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Friday, December 3, 2010

'The Thing Around Your Neck' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adiche..., Ditch This...

Two things made me review this book: First, Adiche is one of the few authors whose trio of works I have read in close succession without much break, and going by this, I was egged on to round up the 'literary de tour' I had started with her through words. Secondly, the attraction the stand The Thing Around Your Neck occupied in the bookshop I went to do some books shopping sometime ago hooked me to the book. The mere fact that I couldn't afford the expensive price tag on it, because it was standing on a 'Best Seller' shelf, drew me more closely to the book and made me want to know what literary condiments are in it.

That her stories have always been too predicated on her centralised Igbo-plights of the Biafra civil war and Nigerian post colonial lifestyle trauma are just some of the things you would think Adichie may want to take a break from by doing a collection of short stories. This, however, may turn out not to be the case as you soon discover after reading few of the stories in the collection. The Thing Around Your Neck is a fictional, strong but intelligent rehash of Adichie's Biafra-postcolonial-elite-struggle and scrape stories of personal loss and individual realisation.

The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of 12 stories that navigate through closely related themes and plots despite their different titles. Some are almost laboured, few are climaxed on hackneyed ends, while the rest would take you by surprise at how they tend to play with your mind and put your imagination to task.


Reading... 10/12 stories...

CELL ONE – Have you read Gorge Orwell's 1984? The awful stories 1984's Room 101 spins and the webs of fear it weaves in the mind of whoever hears it is what Cell One is known for. Nnamabia's thieving and youthful exuberance is tamed in Cell One. His last great expedition is when he stages a burglary-theft in his parent's home to steal his mother gold pieces. Indulged Nnamabia thinks the luxury he gets as a spoilt child whose father is an academic at Nsukka University can always be extended even when he gets to prison. He manages to put up with the dehumanising condition in the prison when he is arrested on the campus for the activity he knows nothing about – cultism. When he is in prison, his academic father notices a 'positive change' about him. But when Nnamabia is transferred to CELL ONE because he speaks up for an old man who is incarcerated because his offending son cannot be found for the crime he commits and badly treated by the prison wardens for need of water to bathe, the change Nnamabia experiences afterwards is one his parents never appreciates.

ON MONDAY OF LAST WEEK – When Kamarachizuoroanyi comes to America she never expects her life to change so quickly: the conversion starts with her husband who she thinks is less manly for her as he had been when they are still live-in students' couples in Nsukka's University, the second makeover happens when she dumps her Nigerian Masters degree for babysitting job in order to rake in pittances in dollars. On the Monday of last week is when the great transformation of her life occurs. On the Monday of last week is when she starts adjusting her physical appearance to measure up with Josh's mother's who rarely comes out from her painting basement. Tracy, Josh's mother, the mother of the child she attends to, is always living in the basement where she does her painting job. The day Kamara first sees her is On Monday Of Last Week after which she begins reordering her personalities to model after what she notices about that of Tracy.

IMITATION – Just like the imitated African artefacts of the Benin mask and the Ife bronze head in Nkem's home in America, she can't  help her life from becoming the imitation of her husband's, Obiora, girlfriend when she discover he's been keeping one in Nigeria where he stays longer for his businesses' activities. In the fight of the inferiority the description of Obiora's girlfriend leaves her with, she cuts her long and beautiful hair so that she can texturize them to look the same way the girlfriend's hair is said to be. IMITATION illustrates the kind of life and social cycle Nigerian immigrants live in America; where delusions become what they call truth, where the role-models they will like imitating are the citizens that speak English so foreign from what they are used to at home and where news about home is always gotten from phones and the media.

A PRIVATE EXPERIENCE – Inter religious struggles are all the time unreasonable whenever they happen. A Christian man in Kano 'mistakenly' rides upon a Quran in Kano and instantly loses his head for it. His sin is transferred to the rest of his religion's faithful and the scampering for safety amidst stampedes sets off. This is during the time Chika and Nnedi visit their aunt in Kano. Chika misses her sister in the religious violent glee as she spends her solitary in safety with a Hausa woman who also can't find her daughter. Despite the companionship Chika and the Hausa woman try to build during the time they lock themselves up for safety; their woeful experiences still remain what would always hit them personally. Chika's search for Nnedi never succeeds. No one knows what happens to her, but the possibility that she could have been one of the charred bodies littering the street after the war cannot also be ruled out.

