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August 13, 2009

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Inevitably, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun was going to be a tough act to follow. (We at Pickle Me This adored this book back in 2006). But in a curious way, Half of a Yellow Sun anticipated Adichie’s new excellent collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck in its wide range of voices and points of view. We find similar scope in Adichie’s stories, which take place during different points during this century and the last, are voiced by first, second and third person narrators, whose characters are male and female, and young and old, and are convincingly realized for all this variousness.

The voices are all African, however, which makes The Thing Around Your Neck a difficult work to approach. Adichie actually critiqueing this difficulty within her stories, many of which take place in America, dealing with the ignorance Americans view Africa with (and of course, Americans would not be alone in this). In the story “The Thing Around Your Neck”, a Nigerian woman working in Connecticut begins a relationship with a distinctly Africa-philiac man, and notes that, “white people who liked Africa too much and those who liked Africa too little were the same– condescending”. In the story “Jumping Monkey Hill”, a Nigerian writer called Ujunwa attends an African Writers Workshop near Cape Town, and the white instructor critques stories for not being “reflective of Africa, really,” or for being “agenda writing… [not] the story of real people.” (Interestingly, however, the retort to that is that the story actually happened to the writer, and I do know that a story having happened in life does not necessarily make it plausible in fiction, but anyway…)

So I’m not sure if it would be condescending to say that I liked these stories very much. I do know, however, that one of the reasons I do so like Adichie’s writing is that reflecting Africa is not necessarily their agenda. First, because she goes to great lengths to show the variousness of “African” experience (it is an enormous continent after all), and because even when her work tells stories from important points in history (as in Half of a Yellow…), it is the story that makes the history come to life, and not the other way around.

My one criticism being that the voices and experiences of African women in America were a bit samey– they arrive with big dreams, are disillusioned by their visa sponsor, work at dead-end jobs, and remark upon Americans’ obesity. Which might mean that this experience is all too ubiquitous, perhaps, but I was not convinced. The stories themselves were strong, however, and in their perspective reminiscent of those in Jhumpa Lahiri’s collections: immigrants navigating the perplexing foreign land that is the USA, and this reframes the familar for a reader like me. And then that the African stories, even at their most dramatic (and there is certainly action here) show the every-day in a land so far away.

The Thing Around Your Neck sounds like a cacophony, voices on top of voices. And this collection certainly makes evident that Adichie is up to the short story form.

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