oppression, independence. [such are the notes on my page.]
It is within Adichie’s artistry to bring so many voices and conversations together. And to maintain such a personal, individual focus on Ujunwa.
Adichie resists “type” because she knows the person tells the more effective story.
“The Thing Around Your Neck” (115-27) begins with:
“You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.”
How and where do you assimilate and yet maintain difference: who dictates those things? There is a lot of offers up for the taking, but at what cost? The second person speaking to herself negotiates the liminal spaces between where she was and where she is now, and her difference as individual and other—resisting cliché (normative scripts) and exoticization. The observations on poverty and privilege, the African female and the white male, and the ways some things are the same wherever you go. The struggle of give and take in the relationships written into the story are compelling, as is the courageous narrator. I will leave the title and its appearance in the story to you.
“The American Embassy” (128-41) places us in a detailed setting and the unraveling of the significance of Ugonna’s mother’s long wait in line alone.
This is one that moved me and is still sinking inward—in ways I can articulate and others I cannot. It is a provocative piece. Political causes and beliefs more often than not cost the lives of others, more than one’s own. And what does courage of conviction look like. And how do we grieve and move forward with the knowledge that risk has suddenly afforded us. The word “abandoned” comes to mind, and “home;” as does the notion of woman as cultural keeper of the hearth (tasked by whom?).
“The Shivering” (142-166) The ties that, well, introduce us at the very least. In an exchange of experiences: who is it all about? I’ll share two quotes that hardly work as summary, because as I began a summary, I realize I actually said nothing about it anyway and erased it.
“It wasn’t a crisis of faith. Church suddenly became like Father Christmas, something that you never question when you are a child but when you become an adult you realize that the man in the Father Christmas costume is actually your neighbor from down the street” (152-3).
“He used to make me feel that nothing I said was witty enough or sarcastic enough or smart enough. He was always struggling to be different, even when it didn’t matter. It was as if he was performing his life instead of living his life” (153 emphasis mine).
Adichie proves to be masterful with the titling of her work. And continues to prove diverse enough to write characters who are familiar not because they are always likable or easy.
“The Arrangers of Marriage” are many, from relatives to cultural tradition to pragmatism. Our first person female narrator arrives at her new home in America to begin a new chapter of her life with the husband arranged for her. This is another one of those stories you wish Adichie wasn’t so good with similes and metaphors when describing people. I’m trying to recall if it was this one or an earlier piece with the man whose teeth are likened to mildew. I had to stop then and share with the daughter who looked at me in awe.
I love this story in particular because while there are circumstances beyond the woman’s control, there will be an opportunity when it is not, and then it is she who will make the arrangements.
There is a lot of empowerment in community. A lot of terrible circumstances are brought about via men and women both, but so is wisdom, advice, and a helping hand out.
“Tomorrow is Too Far” (187-197) is the translation of a snake’s name: the echi eteka, who plays a role in the story, but really, tomorrow is too far for the child female protagonist. Both her mother (whom she lives with in the States) and her grandmother (whom she is visiting in Nigeria), prefer/privilege her elder brother. The tension for this “you” narrator is the weight of that cost of waiting (or not) for your turn.
The setting in the climate (literal and figurative) is oppressive. And but for the brother and the male cousin (who is not hierarchically good enough either due to birth placement), the cast is female and this emphasizes women’s complicity in patriarchical oppression—an oppression that does not only hold consequence for the female child.
This one is a must. It is provoking, engaging, and entertaining.
“The Headstrong Historian” (198-218) relays the importance of history, of legacy and heritage, of honoring yet rebelling. There is both a desire and a goodness in keeping record of history and leaving legacies, but some more are best left in memory-story-form. Some histories need not come with us, their performances unhealthy in their repetition.
The story echoes traditional storytelling form, demonstrating the pleasure of certain traditions being handed down and continued in the voices of the younger. The generational inheritances and shifts, the struggle with modernity, the timeless quality of it all; and the desire to preserve and the desire to change centers around the story of Nwamgba until it changes hands with a granddaughter.
It is a great punctuating piece to this powerful and empowering collection.