The thing around your neck (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) [2009]


I have to admit, after ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, this anthology is disappointing. Like a Nigerian Jhumpa Lahiri, Adichie writes only of her upper middle class countrymen,  lost in limbo between their homelands – which, often they are already in the process of leaving – and the shining promises of the new land. As expected, assimilation turns out to be just as impossible as returning to their past. But unlike Lahiri, whose fine-tuned nostalgia and strong family ties leads her characters to forge new friendships and loyalties amidst the difficulties they face, Adichies characters are more often than not atomized, broken from their families, and utterly alone.

They get lost in the bitter endlessness of exile (which Edward Said has expertly explored in his books), irreversibly disconnected from their past, and painfully shunned by their new fellow countrymen. And since we are speaking of highly educated people, invariably without the faintest bit of political consciousness in their minds, they find themselves unable to direct the anger and frustration of failure at anything but themselves. Thus, they become failures in their inner mirrors, further aggravating the distance to their past, as well as their new land.

In one word, the short stories in this book are hopeless and deeply pessimistic. Here and there, a pearl glimmers – a beautiful childhood memory, a friendship remembered or simply the scent of a time long past. However, the skillful language can not cover up the gaping existential holes. The stories ring true and honest, but I wonder: are they the stories of Nigeria, or the stories the assimilating country wants to hear from Nigerians? Surely, not all people in this huge land dream of emigrating, of rubbing bellies with successful white people? Surely, this country of nearly 200 million consists not only of businessmen, professors, and daughters of diplomats?

Naturally, I have no right to ask of an author to represent her people, less so all her people. But I do claim the right of pointing out that Adichies texts are nearly completely class-blind in this collection. The only times we see ‘ordinary’, blue-collar, working class people are when the protagonists interact – awkwardly – with their housemaid, their gardener or their driver. Below is one example: two women seek shelter from a raging crowd in a closed-down shop. The younger one is from a wealthy family, while the older woman can not even afford to school her children.

Chika looks at the threadbare wrapper on the floor; it is probably one of the two the woman owns. She looks down at her own denim skirt and red T-shirt embossed with a picture of the Statue of Liberty, both of which she bought when she and Nnedi spent a few summer weeks with relatives in New York…She lowers herself and sits, much closer to the woman than she ordinarily would have, so as to rest her body entirely on the wrapper. She smells something on the woman, something harsh like the bar soap their housegirl uses to wash the bed linen. 

Then Chika feels a prick of guilt for wondering if this woman’s mind is large enough to grasp any of that. [The background to the riots.]

This shows how alien the wealthy characters of the book often are – they need to smell their countrymen, and think whether their minds can understand issues – instead of talking, finding common ground.

I liked Half of a Yellow Sun a lot (review pending), and although it clearly also has some serious class biases, it has a certain weight when it comes to politics, nationality and the history of colonialism. Doubtless, Adichie has matured after writing The thing around your neck.It will be interesting to look further at her writing.

Random quotes:

She dated married men before Obiora—what single girl in Lagos hadn’t? Ikenna, a businessman, had paid her father’s hospital bills after the hernia surgery. Tunji, a retired army general, had fixed the roof of her parents’ home and bought them the first real sofas they had ever owned. 


He had forgotten her name and yet, somehow, he was capable of mourning her, or perhaps he was mourning a time immersed in possibilities. Ikenna, I have come to realize, is a man who carries with him the weight of what could have been. 


She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time worry that their child might have a a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated 



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