The Thing Around Your Neck
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Author, Chimamanda Adichie, justifies her well-deserved acclaim in this collection of twelve short stories. She deftly combines the universality of relationships, struggles, and triumphs with snippets of history, social studies, and culture (mostly Nigerian) but, not exclusively. After all, no one and no place is an island, and Adichie captures Nigeria’s symbiotic link to the west.
1. Cell One
The protagonist, Nnamabia, symbolizes the effect of a burgeoning Nigeria on its growing middle class. Adichie chooses to tell this story through the point of view of Nnamabia’s sister. Based on the fact that he evolves over the course of the story, she is a more credible source.
Bored by the predictability that opportunity and comfort have provided, Nnamabia, a university student from a well-regarded family is intoxicated by a narcissistic lifestyle and resorts to petty crime to sustain this high. His parent’s leniency furthers his misperception that he’s entitled. His romanticises the respect of gang members (cults) which creates unwelcomed drama. Then he’s arrested and jailed. It’s only after this, that we see a changes occur in Nnamabia. He witnesses brutality in jail which brings him to realize his social perceptions are skewed. Then he gains clarity. He does so with conviction; making a selfless life or death choice which lands him in “Cell One.” Adichie chooses life for Nnamabia. And her story ends with him soberly devoid of drama for the first time. Symbolically, Nnamabia can be thought of as the new face of a prosperous Nigeria. A country full of rich natural resources, its success seated in humanity, a healthy respect for its past, and its ability to temper the headiness of power. Over time, Nnamabia came to realize he had enviable resources. He was afforded the luxury of privilege, but it wasn’t until he saw injustice that he found meaning. The experiences leading up to “Cell One” tempered his notions of what power is and in the end he found the courage to be truly powerful.
Let’s talk about the mask mentioned in Adichie’s “Imitation.” I felt immediately connected to the universal idea that we (in this case women) mask ourselves for various reasons. Note Nkem’s observation of the imitation Benin mask; a mask acquired by her husband. Masks are an imitation of a character or persona. Masks can become a survival mechanism protecting our public image; projecting what we want others to see, and ultimately hiding our vulnerability. In “Imitation,” marriage to a big man and setting up house in America symbolize status. Status masks the infidelity in Nkem’s marriage to Obiora. Nkem veils her reactions when she receives a phone call from a friend in Nigeria gossiping about her husband’s indiscretion with his mistress. Here again, Nkem masks her deeper feelings. At one point in the story she imitates the mistress’s hair style– an attempt to mask her own insecurity. Finally she turns to the one authentic link she has, her friend and housekeeper. These women, that would never have bonded but for their similar situations as Nigerian transplants, nourish one another. With this, Nkem is able to reclaim what she wants by rejecting the imitation of prosperity and marital bliss that she was handed by Obiora.
3. A Private Experience
The title “A Private Experience” is only directly mentioned once in this story. “It is like the woman’s tears, a private experience, and she wishes that she could leave the store. Or that she, too, could pray…” Of course “she” is Chika, the main character. The irony that Adichie touches upon is that of Chika’s maturation during the intimate moments she has with herself and her counterpart while they wait-out a violently chaotic riot. Chika, a young girl of comfortable means who happens to be raised Christian, unsure of her herself, yet studying to become a doctor (a profession where assuredness is characteristic), finds deeper understanding through observing the private experiences of her counterpart; a Hausa woman, mother of five children, a trader of modest means and education, who happens to be Muslim. Adichie artfully juxtaposes these characters’ backgrounds and makes their happenstance paint a layered story of the religious, political, and economic struggle between ethnic groups in Nigeria. I must emphasize that Adichie does this artfully; because their differences are posed to us as merely matter-of-fact (they are an essential part of this storytelling). However, it is through the characters’ sameness, connectedness; that we and Chika find our true selves—we find our humanity.
As you read, look for ways that Adichie reveals Chika’s maturing in the space of this short story.
▪ Losing the London Burberry purse to asking to keep the scarf, “with the garish prettiness of cheap things.”
▪ From the awkward question her new patient poses, to Chika’s creative anecdote that shows she can not only diagnose, but has a talent for bedside manner.
▪ From religious indifference to a longing to reconnect with her spiritual roots. “…And she will change her mind about telling her mother that offering Masses is a waste of money, that it is just fundraising for the church.”
▪ Chika merely hearing, as when, “The baby?” Chika asks, knowing how stupid she sounds even as she asks.” To Chika actively listening at the story’s end, when she is more thoughtful about what she says, “Greet your baby and Halima…”
▪ From her desire to leave, “I must go,” Chika says. Again the look of impatience on the woman’s face. “Outside is danger.” To her return, where she must once more practice patience and active listening.
“Ghosts” is a story about the after-effects of the Nigeria-Biafra war. Adichie leads us through a world of spirits, literally, both living and dead. This is evident with the ongoing visits retired professor, James Nwoye, has with his deceased wife. He encounters an old colleague, Ikenna Okoro, who he thought was killed in the conflict. Adichie illustrates how blurred the here and here-after can become when an entire people experience PTSD. Although her characters handle their loss differently, as in Nwoye and Okoro, their collective spirit is mitigated by the war in some way or another.
5. On Monday of Last Week
Taking a job for which you are over qualified. This is not uncommon to immigrants. Kamara finds herself in this situation as she takes on the job of nanny to a seven year old, biracial boy named Josh. There’s a bit of parody, even humor when Kamara learns that her innocent remarks (i.e., half-caste) can be just as off-putting as those, Americans sometimes make. There’s also cultural disparity when it comes to parenting, when Kamara finds her charge’s father overly worrisome. Although the type of parent Adichie depicts in her story is a-typical in my social circles, I’ve heard they exist. So, Kamara’s reactions would be similar to my own. I might have been tempted to say it’s the African in African-American that makes us parent a bit more conservatively, but then Adichie introduces the self-absorbed African-American mother/artist, Tracy, and blows my theory out of the water. I only have to recall one or two rare Tracy-like characters I’ve encountered in real life, to know we (African-Americans) are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re goin’ to get.
