The Thing Around Your Neck has been around for a while now. However, Oyebanji Ayodele’s thoughts on it are refreshing. Reading this review, and if you had read this book before now, you will really want to go into it once more. Oyebanji Ayodele engages one that well in this.
Read this guest review by Oyebanji Ayodele. Enjoy.
The short story is renowned for its fleeting nature. Like life. That is probably the singular reason readers like myself find themselves immersed in its charm. The reader is saved from the long, winding and grand narratives of the novel. Hence, the wit exhibited by proficient short story writers. They manipulate form with such compressed intensity as to make every word matter, creatively injecting ‘that moment when everything changes’. This is a fact I often remember the BBC Open Book podcast on short stories for. An interviewee in that particular edition posits that “…the best short stories are about the moment everything changes…” R.K. Narayan’s A Horse and Two Goats, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, V.S. Naipaul’s My Aunt Gold Teeth and Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic exhibit this, and to my satisfaction.
I love short story collections. They afford the writer a kind of productive dynamism as s/he negotiates his or her themes, each story with its own. This - courtesy of the fact that the stories exist with quite a lot of issues lurking behind the porch - leaves me with enough cud to chew.
The short story sub-genre has thrived well in this dispensation. Thanks to the internet. You could read as much as you like and wherever: an attestation to the impending end of paperbacks. Paperbacks were once like permits into the literary world. You are no writer if you haven’t published the traditional way. However, things have changed that even when short story collections make it into print, some stories therein would have enjoyed enough readership on cyberspace. This is the case with Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Whispering Trees and Chimamanda’s The Thing Around Your Neck.
THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK: A RUNDOWN OF SOME STORIES
Cell One is the name that arouses fear in the minds of the Enugu Police Station inmates. The reckless son of a Mathematics professor, Nnamabia would find his way to prison, and from there, to Cell One. He entertains no trait of cowardice as he risks his life for a fellow inmate.
The beauty of this story consists in the suspense that brands its end.
When the original begins to lack its value or is nowhere to be found, it is no sin to make do with an imitation. Imitation tells the tale of how pertinent identity is to humans, irrespective of location. Nkem, though in America has to compromise her identity in terms of looks just to claim her straying husband.
What fascinates me in this story is how the motifs of immigration and imitation are made to anchor on the hair motif. Moreover, the story affords Adichie an opportunity to tacitly mention her new book, Americanah:
“I hope you understand the big-big English they speak; they are Americanah now, oh!”
On Monday of Last Week
On Monday of Last Week relates Kamara’s journey to self-realization. That lesbian part of her that is probably squelched by reason of her conservative culture finds expression in America. It resurges with the appearance of Tracy, the painter and mother of Josh, the boy she babysits.
The Thing Around Your Neck
The occasional thing that ties itself around Akunna’s neck is not a pendant. Neither is it physical. It is a sign. When the conduit through which she gets to the New World disenchants her, she settles for an independent life that is intermittently paused by something tying itself around her neck. Akunna will have to trace the significance of the sign.
The American Embassy
Unlike every other America-bound character in the collection, the anonymous protagonist of this story is on her way to the United States of America for a different purpose. A partaker of the high-handedness of the rule of Nigerian despot, General Sanni Abacha towards the press, she helps her journalist-husband sneak out of the country and loses her only child. Her story details the frustration inherent in the pursuit of the American dream.
There is a creative shuttling between the actual narration and reminiscences.
What could send ripples down one’s spine? The Shivering. It transcends spiritual exercises of praying and speaking in incomprehensible tongues. The shivering comes when one tries to reminisce and unveil a doleful past. For Chinedu, the devout Christian who is also conflicted, the past is Abidemi,; for Ukamaka, Udenna. The Shivering climaxes with Ukamaka and Chinedu discovering themselves and seeing where their lives dovetail. They seem optimistic, that they will overcome.
The Arrangers of Marriage
The culture of arranging marriages between parties not known to each other is peculiar to the African society. Such relationships brim with imperative voids and uncertainties which have to be sorted out. Agatha finds out later that the arrangers of her marriage to Dave Bell (‘my new husband’ as she refers to him) have withheld more than enough from her. They probably consider them trivial. She does puzzle the inconsequential realities out later.
Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie with The Thing Around Your Neck asserts her honesty as a writer. I find that she fits into Emmanuel Iduma’s description in a recent article - On Writing Now (1) - of what writing must be:
Writing always demands honesty to place, honesty to time, and honesty to self.
Adichie’s writing appeals to the temporal and all that surrounds it. The importance of nursing an American dream for a Nigerian in the twenty-first century is given considerable space in the collection. To nurse the American dream is to be a party to the stereotyping of Nigeria; an expression of its binary oppositeness to America, but I often ponder on the possibility of excusing our writings from the fangs of stereotypes. The truth is this: stereotypes continue to be turned out when certain realities remain tied to the everyday lives of a people. That justifies the existence of the many America-working schemes – the Christian ones especially - that smear Adichie’s work.
For documenting how America has Nigerians by the short hairs, Adichie becomes what Ayodele Morocco-Clarke, in her Gambit interview, calls ‘the gatekeeper of what is the sepulchre of her era’.
Hair. The issue of hair is not just an Americanah phenomenon. It is an Adichie thing. I have not read Americanah and I’m glad about it. I have a lot to carry into it. Having read reviews of the book as well as a couple of the author’s interviews, all talking about the germane-ness of hair to her narration, I went into The Thing Around Your Neck with the mind of finding some other recurring motif. Something different from the Biafra tale. Not even hair. Lo, I found hair! Adichie takes a woman’s hair as a veritable tool for starting critical discourses on identity. In Imitation, she does explore hair in its entirety. The pubic hair is not exempted. It foreshadows the relatedness of the work to sexuality.
Sexuality does deserve a mention. The collection does not privilege heterosexuality; it has a fair amount of queer characters. This turns out to be remarkable because of the hostile treatment Africans have always meted out to homosexuals. I am gripped by the homophobia of Africans in this:
“…Tracy appeared, curvy in leggings and a tight sweater, smiling, squinting, pushing away long dreadlocks from her face with paint-stained fingers. It was a strange moment. Their eyes held and suddenly Kamara wanted to lose weight and wear makeup again. A fellow woman who has the same thing you have? her friend Chinwe would say if she ever told her. Tufia! What kind of foolishness is that?”
(On Monday of Last Week, Pg 81)
Adichie’s collection presents the reverse of Daniel Vignal’s position as it is expressed in Chris Dunton’s Wheytin be Dat? The Treatment of Homosexuality in African Literature:
"For the majority of [African writers], homophilia is exclusively a deviation introduced by colonialists or their descendants; by outsiders of all kinds: Arabs, French, English, metis, and so on. It is difficult for them to conceive that homophilia might be the act of a black Africa"
She uses the like of Kamara (in On Monday of Last Week), the Senegalese (in Jumping Monkey Hill) and Chinedu (in The Shivering) accentuate her position. This queer trio does not attribute its sexual orientation to western influences.
“THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK” AND ME
I dislike The Thing Around Your Neck for the parallels that abound in its stories, the immigrant stories especially. The reader keeps encountering almost the same thing, time and again. What’s more? The personification of most of her male characters is one-sided. I feel for the poor things, but that is simply Adichie.
That Adichie is a gifted storyteller needs no more proof. Her stories teem with depth and originality. However, whenever she is mentioned, I often demand that she is saved the hype that comes off. She is a good writer. That’s all.
- Oyebanji Ayodele blogs at ayoyebanji.blogspot.com and tweets @ayoyebanji. He could be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org