Book review: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)





This review is written as a contribution for 2015's A Fistful of Reads blind spot challenge which is hosted by A Fistful of Films.

Adichie is an award-winning female Nigerian author and lecturer. She is perhaps most famous for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2007). The Thing Around Your Neck is a short story collection, which was positively received by critics. The book is 240 pages, and most of the stories previously appeared in magazines, journals or newspapers. She is considered an important contemporary writer, dealing with African prejudice, among other things, in her books and lectures. You can listen to her speak at Tedtalk

Adichie’s aim is not just empty entertainment, she wants to show us how Africans think and behave, and how westerners act towards Africans.
In the book, her main characters are often Nigerian females, a number of the stories have unresolved endings, and the social commentary at times feels like the author is speaking directly through her characters. The twelve short stories tend to follow this formula, but what she does well is vary the stories thematically. There seems to be both something for a western audience and an African audience, especially those who are unfamiliar with the foreign culture. Deals with women being oppressed by oppressive men, corruption, injustice, prejudice, African views of the American dream, etc. I was introduced to the Nigerian way of life that I wouldn’t otherwise have been subjected to. I’m sure there are nuances I didn’t catch because of the cultural differences.

In this short story collection, you could argue Adichie is reluctant to portray her narrators in an unsympathetic way. If you are male and read it from cover to cover you may feel the book is too misandrous. I haven’t read other works by the author, so I don’t know if this is a tendency for her writing to go in that direction. Didn’t bother me too much while reading, yet when typing out this review it became apparent. So while it was fascinating learning about Nigerian culture, and the author has many insights to share, I also realize Adichie is looking at it from her personal angle and not giving me the whole picture. 
Of course the goal is to give empowerment to women and promote change, which I am in favor of, but for me the weakness of the book is it’s generally too one-sided and lacks subtlety. Adichie is a writer that writes what she knows, and it is clear that her own personal experiences have influenced her stories. On the other hand, you can’t fault her intent, if she wanted to present the problems Nigerian women face. All in all, an eye-opening book that I recommend.

If you’d rather not have the stories spoiled, I recommend you skip over the following summaries, and just read my 'Thoughts' on each story:





1.) Cell 1 (Rating 9/10)
Summary: About a family where the son steals from his close ones, yet claims it wasn’t him. His mother attempts to see the best in him, but the problems continue. The son ends up in jail and the family visits him. An older man is also in prison, taking the place of his son. The main chracter is released, somewhat randomly, and the story ends unresolved.

Thoughts: The child-parent and ghetto culture themes are interesting, should they be stricter? Prison time teaches the son a thing or two, and maybe that stern attitude is what he needed to hear. What is the purpose of prison? I feel the author wants the reader to come up with ideas for how to discipline a wild child. There are no easy answers. The descriptions of Cell One are quite disturbing, and you surely don’t want to end up there. However many do, for various reasons, and the author appears to simultaneously endorse and criticize Nigerian prisons, which may confuse readers.
The story is set in the mid 80s I believe, and my favorite line is when the dad brings back videos of Thriller and Purple Rain. Good choices for rewatching, if a rarity in the African village.





2.) Imitation (Rating 7/10)
Summary: Obiora, a rich African male, marries Nkem, a younger woman from a poor background. They move to the US and have two children, but because of his job he has to spend a great deal of time in Africa. A friend tells her that Obiora is unfaithful with a short-haired woman in Africa. Nkem questions him about this the next time he visits her in the US. Nkem has cut her hair short and refuses to go in the shower with Obiora which they usually do when he returns. Nkem wants to move to Aftica and Obiora is surprised about her comments, because Nkem doesn’t normally want to decide bigger issues. The story ends unresolved.

Thoughts: About equality, and how some African men think it’s acceptable to be unfaithful and domineering. The story highlights how women inwardly are unsatisfied with this. Feels like reading about how it could have been in the western world about 100 years ago. 





3.) A Private Experience (Rating 7/10)
Summary: Chika escapes from the market during a riot, she drops her necklace. Assisted by another woman they hide into an abandoned shop. Her sister Nnedi is missing. Both women are frightened. Later, Chika discovers the riot may have begun due to a Christian driving over a copy of the Koran which lay by the side of the road, and he was killed by the offended Muslims nearby. Chika ventures outside but there are bodies in the street from the riot, so she runs back again.

Thoughts: The woman’s tears are a private experience, so Chika turns her back to her, hence the title. Taps into the anxiety of living in a place of religious tension where riots can happen at any moment.





4.) Ghosts (Rating 7/10)
Summary: A retired professor wants to pick up his pension money, but an office clerk tells him the money is missing, someone has taken it, maybe the minister of education, or the president of the university.
The professor meets Ikenna whom he assumed dead from the war in the 1960s. Ikenna went to Sweden, while the professor stayed in the US. When the professor returns to his job in the 1970s, his math books are burned up, things in his home are gone, such as the piano. The school books have been used as toilet paper. The professor’s daughter was a victim of the war.
A poet, Okigbo, who many read, decided by choice to take a rifle and defend Nusukka, and paid the price with his life, while others worked in government departments.
The professor and Ikenna discuss corruption, students pay for academic degrees, either with money or their bodies. Teachers pretend they are five years younger so they don’t have to retire (and risk receiving nothing). The sale of out-of-date medicine is the latest issue troubling the country. 

