The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This is one of those collections of stories which startles readers at every turn. Each story is more revelatory than the one before and while there is clearly a consistent thread running through this author’s work, there are subtle deviations in each telling which bring, for the reader, a whole new perspective on an otherwise overwritten theme.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s primary concern is the position of women in Nigeria and the manner in which they are repeatedly pushed to the peripheries of society and the margins of the perceptions of the world beyond Nigeria. For Adiche, Nigerian women occupy spaces not just in Nigeria but in greater Africa and indeed, in the Western world at large. Several of her characters are wives to husbands in America, dealing with a sense of severe cultural displacement while trying to adapt to life as Wife. These stories all reminded me of Bharti Mukherjee’s fantastic 1976 novel, Wife, a stellar tale about an Indian woman who finds herself in America, incapable of dealing with her new life and with her new husband.

The prose in these stories is pared back, almost hollow. The writing resonates with something beyond simple description, echoing deeper concerns about the impossibility of life for so many of these women. For the reader, the sense of desperation is deadening on one level and inspiring on another. It is this that makes Adiche such an accomplished writer.

The lead story in this collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, is quite possibly one of the best pieces of short fiction I think I have ever read.

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car.Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.

The positioning of the protagonist in this tale, in the partly accusatory second person, is fascinating. At once the reader is aware of the sense of control which governs the protagonist’s life and simultaneously, we are positioned with the protagonist for we too are “you”. Thus, we are equally disempowered, marginalized, alienated and controlled. Furthermore, although we develop this relationship with the protagonist, we are never told her name and know her only as ‘she’ or ‘you’ or ‘the woman’.

The irony is dense: here is a woman who is surrounded by family but alone. She is moving to America because that is the land of opportunity and as much as she (and everyone she knows) aspires to be like Americans, at the same time, she is taught to be wary. The symbolism of the gun as a signifier of America, a tool of power, a weapon of destruction is ironically the last thing which this woman needs to be worried about. The protagonist’s introduction to America is “a big hot dog with yellow mustard” which nauseates her. Inside her Uncle’s house she feels at home but outside, in the wider world, she is alienated. This is reflected in the fact  that she feels invisible: “Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway, and when you bumped into the wall, it left bruises on your arms.”

The irony continues when readers discover that in truth, our heroine is a slave in so many senses: a slave to her family, a slave to her Uncle’s desires, a slave to her own aspirations to study and make something of herself, and finally, a slave to the love that she eventually finds. It is this sense of slavery which forms that “thing around your neck”.

Reviews:

The Telegraph

Identitytheory.com

New York Times

The Sunday Times

The Guardian

The author talking about this book.

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