Fiction: Telling No Tall Tales About Africa
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck,(Knopf, 2009)
There are at least four kinds of stories in this extremely rewarding collection: Stories involving Christian-Muslim and Igbo-Yoruba tensions; stories involving striving Nigerian immigrants on the U.S. East Coast; stories involving generational change from tribalism to modernization; and stories involving the difficult choices facing working women in contemporary Nigeria. These themes overlap, particularly when Nigerian immigrants bring the baggage of unresolved old country social tensions to their new lives. Each of these themes is strengthened by its apt juxtaposition to others, so that the collection is greater than the sum of its parts.
Written over much of this decade, Adichie’s growth into one of the language’s most powerful storytellers is palpable; the relative earnestness of the early stories gives way to the mature poetics of later stories like “The Shivering” and “The Headstrong Historian.” Adichie’s language ascends to the level of the best writers, both compressed to a minute grain, and yet expansive in the way only finely wrought short stories can be. Both her early and mature stories take full advantage of the form—Adichie even makes the point of view of the two second-person stories (usually a failure these days), the title story and “Tomorrow Is Too Far,” integral to the content, by opening up gaps in emotional honesty.
Adichie has already fully explored Nigerian ethnic tensions, exemplified by the Biafran War, in Half of a Yellow Sun. “A Private Experience” updates the scene for the tyrannous Abacha regime. Personal grief in such a story could easily have given way to easy moral judgment. Adichie writes this story about as well as possible; the slightest slip-up would have cost it its truthfulness. Similarly, “Ghosts,” about a retired professor reliving in his mind the exuberance of the Nigerian Civil War, is an impossible elegy for a time of idealism, even if it was misplaced or naïve; Adichie realizes she is exhausting the limits of what she can do with this topic at this point in her evolution.
“On Monday of Last Week,” “Imitation,” “The Thing Around Your Neck,” and “The Arrangers of Marriage” are about Nigerian women brought to the U.S.—generally under false pretenses by their sharp husbands—who then must decide whether to put up with the squalor of the immigrant’s actual life, as opposed to the promised glamour. “On Monday of Last Week” most fully incorporates white liberal political correctness (guilt) as the other side of the immigrant’s many sources of shame. Jewish lawyer Neil is the obsessively health-conscious, micromanaging father of the five-year-old child Kamara is nanny to. The false promiscuity of American friendliness, which often strikes immigrants, is revealed to Kamara in the form of Neil’s wife, the African-American artist, Tracy; there is a sacred reality beyond either pole which Adichie’s female immigrants achingly seek.
The three most satisfying stories in the collection are “Jumping Monkey Hill,” “The Shivering,” and “The Headstrong Historian.” Adichie assimilates necessary Nigerian and African influences, neither catering to metropolitan objectification nor giving in to false histories. “Jumping Monkey Hill” is the setting of the African Writers Workshop held in South Africa and run by Edward, a white patron full of judgment about what is real and not real in African writers’ narratives—he is the censoring screen through which African writers come to see themselves. Adichie compacts many of the insights of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello with regard to the postcolonial author’s true audience and subject matter. “The Shivering” is about the poignant relationship between a female Princeton graduate student and a gay Pentecostal Nigerian man who turns out to be “out of status.” It is refreshingly free of the false security prominent South Asian immigrant writers continue to impart to their protagonists, despite the age of Homeland Security. “The Headstrong Historian” sums up Adichie’s themes, packing a novella’s punch in its compressed movement from the late 19th to the late 20th century, as three generations expunge every demon Chinua Achebe ever wrestled with. The question of the complicity—and free will—of the colonized comes full circle in this last story.
This is not a collection representing afterthoughts or leftovers from a novelist accorded major recognition. Rather, the integrity of the author, as she tackles the core morality of each theme, is in full evidence. We can clearly see where her strengths, in style and content, ought to lead her in the future. This is both the roadmap of an unfolding major career, as well as a view of the library which got her here.