Thoughts: A look at Nigerian corruption, and details how progress is so difficult, when war gets in the way of education.





5.) On Monday of Last Week (Rating 7/10)
Summary: Tracy, who is an African-American, and Neil, who is a white Jew, have a seven-year-old son named Josh. Kamara from Africa is their babysitter, she has a master’s degree, but wants to earn money while she waits for her green card. 
Kamara notices that a full stomach allows the Americans time to worry for example if their child has a rare decease. Kamara’s husband Tobechi dreams of a house like the one Kamara babysits in. K and T married when they were young, T travelled to US to obtain green card. Six years later, K travelled to the US, but T is a changed man, and now irritates K.
Tracy is an artist and spends much of her time in the basement of the house. One day, she climbs the stairs, and after only a brief discussion inappropriately touches Kamara’s face and wants to paint her naked, which K refuses. 
Josh draws a picture and says he’s happy to be in K’s family. Neil corrects his son and tells Josh K is no relation. A natural reaction because K spends more time with Josh than Tracy does. Tracy appears to treat her husband as a brother, and there is an attraction between K and Tracy, maybe sexual.

Thoughts: The mysterious Tracy in the basement and the strange attraction between the two women gives the story enough tension to keep you reading.





6.) Jumping Monkey Hill (Rating 7/10)
Summary: A writing workshop for authors. Chioma is sad to be treated as a sexual object, both in a job interview and a job opportunity her father has secured for her. Chioma has things in common with the workshop writer, in that she feels sexually harassed. Edward makes crude remarks.
Like in an earlier story, Chioma’s dad has a younger woman even though he is married, and he spends money on a car and clothes for his mistress. The last straw is when the mistress shops in the wife’s clothes shop.
However it is Edward who can possibly find Chioma and the other workshop participants an agent, so it would be unwise to cut off that opportunity just because of some dirty remarks.

Thoughts: Juxtapositions passages of written fiction with scenes at a writers workshop. The workshop situations are maybe more interesting to read if you are a writer yourself.
Married men having a mistress seems less frowned upon in Nigeria than in the western world, although women seem just as hurt by it.
There’s a conversation about artificial ivory not harming elephants, which is actually a great idea.





7.) The Thing Around Your Neck (Rating 10/10)
Summary: A woman named Akunna gains a sought after American visa and goes to live with her uncle. Unfortunately he attempts to molest her and she leaves. She finds a waitress job that pays a small salary. She sends money home to her family in Nigeria. One day a white male customer start s talking to her, who she initially rejects, but he is persistent, and later becomes her girlfriend. People she meets in the US ask ignorant questions about how she learnt to speak English, if she has seen cars before, if there are real houses in Africa, do they eat wild animals in Nigeria, when it is noticed the squirrels have disappeared, and so on.
Akunna is unable to afford college in the US, so she goes to the library and finds a curriculum online from which she picks out books. Those who remain in Nigeria are jealous, in that she won the green card lottery. Their picture of America is of a paradise without problems.
The man Akunna is dating has issues with his parents, who indicate they will give him more love, if he agrees to study law.
Akunna‘s mother explains that her father has died, and some of Akunna’s money has gone towards the funeral. She goes back for the funeral, and he asks whether she’ll return. She tells him her green card demands her to return to the US within a year. Another reviewer noted that the pain of the past is too deep for her to embrace the new world, which is a valid interpretation.

Thoughts: My favorite short story from the book. The main characters are fleshed out well, and the most emotionally involving of the collection. The ignorant prejudice of Africans and Americans highlights that we still have a long way to go, especially among uneducated people.





8.)
The American Embassy (Rating 8/10)
Summary: In which a woman applies for asylum but ends up walking away, unwilling to describe her son's murder for the sake of a visa.
A woman buries her 4-year-old son. Her husband is smuggled out of the country in a car. She stands at the American embassy in a long queue. Previously, soldiers broke into her home and asked where her husband is. Her husband has written a controversial article. The soldiers push over furniture and smell of alcohol. Her son screams and a soldier’s gun goes off, maybe by accident, killing her boy. Her husband was the first person to write an article which is critical towards general Abacha. The article accuses the general of inventing a coup so he could kill his enemies. Her husband is viewed as brave and deserving of a human rights prize. However at home he was absent during his boy’s childhood and was unable to attend an important wedding he had himself sponsored, so his wife had to go solo.
The wife wants to rejoin her husband but is afraid to say too much at the visa office because she wants to protect her husband. The problem is the American embassy need proof of police harassment, and her son is buried in the ground.

