With her latest book The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, proves that she is much more powerful on the rigorous terrain of the short-story. Hailed by Chinua Achebe as a “writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers,” Adichie leaves an indelible mark through her first foray into short fiction. Seven of the dozen unlinked, stand-alone short stories in this collection are set in a turbulent Nigeria whose crime and corruption she describes with detachment.
Set in the University of Nigeria campus at Nsukka, “Cell One”, is a young girl’s tender retelling of the story of her handsome brother Nnamabia’s arrest and subsequent release. Without screaming for attention, it also offers an insight into college cult warfare, police excesses and custodial deaths. In “A Private Experience”, Chika, an Igbo Christian medical student is herded into safety by a poor Hauza Muslim woman even as a violent regional-religious riot is on. Three hours later, both these women — who discover friendship and faith — return to a city full of charred bodies and unsure of the fate of their loved ones.
The mindless violence that haunts Nigeria is a theme that Adichie often revisits. A young asylum seeker in “American Embassy” refuses to hawk the story of her son being shot dead by government agents in order to keep her dignity intact. The most engaging story in this collection, “Tomorrow is Too Far”, is set in the amoral world of children where sibling rivalry leads to the young Nonso’s death.
In “Ghosts”, the despondent survivors of the January 1970 war, torn
between alienation and allegiance, share their memories even as they carry with them the weight of what could have been: Biafra, the nascent nation that
no longer exists. This short-story preceded the publication of her celebrated novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which dealt with genocide and starvation in Biafra even as it explored how the Nigerian nation never allowed its peoples to break away but brutally forced them to stay together in submission.
Unlike the ideological rigidity that characterises states, Adichie portrays the family as a fluctuating unit that is free to fracture. Certain shared facets of her stories don’t evade notice — for instance, all (but one) of the protagonists are young Nigerian women. And, all the men, invariably, inexcusably, cheat. Therefore, when some of the stories delve into the multiple crises of married life in an alien land, there is nothing intriguing or puzzling about what the men will do. Women, on the other hand, hold the answers. They take the decisions that really count.
“Imitation” is the story of a middle-aged Nigerian wife who finds her voice when she has lost her space. When Nkem discovers that her husband has installed his young mistress at their Lagos home, she decides to leave the comfort of America in order to secure her marriage. Nkem’s rage, though legitimate, is more a reaction that springs from her own experience as mistress to married men than from harbouring tragic illusions.
“The Arrangers of Marriage” echoes Indian Diaspora writing as it brings out the series of shams that constitute any arranged marriage. Here, Adichie makes inroads in understanding an immigrant’s efforts to merge with the mainstream at the cost of his identity: Ofodile Emeka Udenna names himself Dave Bell, conveniently opts for a visa marriage with an American, and orders his African wife to forget Igbo language and food.
Adichie probes into same-sex love in two stories, “The Shivering” and “On Monday of Last Week”; but the doomed endings are disappointing, and sound almost as if the protagonists were punished for daring to love differently.
By dwelling on lesbian desire and the female body, “On Monday of Last Week” stands a great chance to be a influential story, but our hopes are dashed when we learn that artist Tracy was merely ‘flirting’ when she kept asking Kamara to pose in the nude. “The Shivering”, a story set in the Princeton University, follows the lives of Chinedu and Ukamaka who miss the obvious future by carrying the burden of past loves.
Once out of Nigeria, and in America, people enter into relationships that would never have been possible back home: an upper middle-class girl befriends an impoverished gay driver, a domestic help turns into a rich wife’s confidant and best friend, a waitress finds a college-going boyfriend, and a university-educated woman becomes a babysitter. The Thing Around Your Neck experiments with the second-person narrative to depict how the American dream is rendered meaningless for Anukka when she realises that most of the population in USA adopts either a curious, or a condescending attitude towards her.
Switching between dualities with ease, Adichie repeatedly returns to her preoccupation with cultural encounters. The mischievous and tightly-crafted “Jumping Monkey Hill” explores prejudices, subtle racism and attempts to define the Other that occur over a two-week long writing workshop. A British Africanist has the self-righteous superiority to tell a group of young African writers what constitutes “an African story.” Significantly, this story-within-a-story mentions no workshop participant by name, preferring to refer to them by their nationalities such as Ugandan, Kenyan, Tanzanian and Senegalese and so on.
She takes off from where she left in her debut novel Purple Hibiscus by using these short stories to explore how Christianity and colonisation succeed in demonising native traditions. In “The Headstrong Historian”, we come across Nigerians who have been conditioned by Christian education to disregard their own culture. Nwamgba’s soul is crushed when her son becomes a priest and treats her contemptuously as a pagan, but she is avenged when her grand-daughter Grace renames herself with Afamefuna (“My Name Will Not Be Lost”) and writes about the lost and undocumented history of the African peoples.
It is evident that Adichie subscribes to the show-don’t-tell school of story-telling, but sometimes she goes a little overboard with the symbolism. But for this slightly irritating flaw, there is no fantastic chutneyfication of language, no bombastic driving-the-reader-to-a-dictionary. Armed with broad strokes and a straightforward style, Adichie subverts on other levels.
Her critique spans continents, her stories flit across timeframes but throughout the book, she maintains the restraint of an oracle, never wasting a single word, never sitting in judgment.
It’s turned out to be something of an Adichie festival because the publisher has taken advantage of the opportunity to make available reprints of two earlier works, Purple Hibiscus and the award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun. Both are ideal candidates for re-reading and enjoying again the world that she has created with her carefully crafted words.
— Meena is a poet and critic based in Chennai. firstname.lastname@example.org