The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of 12 stories published by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in various journals in the mid to late nineties. They therefore pre-date the novels that brought her to public attention, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), but you can see many of the same themes and ideas.
Set variously in Nigeria and America these stories depict the clash between those cultures and between the expectations and the reality of the experience of those who leave Nigeria for a ‘better life’ in USA just as Adichie did herself. These are stories that are told principally, thought not exclusively, through the eyes of women who get caught up in political or religious violence or suffer the disappointment and feelings of alienation of being a stranger in a foreign land.
In Imitation the narrator is a woman living in New Jersey whose art collector husband visits her for only two months in the year. Just before his next visit she learns he has acquired a mistress and installed her at their home in Lagos bringing fears that she will be supplanted and her new life will crumble. Another wife finds in The Arrangers of Marriage that her arranged marriage to a Nigerian doctor in America is not all it appears to be. Arriving at her new home in the USA she discovers not the large house of American television programs she watched in Nigeria, but a barely furnished run down apartment. Her husband, who is actually still a student, is so eager to fit in that he has even changed his name from Ofodile Emeka Udenwa to Dave Bell. Their marriage may not even be legitimate she discovers when he reveals a previous relationship from which he has not yet been dis-entangled.
The title story The Thing Around Your Neck features Akunna who arrives in America via the ‘visa lottery’ to live with her uncle. The plan is for her to complete her studies and then get a job enabling her to send half her earnings back to her parents. But when the uncle abuses her, she escapes to Connecticut where, while working in a restaurant, she experiences the invisibility of acute loneliness
At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.
A love affair with a restaurant customer seems to offer the dream of a happy ending and she finds “The thing that nearly choked you before you fell asleep, started to loosen, to let go”. But the power of what she has left behind is strong and in the end it a death back home that forces her to reassess her life.
One story stood out above the rest for me. A Private Experience depicts a chance encounter between two women whose lives would not normally connect. One is Chika, a medical student and a Christian member of the Igbo ethnic group, the other is an unnamed poor Muslim woman of the Hausa group. On a day when violence between these two ethnic groups breaks out in the market they take shelter in a tiny shop. When the Muslim woman complains about her dry, cracked nipples, Chika draws on her medical training to give the woman advice and false comfort. For her part, the Muslim woman takes a pragmatic approach to the shocking violence they can hear outside and by a glimpse of a dead, burned body. The dignity of the Muslim woman impresses itself on the younger woman and the hours they spend together enable them to form a bond that transcends sects. Not only was this a perfectly constructed story but the key theme is one that resonates far beyond Nigeria – on the day I read this story a Catholic priest was murdered in France by people who adhered to a different faith.
Overall these are stories tinged with regret and disappointment but they also speak of the love of Nigerla and the place called home. Most of Adichie’s characters are people who travel far and wide but Nigeria is the place for which they yearn. Although not strictly autobiographical, it’s possible to see aspects of Adichie’s own life and experiences reflected in this collection – particularly in Jumping Monkey Hill where authors from across Africa gather at a writers’ retreat in Cape Town and the young Nigerian narrator feels objectified and humiliated by the lecherous, white, male academic who leads the workshop.
Adichie’s writing has an immediacy that made me feel I had dropped straight into the lives of these women and immediately absorbed in their worries and concerns. But as is my experience with short stories in general, they left me feeling unsatisfied, wanting more time with these narrators and to know what happens next.
Title: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by: Fourth Estate in Oct. 2009
Part of my 20booksof summer challenge 2016
In this video on You Tube you can hear Adichie talk about her collection and which of the stories means the most to her personally.