Reviewed by Kara Mason
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut story collection The Thing Around Your Neck follows her 2007 novel Half of a Yellow Sun, affirming her storytelling skill and careful attention to landscape, character, and history. Nearly all of Adichie's protagonists in the collection are women. But they straddle several worlds; there are the university-affiliated, affluent Nigerian women; there are those who live in a time and place in which they describe the first time they encounter "white-skinned men...with mirrors and fabrics and the biggest guns"; and there are the Nigerian immigrants living in America. Many of the stories take place in America, often in a setting that feels as sheltered as the "slow, insular campus and the slower, more insular town" of Nsukka with its "houses sitting side by side on tree-lined streets." Except that the shelter offered by the American pastoral (the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, the sleepy village in Maine, the yuppies' kitchen stocked with soy products and juiced organic spinach) often shelters to the point of suffocation, and rarely are these women anything less than horrified by their surroundings and their neighbors, despite the vague feeling of reassurance articulated by Nkem in "Imitation," who "liked that she had become part of yet another league, the Rich Nigerian Men Who Owned Houses in America league." Despite Nkem's attempts to value the aspects of American life that have become her reality (Pilates, drive-through bank tellers), the security and convenience does not measure up to her description of "home...the cadence of Igbo and Yoruba and pidgin English...the Lagos sun that glares down even when it rains."
Americans in the book who notice Africa most often abuse it, as in the caricature-like African-American artist with paint-stained jeans and an absurd capacity for self-indulgence who claims "the motherland informs all of my work," or the college student who is pleased when the owner of a Ghanaian store in Hartford mistakes him for a white Kenyan or South African (meanwhile, after he eats the food he buys there, he throws it up in the sink). Perhaps due to the one-dimensionality of these American characters, the stories in the collection that build on Nigerian cultural history are more successful than those that dwell on the relative plasticity of America.
"Ghosts," the only story written from a male perspective, is more psychologically driven than the others. The dilemma for this story's aging protagonist, James, is how to exist as a person divided by his culture and the influence of his Western education. Encountering an old colleague he thought was killed in the Nigerian Civil War, he resists the urge to throw a handful of sand at him, a custom to make sure a person is not a ghost. "I am supposed to have armed myself with enough science to laugh indulgently at the ways of my people," he thinks -- and anyway, at the university campus where he has taught for many years, he is standing on concrete, no longer sand. There is a certain sadness James feels for having turned his back on his cultural beliefs in favor of what is considered "real." Like Nkem in "Imitation," he knows that after working so hard to acclimate, Western reality is ultimately inferior to Nigeria's rich history -- a history so torn apart by the war that one "can only imagine the quantity of sand thrown on broken men by family members suspended between disbelief and hope."
In "Jumping Monkey Hill," Adichie uses a close perspective to frame the narrative: the main character Ujunwa, a fiction writer, is invited to an elite African writers workshop at Jumping Monkey Hill, a resort near Cape Town, where "she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa." The writers at the workshop each write one story during their stay; the reader follows along as Ujunwa writes hers in fits and bursts. The thread that links Adichie's "Jumping Monkey Hill" with Ujunwa's untitled story-within-the-story is the humiliation that comes with feeling powerless in a culture where patriarchy (Nigerian "Big Men" recur throughout the book) reigns supreme. Ujunwa is sexually harassed by Edward, the workshop founder, and regrets her inability to stand up to his leering comments, while the character in her story does the opposite -- she quits a sought-after position at a bank because she won't abide the humiliation of flirting with businessmen in order to gain their patronage.
"Jumping Monkey Hill" also follows the stories of several other African writers at the workshop (Zimbabwean, Senegalese, Tanzanian), and asks the reader to consider what defines African literature in our current historical moment. In response to Edward's decree that the gay Senegalese writer's story of coming out to her family is not a reflection of Africa, Ujunwa asks hotly "Which Africa?" The arc hinges on Ujunwa revealing that her story is autobiographical (hence "African") after her work is criticized as "implausible...it isn't a real story of real people." As James Gibbons writes in a recent Bookforum article on what he describes to be an African literary boom, the "world bequeathed to the ascendant generation of African writers has never been anything other than rapidly shifting, absurd, fitfully Americanized, too often convulsive, and, yes, contaminated by history's poisons." Adichie, as a member of the post-Achebe generation of Nigerian writers, considers through her characters a modern definition of African reality:
Then Edward spoke. The writing was certainly ambitious, but the story itself begged the question "So what?" There was something terribly passe about it when one considered all the other things happening in Zimbabwe under the horrible Mugabe. Ujunwa stared at Edward. What did he mean by "passe"? How could a story so true be passe?
Here Adichie addresses directly the false and debasing assumption that literature must be alien, exotic, or "horrible" in order to be African. The Thing Around Your Neck goes on to prove the point.
Books mentioned in this post