Adichie deals frankly with heady isms in her collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck;” racism, sexism, and the isms associated with sexual orientation. However, since I perceived a bit of cheekiness in this story and a caricature-like portrayal of Tracy, then it’s all the more curious, that girl-crush Kamara has on her. Adichie comically toys with satire and sexuality here (maybe unwittingly). But to me, Marty is a troll. She’s in the basement, not seen for three months, and whoa, if you dare approach her down there. Adichie builds a mystique around her like a spoof of Jane Erye. Then when she appears, she’s all over you; touching your face, laying down smarmy lines and whispering, “Will you get naked?” Really? Next she’s hitting on the French teacher. One can say life imitates art or vice versa, but this is too much like a silly sitcom.
6. Jumping Monkey Hill
This story is my personal favorite. I guess because I naturally caught on to Adichie’s subtlety here and it spoke to my own observations of how we (Black folk) mitigate our power in deference to European ideals. Yes, irksome! Adichie illustrates this with borderline satire using stereotyped characters from various places in Africa. The American read that illustrated this (even more fervidly) was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Recall the scenes pitting Blacks against one another in the battle-royal to scenes at the cocktail parties with American Communists, where their patronizing attempts at being progressive and including “the Black” were totally lost on them. Adichie’s dinner scenes parallel that tension. Parallel it, mind you, because she has her own inimitable way of touching upon the same insecurities differently. She addresses “minstrels,” the racial divide, the power gap, the “guile” gap between the European “literary authorities” versus their African guests, the overall gender gap, perceived gender entitlement along racial lines, boundaries and self-respect, all at one table (pun intended).
Then the coup de grâce, she titles this story, “Jumping Monkey Hill”. This loaded title not only refers to the exploited African guests as entertainment for the European hosts, but the transitory nature of their visit as being outside the cage—they’re merely generous patrons of the zoo. This main character, Ujunwa, makes the whole dinner ordeal palatable by exiting in a way that was more triumphant than anything I could have imagined. She avenges us. Bravo, Adichie, this is a layered and perfectly packaged story!
7. The Thing Around Your Neck
What is the thing around your neck? A noose, a tether, the tie that binds? It’s all of these.
I loved the way that Adichie used a second person narrative—an uncommon approach, but it conveyed the immediacy of the story’s events. You have a guttural reaction when the thing is around your own neck; when the experience is yours. You win the Visa lottery but you have no idea of the price you will pay. You are raped–cut off from everything familiar, afloat in a foreign country. You are stuck in a low paying job (no promise of an education, no promise of a way out). You are (and rightly so) wary when a foreigner shows interest in you. You and he will always be foreign to some extent. Your father dies, and you don’t hear about it until after the fact. Was the Visa worth this? Adichie makes this story poignant by the questions it poses. You understand that an immigrant’s story seldom follows the Horatio Alger meme.
8. The American Embassy
Political asylum… (Review to be continued…)
9. The Shivering
Friendship with gay neighbor, Catholic/Pentecostal… (Review to be continued…)
10. The Arrangers of Marriage
(Review to be continued…)
11. Tomorrow is Too Far
Although I would opt for live-and-let-live, I can see why Adichie takes us to this dark side of humanity to make her point. Well two points, actually, that I can see. One of which is the impact that we adults have on children, and the other uses a feminist’s extreme example (sister killing her brother) to paint how inequity is killing us (our girls and boys). So, I ask myself these questions…
The impetus that led Adichie’s girl character, YOU, to be so dark; is that the result of society’s tone-deaf messages we all take for granted? Messages that are eerily misogynistic and pit us all in hierarchies (real and invented).
Is Adichie showing us that we not only smother and kill the potential of our girls with lack of awareness of what we say, but we tangentially we kill our boys? We kill the potential for love in the larger sense and tangentially relationships.
So, YOU, are dying, like a plant deprived of light by adults that have made an idol so large (Nonso), it over-shadows your existence. Dozie is dying in that same shadow. You shatter the idol—or do you? You and Dozie both carry the weight of “knowing” and innocence lost. Love cannot grow in this darkness. Relationships can’t either. Thirteen years and you long for what might have been with Dozie. There is decomposition and we (society, collectively) end up with something that sprouts out of neglect; something dysfunctional. Mushrooms?
12. The Headstrong Historian
Triumphant! The best way to end a story collection is by painting a picture of the beginning. Adichie does this in a way that seems effortless, but we know otherwise. In fact, everything about the “Headstrong Historian” shows her effort to apply thoughtful details supportive to the arch of her story—epic story I might add—no, make that, epic short story. So there’s great significance in Nwamgba being headstrong, then a female landowner, Afamefuna being a girl, the meaning in Afamefuna’s two names, her placement in the story as being a generation removed, and her connectedness to her intuition. There’s great significance in Adichie juxtaposing religious extremes against shamanism, showing that both are susceptible to dilution, “…even the gods had changed and no longer asked for palm wine but for gin.” Each character relationship, difficult choice, and crisis is artfully woven to teach us a little of our intra-cultural selves and extra-cultural selves. Ultimately we’re grateful for the Nwamgbas and the Afamefunas that find and tell the truth.
Truth (not so much my writing ability) was my inspiration to become a Herstorian. Adichie has both.