Thoughts: Author Adichie does a good job of describing the fear of the situations and the flawed hero. The embassy laws and Nigerian police are under scrutiny, and maybe stories like this can address rules that need changing, and shine a light on corruption.





9.) The Shivering (Rating 5/10)
Summary: Set on the campus of Princeton University it concerns a Catholic Nigerian woman whose boyfriend has left her. Ukamakas parents and friends live in Nigeria. She finds solace in a stranger named Chinedu who knocks at her door. They conduct a long conversation about a plane disaster, among other things. It turns out Ukamakas’ ex-boyfriend Udenna didn’t board the plane and survived. Chinedu is gay, but his male lover married a woman. Ukamakas and Chinedu become friends, and it's revealed that Chinedu has no visa.

Thoughts: Perhaps the collection’s weakest story. Feels contrived that she would speak to a stranger for so long, who she has only just met.





10.) The Arrangers of Marriage (Rating 8/10)
Summary: In which a newly married wife arrives in New York with her doctor husband; and finds she is unable to accept his rejection of their Nigerian identity. It is an arranged marriage so they hardly know each other. She is surprised he snores, wants her to speak English, asks her to refrain from African cooking, and has an American name in order to fit in. David Bell.
He is unhappy with his current income, yet she looks at his salary differently, in that it’s higher than in Nigeria. He wants to earn more money and live somewhere else. Turns out he was not entirely honest with her, in that he was already married. She befriends a neighbor who wants to help her find a job, but neighbor also has secrets. Ends unresolved, we don’t know if she stays with her husband.  

Thoughts: For me, the most amusing short story, about how an African experiences a mall for the first time. I liked the descriptions of meeting the neighbor, which felt more realistic than short story #9(The Shivering). It’s quite sad that someone would want to turn their back on their culture just to get a higher pay. Although you can understand the desire to fit in and be part of the majority.





11.) Tomorrow Is Too Far (Rating 8/10)
Summary: A sister looks back, her brother died during her childhood by falling out of a tree. The sister did not receive as much love as the brother and was therefore jealous. The sister claims it was the recently deceased grandmother who yelled “snake!” and caused him to fall down and die. We learn she was lying, as a cousin witnessed what happened and has nightmares and guilt many years later from keeping the tragedy a secret.

Thoughts: A disturbing story which the characters will never recover from. The story felt timeless.





12.) The Headstrong Historian (Rating 6/10)
Summary: Lazy cousins freeload on Obierika instead of working. They murder Obierikh. With the help of a priest, Obierika’s son presents a document which reveals that the land belongs to the son and mother. They go to an oracle to learn about the future.

Thoughts: The writing style is not as easy to read as the other stories. Lacks focus and meanders, but has things to say about families, and about the African school curriculum. How a Nigerian who studied in London dismissed the African history as irrelevant. Clearly Adichie’s opinion is that African history is important for Nigerians to learn about in school, and it struck me that maybe there is a cover up of the history going on, because it might portray the whites in a bad light.



Are you a fan of reading short stories? Know any books/movies that depict Africans in America? Are you familiar with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as an author or lecturer? As always, comments are welcome!

5 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for contributing to this month's Fistful of Reads! I'll have my post up on the last day of the month and will include a link to this post.

    I've never heard of Adichie, but I'm a fan of well written short stories, so I'll be sure to look for this collection. I've read a Nigerian based novel, Sunbirds Far Away, and loved the way it built the cultural scenario with such rich detail (although I really hated the ending).

    I have to say, one sided viewpoints are so common and yet so distracting, especially when it comes to gender politics, but I'll give this a go.

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    1. @Fisti: You’re welcome, and thank you! I haven’t heard of the book you mention.
      There are a handful of unsympathetic supporting female characters I can think of from the 12 stories. Most of the female narrators are depicted as unhappy and sympathetic, which is a bit repetitive, but apart from that, I really enjoyed learning about the Nigerian culture and the characters experiences in the US. Probably my favorite book read in 2014. Overall, I’d give the collection an 8/10

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    2. I'd never heard of Sunbirds Far Away -- I'm adding it to my list. :-)

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  2. I only read part of this post, and I'll come back after reading the book. So far it's a beautifully written, thoughtful, balanced review. I don't have an opinion, not having read the stories yet, but it does seem that stories written from a feminist perspective often lack subtlety in their portrayal of problems with relationships between the genders. Of course they portray things as they do because things really do get that bad (and worse). But I generally prefer a more balanced view. I look forward to discussing it after I read the book.

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    1. @Irene McKenna: I may have blown that minor weakness out of proportion in my review :) Because it is one of the best short story collections I’ve read. I would agree the author has a feminist perspective, with her sympathies often with the female characters, but the men do get their due as well in some of the stories.
      Adichie’s messages in the book are a bit heavy-handed and not as subtle as they could have been, but I love that she wants to change the world with her writing.
      Thanks for reading, and will keep an eye out for your review in future!

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