04 June 2009

The Thing Around Your Neck

The choke within

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Pages: 218
Publishers: Harper Collins
Price: 299

My initiation into African literature started with Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here, a raw, deeply poignant collection of short stories that spoke of a land reeling under the after-effects of colonial rule and a population tormented by its past and inability to recogonise itself.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book, The Thing Around Your Neck, again a collection of short stories about Nigeria, comes almost 40 years after No Sweetness Here. And yet, much like Ama Ata Aidoo’s portrayal of a beleaguered population, reeling under a primitive mind-set or not being comfortable in their own skin and hence aping the West, Adichie’s book too touches upon many of these issues.

If Adichie’s brilliant last book, Half Of A Yellow Sun was a deeply affecting document of the Biafran war of the 60s and early 70s, her new book has the action shifting to America –where the author herself spends most of her time now as a professor. The past seems to weigh heavily upon all the characters, which makes them uncomfortable even if they’ve moved to a new world (US). In The Arrangers Of Marriage, a newly married girl is constantly urged by her husband to speak and act like the Americans, because that is the only way ‘they will be accepted’. He changes both their name to something that the Americans will find easy to pronounce. He insists that she eat ‘pizza’ and not cook Nigerian food, as he doesn’t want them to be known as ‘the couple who fill the building with smells of foreign food’
Adichie’s portrayal is a cruel one, one that mirrors the third world’s western fixation. But beyond that, it is also a very sad story where one would rather debase and toe the line in a rich country than revisit the horrors of their past.

The book’s title story, The Thing Around Your Neck is about a young Nigerian girl trying to make a living in America. Her new boyfriend is White, rich too. However, the excesses of the country and its abundance start to choke her, especially when she thinks of the rigours in her own country. The pain of the past is too deep for her to embrace the new world.

Every story that Adichie recounts is deeply evocative of the country’s past. Even personal stories have characters that are uncomfortable with their present because they has a gory past to hide. Tomorrow Is Too Far, Ghosts and The Shivering are all stories about longing and regret.
Adichie is also critical of present-day Nigeria and her disgust clearly comes out in Cell One, where she talks of police torture and cultists. There are also observations about the corrupt education system and so one – where you can slip a brown envelope and get an ‘A’

However, her most acerbic and hard-hitting story is Jumping Monkey Hill, where the author points out at the westerner’s need to stereotype Africans and other third world countries. An African Writer’s workshop, helmed by professor Edward Campbell, is held to encourage local English writing talent in the continent. However, Campbell dismisses many of the stories calling them either ‘irrelevant’ or ‘passe’ . When someone writes about lesbianism, he says that ‘homosexual stories of this sort aren’t reflective of Africa’. All this while Campbell keeps making passes at one of the female students, Ujunwa. The other contests notice his behaviour and explain to her that ‘what he felt for her was fancy without respect’

Every story carries a wealth of information about Nigeria and its socio-cultural evolution. Adichie’s stories are all deeply personal and political at once. Her easy style of writing – free of fuss – but with a keen understanding of human proclivity – is what makes this 31 year old one of the most important and engaging writers of her generation.

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