Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most influential and famous Nigerian and African writers of today, so when one of the members of the book club suggested reading one of her works, I was quite excited. Previously, I read ‘Purple Hibiscus’ in my studies and enjoyed it, so I looked forward to ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. Before ordering my copy off of eBay, I had no idea what it was about and did not even realize that it was a collection of short stories. Overall, while I do find some of Adichie’s real life stances (such as her support of J.K. Rowling’s stance on transgender people), in my opinion there is no denying she is an excellent storyteller and a writer.
‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ is a collection of short stories connected through the theme of Nigeria. With the exception of story titled ‘Ghosts’ all others are told from a perspective of youngish Nigerian women and their experiences. The stories are coherent as they all deal with similar issues. Still, each story independently stands to scrutiny, while also fitting into the larger narrative of this collection. Personally, I really enjoyed Adichie’s style of writing as it is quite straightforward almost clinical. One of the members of the book club described it as ‘deceptively simple’ and I completely agree with that. This allowed her to assume the position of the neutral narrator and present the story, allowing her readers to make their own judgements. Frequently, Adichie leaves a throw away line in the stories that have the potential to alter their understanding. In some of the stories, author uses second person narration which in my opinion made the story more effective, but I will let you decide the reasons behind this decision. Another aspect that took me by surprise in the first couple of stories, but that I grew to enjoy were the plot twists in almost all the stories. At first, I would mentally try to guess the ending, but after a while I allowed myself to be carried away by the narrative and adjust my expectations.
Being somewhat familiar with Adichie’s opus and the score of her themes, I expected more stories to be set in Nigeria. Instead, only a handful are, while the rest depict the experiences of Nigerian immigrants in the United States and their attempts to fit in. Regardless of that, many aspects of Nigerian culture and tradition seeped in into every story and I definitely feel I have learned a lot more about it after read ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. While Adichie directly speaks about Nigerian and to a degree African experience, as an immigrant myself, I related to a lot of themes she covered. How much of our previous lives do we have to shed to be able to fit in? Where and who draws the line in the sand? While she does not give us any of the answers as that is something that is individual (or at least should be), this topic is frequently raised in the collection. Perhaps the best example of this is in the story “The Arrangers of Marriage’ in which a young Nigerian doctor in the United States is so obsessed with fitting in that he completely cuts ties with his home country, going as far as changing his and his wife’s Nigerian names to sound more American.
In addition to the theme of immigration and identity, this collection focuses heavily on the position of African women both in their home countries and in the United States. Unfortunately, many stories are focused on the experiences of sexual harassment that is not taken seriously. One notable story is ‘Tomorrow is Too Far’ in which it becomes obvious that women are also instrumental in upholding the ideas of patriarchy. Without spoiling it too much, all I will say is that is arguably the most tragic story, indirectly caused by enforcing this belief. These themes are just some of the most prevalent, but there is a lot of richness and depth in these seemingly simple and straightforward stories. It is not without reasons that she is classified as the postcolonial author that is one of the many voices writing back to the Empire as the effects of English colonialism are present throughout her writing, this collection included.
When it comes to characters, this collection is significantly more focused on female characters, which knowing Adichie is not too surprising. As similar as you would expect the women raised in the same culture, they are surprisingly developed in the limited space short stories allow them. They are also diverse in the sense of socioeconomic situation. Still, what most of them have in common is their dependence on men in their lives and their attempts to gain more control of their own lives, sometimes going against everything they were taught by their own families. On the other hand, with a few notable exception, most of the male characters are not exactly the people anyone would want in their life or are given the side character treatment, there only to influence development of female characters. Considering that a big part of Adichie’s rise to fame was her TED talk titled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, I am not surprised so many of strong characters in her stories are women. What did you think about this characterization? Do you think Adichie was unfair towards men depicted in her stories?
While on the topic of feminism and female characters, I think it is important here to note the controversy Adichie was involved it that caused many to characterize her as trans phobic. Although she is an advocate for LGBTQ+ community in Africa, her stances are deemed questionable by many trans people. This recently came up again as she deemed J.K. Rowling’s now infamous essay about trans people “a perfectly reasonable piece”. Overall, I am not of the opinion that our personal stances about writers should influence our judgment on the work’s merit, but I do believe that it is important to understand their stances and opinions. In this example, I did not know about Adichie’s statements before reading the book, therefore the review is not influenced by that at all. What are your thoughts on this situation? I would really love to know more about your opinion both about Adichie and J.K. Rowling’s pieces about transgender people? I have included my sources at the end of the review, if you want to learn more.
Overall, I would say that this collection is quite successful. The stories felt like a part of a whole due to their common themes and approach, but each individual felt like it could stand on its own. While some of them were not memorable, there was not a story I disliked so much I struggled to read it. Even in those depicting unimaginable tragedies, Adichie’s skill makes it digestible and readable. In fact, those were the ones that stayed with me after reading the last page of the book. Finally, I am glad I have read this book and I have thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Nigeria and her people. Did you read this book? Did you read anything about Nigeria by other authors? Let me know in the comments below.
Interview with Adichie for Channel 4 news: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=KP1C7VXUfZQ
Article about her opinion on J.K. Rowling //www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/11/15/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-jk-rowling-transgender-essay-reasonable-twitter-backlash/
Paper about Adichie: //journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0038026120934695