GHOSTS – What institution will keep her employees on hungry pensions? – Ghost. What will the survivors of war become after the war has ended? – breathing Ghosts. What will an unorganised society breed when corruption is what brings a means of survival and wealth? – Ghost makers. The story, GHOSTS, is an intertwined thematic literary piece. In its brief structure, it still hurriedly packs three themes into place. James Nwoye, a Mathematics professor, can't get his pension after his so many stopovers to ask for it. James Nwoye's wife, Ebere, is lost to fake drugs that does not kill but never heals the ailment it is used for. The Biafra civil war takes Zik, Mwoye's first daughter and child. A uniting point for Nwoye becomes the pleasure he gets from the ghostly visits of his wife who normally comes to moisturise his skin as her habit is before her death.

THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK – When she wins the visa lottery, she never knows she is to get ready for the challenges that lie ahead in the foreign land she least knows anything about save the rumours that everyone uses gun as he pleases and that the land launches one to sudden wealth. The narrator is the victim of the event she sets out to narrate. Her uncle (though her father's sister's husband) who registers her for the lottery and who she briefly stays with at her arrival in America, turns out to be a game poacher. Her uncle wants to sleep with her. It is after this she realises that America is more different from what she knows it to be. She begins her fighting for self-survival amidst it all. When she receives news of her driver-father's death months after he had been buried back home, she starts wondering what thing she must have been doing in America when her father slumps on his motor wheel.

THE ARRANGERS OF MARRIAGE – The things Chinaza Agatha Udenwa knows when she is being married off to a Nigerian US citizen are that her fortune is changing quickly for the opportunities in America and that her husband is a doctor who works in America. She is forcefully pulled out of this enchantment when she comes to America with her new husband, Ofodile Emeka Udenwa. When what stands behind the curtain of false hope is unveiled to her through her early discoveries in America, she wishes she could get back home. She is confronted with so many things to deal with and later she realises that taking an immediate flight from them all will not equip her well for the fight she will always have to struggle with while in the foreign land.

THE SHIVERING – Two events at evil close sequence happen in Nigeria: the crash of a plane inbound from Lagos to Abuja and the death of the first lady of the country. Ukamaka quivers with intense terror as she scouts around the World Wide Web for latest news on the crises from home. She is too devastated not just for the mere gloomy circumstances that shroud her country, Nigeria, but for the sake that her newly ex-fiancĂ© might have boarded the same plane, since he is to attend a wedding function in Abuja. She gains succour when homosexual and religious fanatic Chinedu joins her to mourn the crises that have befallen their nation. At the beginning of Chinedu's closeness to Ukamaka, the reader's mind may be tempted to believe that Chinedu's sympathy may not be after all sincere; that he might want to use that as a trick to get Ukamaka's attention. The later revelation that Chinedu is a gay with a break-up relationship with a man in Nigeria as a proof shatters every previous thoughts one must have nurtured about the character's trait. As unfamiliar as the homosexual matter is with the setting of Nigeria's fiction, Adichie  tells the story with the confidence of one that cannot be muffled easily.

THE AMERICAN EMBASSY - This story is a dramatic relief of some sort; a breather from the rest of the homo-matted themes of civil-war and immigrant struggle concoctions. Though, it is not that the story is entirely stainless clean from the vibrating subject matter that rings throughout the collection. The technique and the personalised mood and tone with which the story is told sets it out as my best. Through the memory flashes of the lead character of the story, everything is uncovered. Ugonna is shot for his father's sin. His father is one of the editors of a print media (The New Nigeria) who heartily speaks against the callous administration of Abacha. Before Ugonna's father can be clamped upon by the sent messengers of death from those he fights with journalistic words, he is ferried across the border to seek asylum. The narrator recounts her ordeal as she queues to get a visa to join her husband in America. The visa she eventually never collects as she walks out on the embassy officer in frustration.

