This collection, published in 2009, shatters the stranglehold of the single story, the monochromatic western perspective of Africa and her many countries.
The 12 short stories that make up this collection were written at different times and published in various magazines, but collectively, they reflect the essence of the title story, ‘The Thing around Your Neck’. These are intense tales of homesickness, longing, love gone astray, identity, the fractious merging of Africa and America and its effect on the characters who embrace this collision and manipulation of cultures. Adichie brings to us in these tales incisive commentaries on what the west does to the idea of Nigeria as it is lived by her characters, what it means to be a Nigerian, a woman, a lover, a disenchanted new wife in a new country. Often, through these narratives, we are brought face to face with a persistent paradox: escape as life.
This issue is especially relevant in the dark and disturbing story, ‘The American Embassy’, the saga of a young mother who loses her little son to political violence and vendetta in Nigeria. She waits in a queue at the American embassy to seek asylum in America from violence, from fear of political retribution in the Nigeria her husband criticises in his newspaper columns, and perhaps, from her loss and pain. In the course of her interview at the embassy, on being asked to prove her need for asylum, she walks out even as others wait in the scorching sun for their magical entry into a world they crave. The writing is on the wall in this story: escape cannot be equated with life or re-living.
The protagonists of this collection of short stories are mainly women and seemingly, always escaping—a country, culture, people, ravaged dreams, guilt, longing, and perhaps, life itself—to plunge unknowingly, into a quagmire of dilemmas and pain that springs from unexpected and un-imagined conditions. It could be guilt as in ‘Tomorrow is too Far’ or a sense of aggrandisement and the need to defend oneself from the “single story” as in ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’. It could also be, as in the title story, a suppressed but desperate yearning for home and the family.
Homesickness combines with desperation as other key motifs in this anthology, evoking pain that hangs like “a thing around” the reader’s neck, catching at the throat. Many of the stories are situated along the lines of friction where Nigeria meets America; the female characters enter a world where success is a given and happiness its accompaniment, but they cannot do away with what they have left behind, family, habits, preferences, nurtured ideas, and a way of life that gave them a sense of identity they mistakenly seek anew in an alien land.
So, on hearing of her father’s death long after the misfortune has occurred, the young protagonist of the title story re-examines what her adopted country means to her and the options / guarantees it offers. She struggles for a living, has an understanding white boyfriend, and yet, chokes almost hourly on the “thing” as it winds itself around her neck. She understands what it is when she gets the delayed news of her father’s death. As she prepares to leave for her country and her boyfriend asks about her return to him, she “turned away and said nothing, and when he drove (her) to the airport, (she) hugged him tight for a long, long moment, and then (she) let him go” (p. 127). Like the mother in American Embassy, she too chooses to save herself rather than being saved “by a kind white foreigner” (Adichie, “The Danger of the Single Story.”)*
Responses to the stories in The Thing around Your Neck defy categorisation in terms of -isms. Feminism could be a viewpoint, but it does not sustain, for these are stories of individual human beings, not just of feminist-angst-ridden women waiting to fight for their conjugal or sisterly rights. The collection could be described, as has often been done, as the immigrant experience in America, but it goes beyond that to more personal issues of identity and the self, within and beyond the reference of national boundaries. Nationalism could be argued, but it falls by the way as national identities merge and collapse as in ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’. The idea of Africa persists -- Africa as a collective of various nations persists; of these nations having distinct identities persists and denies the white wo/man his/her right to perceive unasked, uninvited.
“The next day at breakfast, Isabel… sat next to Ujunwa and said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had to come from Nigerian royal stock. The first thing that came to Ujunwa’s mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London. She did not ask that but instead said—because she could not resist—that she was indeed a princess and came from an ancient lineage and that one of her forebears had captured a Portuguese trader in the seventeenth century and kept him, pampered and oiled, in a royal cage” (‘Jumping Monkey Hill’, p. 99).
As I read these stories, I cannot but notice that many of them also convey an overriding sense of cultural rootless-ness, and perhaps, it reaches out to me intensely because of my own fractured cultural identities that bear the brunt of attempts to homogenise them. I find strains of this conflict in Adichie’s characters and I see it strengthen them and rebuild their character.
The themes repeat themselves across the anthology and once in a passing while, create a sense of déjà vu. By their very repetition, they perhaps also force the reader to confront clichéd ideas and personal fears of ‘otherness’ and seek answers beyond the obvious.
*(All references to “The Danger of the Single Story” are taken from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg)
-- Sucharita Asane-Dutta is a writer who lives in Pune.