The Thing Around Your Neck
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published June 16, 2009
Last September, I wrote an ode to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (you can read it here). Since I wrote that post, Adichie has given me more reasons to love her. Just a few weeks back, she was Wellesley’s commencement speaker. Her speech was about “gender and justice” (“Class of 2015, please go out there and make feminism a raucous, inclusive party.”) with little tidbits of advice thrown in for good measure (“Please do not twist yourselves into shapes to please.”). It’s short (about 20 minutes) and worth watching in its entirety:
Without rehashing all of my gushing compliments of Adichie, I will simply say this: Adichie is a woman worthy of admiration. She is strong, she is outspoken, she is proud, she is intelligent. And she’s a great writer. Since reading Americanah last year, I have been meaning to read more of her work. And I FINALLY got around to doing so.
Because I love short stories, I decided to give her collection The Thing Around Your Neck a go. The longest story is only about twenty pages (and the entire book clocks in at under 250 pages), so this gives you a taste of Adichie’s style without the 600-page commitment of Americanah.
If you’ve read any of Adichie’s work before, then you will notice similar themes in this collection: culture shock, the difficulties of life in Nigeria, and the complicated dynamics inherent in families. Her writing is fearless and in your face; she does not shy away from uncomfortable topics.
As with any collection, there are some standout stories and some that aren’t as strong. Here are my thoughts on (and a brief summary of) each of the stories:
- “Cell One” (3.5/5): The narrator’s brother gets arrested for his involvement in “cult” activities (akin to Nigerian gangs) and gets sent to prison. The family visits him in prison daily, and the narrator’s opinion of him slowly changes from one of disdain (“I wanted to ask him to shut up, because he was enjoying his new role as the sufferer of indignities, and because he did not understand how lucky he was . . .”) to one of pride.
- “Imitation” (3/5): This story (like a few in the collection) is somewhat reminiscent of Americanah in that it highlights the clashing of two worlds: America and Nigeria. A Nigerian woman lives with her kids in Pennsylvania, while her husband (a “Big Man”) still lives in Nigeria.
- “A Private Experience” (4/5): A girl visiting her aunt in Kano experiences the tragic devastation of ethnic/religious (Hausa Muslim versus Igbo Christian) riots.
- “Ghosts” (3.5/5): A seventy-one-year-old retired professor runs into a man he assumed had been dead for decades. The chance run-in makes him feel like he has seen a ghost–a phenomenon with which he is familiar.
- “On Monday of Last Week” (4.5/5): This is the strongest story in the collection. It is well-written, engaging, and multi-faceted. A woman moves to America and gets a position as a nanny to a seven-year-old boy. It is, in part, a look at American parenting from the outside (“She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came from having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one’s child were the exception rather than the rule.”). But, more importantly, it is about the effects of being/feeling truly seen by someone, when you have become used to feel ignored.
- “Jumping Monkey Hill” (3.5/5): Ujunwa is invited to participate as the Nigerian representative to the African Writers Workshop, which is held at a swank resort in South Africa. She finds herself resentful of and in conflict with the pompous white guy who runs the workshop and has very distinct ideas about what is important and literary (or, conversely, “passé”), what African writers should writing about, and what is “reflective of Africa.”
- “The Thing Around Your Neck” (3/5): This is another story about the difficult transition from life in Nigeria to life in America. It is quite short and told in an interesting narrative style (second person), but feels like more of the same.
- “The American Embassy” (3.5/5): A woman (whose husband writes anti-government articles) goes to the American Embassy seeking an asylum visa after her son is murdered by and her husband escapes from government agents.
- “The Shivering” (4/5): A friendship in America is borne of tragedy in Nigeria.
- “The Arrangers of Marriage” (4/5): A Nigerian woman is “lucky” enough to be married off to a Nigerian man who has become a doctor in America. Not surprisingly, life in America (and with her new husband) is not what she anticipated.
- “Tomorrow Is Too Far” (4.5/5): This is a sad and powerful story about childhood secrets. A girl and her brother (Americans) spend the summer with their cousin at their grandmother’s house in Nigeria. Tragedy ensues.
- “The Headstrong Historian” (3.5/5): This is a tale that is at once cautionary and redemptive about the dangers of ignoring your culture and history.
- John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee in 2009
- Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction Runner-up in 2009
Who should read it: This book isn’t as good as Americanah. If you haven’t read Americanah, I would start there. Then, if you like Adichie’s style, come back to this later.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (an Indie Next List pick for January 2015; a LibraryReads List selection for January 2015)
- How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004 winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize; 2005 winner of the Michael L. Printz Award; 2005 winner of the Branford Boase Award)