The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was gifted to me in my first year of university. It took me a whole 4 years and 3/4 of a degree later to actually get round to reading it.
The collection of 12 short stories, primarily unfolds from the perspective of intelligent, middle class Nigerian women who are caught in the crossfire of political, religious, and cultural conflict(s). Though each short story touches upon the different types of crises, they are all threaded with the shared human experience of isolation, disillusionment, and grief. Having previously read Half a Yellow Sun (2006) and Americanah (2013), I can appreciate how this intermediary book (published in 2009) acts as the limb connecting many of the themes and discussion with its hybridity of setting and its fusion of the political and cultural realms bridging the three books.
Despite being a collection of short stories, neither the plot nor characters suffer as a result of its brevity and compactness. The economy of Adichie’s style enriches her stories with an atmospheric quality whilst simultaneously reminding us that they are snapshots of private lives; these are only some of the innumerable stories that go untold. What I really enjoy about Adichie’s writing is that she never tries to sell ‘Africa’ from any viewpoint other than her own. She does not pretend to know ‘Africa’ as a whole, she does not do it the disservice of erasing its finer textures in favour of a more digestible, pan-African narrative. Focussing instead on Nigerian culture(s) and her own position as a middle class woman, she does not stray from telling stories about the Nigeria she knows.
Adichie herself points out the dangers of attempting to create a singular narrative of Africa in her short story Jumping Monkey Hill in which, set in a writers’ retreat, ‘Oxford-trained Africanist‘, Edward, questions the authenticity of a Senegalese writer’s story about homosexuality: ‘This may indeed by the year 2000, but how African is it for a person to tell her family that she is homosexual?’. This story in particular does not only deal with the oftentimes dismissive Western narrative of Africa but perhaps more detrimental than this, it brings to our attention Western intervention and imposition on African societies. Jumping Monkey Hill retreat, though set in Cape Town, is anything but African; it is not only ‘an African gathering with no rice’ that makes it so, but it is also the transposition of foreign ‘wine’, ‘pipes’ and ‘early breakfasts’ in the place of cultural staples and customs that is jarring.
That said, Adichie skilfully manages to neutralise the contrasts between the various cultures she draws upon. The delicate balance she strikes between a descriptive and emotive narrative told from the intimate thoughts of these women and a matter-of-fact style prevents her working from becoming a binary painting between the ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ culture(s); the burden of passing judgement is ultimately left to the reader. As she writes about America, ‘America was give-and-take. You gave up a lot but you gained a lot, too’, here her narrative is the tool with which we are to weigh up the worth of such give and take.
My favourite story in the collection is without doubt A private experience. The narrative revolves around the exchange between a Igbo Christian woman and a Hausa Muslim woman who are caught up in a riot that breaks out between Christians and Muslims and take refuge in an abandoned shop. The story, told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator highlights the warmth and serenity which is bore between the two despite their differences of religion and ethnicity, confirming through their mutual loss and grief that labels should not divide us when the very essence of being human is one and the same for all.