The Thing Around Your Neck
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
Fourth Estate, pp.217, Rs 299
NIGERIAN AUTHOR Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s commitment to her country and her continent is immense. When it comes to writing about the Nigerian, and African, experience, there’s a sort of unparalleled munificence, sensitivity and compassion that mark her approach. In The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of 12 short stories, Adichie doesn’t travel too far from tradition.
Written in easy, effortless prose, the stories weave a tapestry that is melancholic, touching, painful and poignant. It is a tapestry that seeks to explore the ties between men and women, parents and children, Nigeria and the West. It is a tapestry that encompasses love, loss and longing, a tapestry that brings together both an amalgam of, and conflict between, the pulls of tradition and modernity.
Suffused with a good dose of emotional truth and imbued with a whiff of social and political conscience, the stories focus on the Nigerian women (with the exception of one story, Ghosts) through the physical conduits of migration and dislocation and also through a moral channel of their emotional and psychological conflicts and concerns. The collection is at once an ode to the Igbo people, the ethnic group of
southeastern Nigeria, and a lament at their fading language, culture and customs. It’s about adjustments and attachments, about discomfort with the unfamiliar and a craving for the familiar. It’s about the search for identity, rootlessness and longing for roots.
Adichie’s understanding of her country and her people is amazing and her remarkable insights into their fears, insecurities and infirmities enrich her characters, making the collection a dazzling achievement.
Adichie’s treatment of her characters is as humane and pragmatic as that of her childhood hero, the legendary Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (she read Things Fall Apart when she was just 10 and it changed the way she perceived things, triggering her interest in telling the stories of Africa; Achebe “validated” her history, making it seem “worthy” in some way). She sparkles while describing both the effable and the ineffable.
In the opening story, Cell One, based in Nsukka, the small town in eastern Nigeria where Adichie grew up, a 17-year-old Nigerian boy, Nnamabia, fakes a break-in in his own house, steals his mother’s jewellery and runs away from his home, only to return two weeks later, “gaunt, smelling of beer, crying, saying he was sorry and he had passed the jewellery to the Hausa traders in Enugu and all the money was gone”.
The story is narrated by his sister, who knows her brother only too well and has a hunch that the robbery was his handiwork. The episode is almost forgotten by the members of the household till he is locked up at the police station three years after his infamous robbery, when the otherwise Nsukka campus has turned into a theatre of the “cults” — the best-known being The Black Axe, The Buccaneers and the Pirates.
The once “benign fraternities” of the 18-year-olds had evolved, mastering the “swagger of American rap videos”, indulging in a bloody war, killing each other: “It was senseless. It was so abnormal that it quickly became normal”. Nnamabia is accused of belonging to a cult and put behind bars. When the otherwise happy-go-lucky Nnamabia is transferred to Cell One, a special prison for serious convicts – after he intervenes when an old inmate is unduly being harassed – it sends a shiver down the spine of his family members, who visit him every week. While the family members fear the worse, Nnamabia is freed from prison, but something in him has hardened.
In Imitation, the second story, a young Nigerian woman, Nkem, who lives in Philadelphia with her husband Obiora, is devastated to know that her husband has moved with his mistress into their home back in Lagos. She is left with little choice: America, the “country of curiosities and crudities” had “grown” on her, “snaked its roots under her skin”. But her decision, eventually, is to move back to Lagos.
In A Private Experience, a medical student and a poor Muslim woman find themselves hiding in a home even as riot rages. The story that reinforces Adichie’s assertion that successful fiction doesn’t need to be validated by “real life” is Jumping Monkey Hill, the story of a rebellious writer, Ujunwa, who is part of the African Writers Workshop in Cape Town and writes a “real story of the real people”
which is described as “implausible” by the lecherous Edward Campbell, who keeps ogling at her all the time.
The title story, The Thing Around Your Neck, breaks apart the fallacy that everybody in America has a perfect life. The protagonist, Akuna, who is chasing the great American dream, only ends up losing a lot in the process, forced to return to Lagos after her father dies in an accident. When Juan, her love interest, asks if she will come back, she tells him that she will “come back” and if she didn’t return within a
month, she would lose her green card, a “thing” around her neck that ties her to America. But, deep within, she knows that it’s better to “let go”.
In The Headstrong Historian, Adichie explores the importance of interest in one’s history, one’s roots. Onicha’s Afamefuma, who is baptised as Grace by her converted father, reclaims her former name, opts out of chemistry and picks history – African history.
Writing short stories is like painting on a smaller canvas. Adichie has shown her master strokes on larger canvas in Purple Hibiscus (2003), the story of 15-year-old Nigerain girl Kambili’s sexual awakening and religious oppression told against the backdrop of domestic violence and an incipient military coup in the country, bringing alive the tiny wonders of Nigeria – its avocado trees, its frangipani. As a follow-up to her promising debut, Half of A Yellow Sun (2006) saw Adichie make her canvas a little larger to tell the story of the Nigerian-Biafran War in 1967-1970. Through the dynamic relationships of five people’s lives
– ranging from a professor, a British citizen, a house boy and some political bigwigs – she captured the effects of the war with tremendous dexterity, balancing the sordidness of her historical saga with the smooth pace of her enchanting narrative.
In The Thing Around Your Neck, the canvas may be smaller, but Adichie paints with deft strokes, carefully choosing her colours to give penetrating insights into the Nigerians who people her stories.
As a writer, Adichie’s struggle is the struggle of memory against forgetting, of the ruins of past against the ravages of present. She doesn’t want people to forget. Her concern through and through is to ensure that we always remember. As for these stories, their vivid, disturbing and sorrowful worlds don’t fade away long after you have read them.