JUMPING MONKEY HILL – Jumping Monkey Hill is a story in a story. Jumping Monkey Hill in Cape Town is the venue of the writing residency in which Ujunwa Ogundu takes part with some other African writers. The participants are to write a story each, which is to be ready for review and scrutiny at the end of the first week of the two-week writing residency. Though Ujunwa never believes in fiction as being any sort of therapy when she says she will never write about the hurt her father causes her, the story she later writes at the residency turns out to be the crises she has faced in her parents' frosty relationship, the marital dishonesty of her father and the travails of a female job seeker. She writes about a character called Chioma, whose first interview when she goes in search of jobs only requires her breasts as 'job pass' for the job. Chioma later secures a job in the banking sector but informally resigned when she refuses to be Alhaji's (a big affluent man who promises a big deposit to her bank if she becomes his banking wife) plaything. But when Ujunwa's story is refused at the writing residency because it is perceived as "agenda writing", she is quick to tell the organiser, Edward, what part she leaves out to make her story slightly different from what really happen to her as a banker in Lagos.

Adichie..., Dished this...

Adichie never disappoints in this regard; she goes into the psychology of Nigerians in Diaspora, she explores their pains, struggles and travails. Adichie celebrates their struggle and praises their determination and courage. Her words are strong and her thinking deep.  She, like the people in her stories, must have passed through or witnessed some of the things talked about. She clings to her roots so tenaciously that all you get to see are Igbo characters and Biafra experiences. She needs to be more Nigerian and spread her narrative across the country. This, however, does not take anything away from the freshness of the stories told. She writes them well.


  1. I always wonder why people keep harping on Chimamanda's choice of writing Igbo and Biafra experiences. Her books are a window of perceiving a people. If the reader desires, they could extend this to the whole of Nigeria and even the world (for example, immigrant experiences are universal and any of those short stories could have happened to a Yoruba, Chinese or Russian.) or even limit it to just the personalities in the story. For those that want to read books with Yoruba or Hausa names, they could try Ahmed Maiwada, Helon Habila, and a host of others...

  2. great review Joe. Great review. I am going to get the book.

  3. Nice review though short. I was kinda hoping you would mention both its strengths and weaknesses.
    Great book, by the way. I loved it. As usual.

  4. @Myne.It isn't about the general thrashing of the book. I never had that in mind when setting out to review it, the review is just my opinion about the book. My fear about her writing is that she is restricting herself within limited over-stretched themes. Writing about common ills and individual experiences in our society is not a bad thing after all; however, what a writer should strive to do is telling the stories from a more technical view. Narrating the same stories the way I would always get to know about them speaks little of 'broad creativity'. Adichie should change her balance. If she has no other themes to write on as the case may be, let her adopt a more interesting and mesmeric way of writing about them. Thanks for the comment.

    @Internetpope. I'm happy you are going to get the book. Thanks for reading.

    @Ifesinachi. I did that (the strength & weakness), though they were succinct and brief. Thanks for reading too.

  5. it seams that she has been a lot criticized for writing "too western" and maybe is also part of the reason for her international success. maybe most of you have watched this video but if not ... watch her speech at TED where she explains her point of view ..." the danger of a single story"

  6. On Monday of last week..was she re-ordering just her wardrobe or 'her sexuality'?. That story was interestingly ambiguous lol.

    I don't think i agree with you about Chimmy's books being 'Biafra/Igbo themed' particularly. rather she touches on a wide variety of themes and experiences which like Myne says could have happened to any other immigrant from Asia or Africa living in the West. The only story that touched on Biafra was Ghosts.
    And i must say that i love that she keeps harping on Biafra. Today films are still being made/books are still being written about WW2, about Vietnam, about 9/11 and nobody is saying its too much.
    We must not forget that part of our history. I do agree that her writing style is a bit heavy....not so much due to grammar but due to the peculiar way Nigerians speak English :).

    Thanks for your comment on my blog.


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