The Thing Around Your Neck
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Toronto, ON: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
240 pp. $29.95
The Thing Around Your Neck, an impressively eclectic collection of short fiction by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, focuses on the interconnections and incomprehensibilities between the writer’s native Nigeria and the United States, the country Adichie moved to at the age of nineteen. The stories range from intensely personal insights into the interior lives of the characters, to meditations on the public-political climate of Nigeria, whose colonial history and civil war manifest themselves in immediate and oftentimes oblique ways. Throughout her collection, Adichie reflects on questions of language and communication, and asks her reader to consider the efficacy of storytelling in an environment in which so much is inevitably lost in translation. Her work highlights with particular clarity the fraught status of shared narrative, challenging what counts as “a real story of real people” (114).
The stylistic and thematic diversity of Adichie’s book points to the impossibility – and indeed the undesirability – of settling upon a single private or public narrative. The collection instead argues that stories must be as multifarious as the individuals telling them. In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” the most meta-fictional of Adichie’s tales, a collection of African writers on retreat in Cape Town, South Africa, argue over the propriety of writing private stories at the expense of grappling with national histories. Edward, the convenor of the group, attacks the Zimbabwean author for having failed to acknowledge, in his story, “all the other things happening in Zimbabwe under the horrible Mugabe” (107). Along with her characters, Adichie bristles at this attempt to police the boundaries of African fiction. Whereas a number of her stories, including “Ghosts” and “The American Embassy,” strive to work out the meaning behind the violences of the Nigerian-Biafran War, other stories, most notably “On Monday of Last Week,” mobilize the political climate only as the backdrop to an individual’s singular, even alienating, struggle.
The collection lays bare its own ambivalence about the purposes of writing, and adopts at the beginning an ironic stance vis-à-vis the clichéd truism “about the importance of ‘having our voices heard’” (44). This is not to suggest that Adichie argues against the value of personal and political expression; rather, it is to highlight the author’s courageous disapproval of vacuous catch-phrases disguised as political rallying cries. In the last story of the book, “The Headstrong Historian,” Adichie resuscitates the question of writing as political agency, celebrating finally an ongoing process of historical reappraisal. Grace, the protagonist’s daughter, rejects her colonial education and writes a book entitled Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria. To reclaim history, Adichie’s collection affirms, is to do more than merely win the ear of those in power; instead, it is to engage in a persistent renegotiation of what qualifies as history, as well as a continual broadening of our sense of whose private stories qualify as meaningful public narrative.
Like the South African writer Zoë Wicomb, Adichie has found, in the short story, the appropriate form within which to work over the tensions between the individual character and the postcolonial African state. As the characters that people her stories insist on reminding us, however, Adichie cannot be contained by prevailing expectations for what constitutes a “postcolonial writer.” First and foremost, her stories animate characters that experience their own lives as Africans, certainly, but also as men, women, writers, mothers, lovers, human beings. Adichie’s is an exciting voice on a global literary scene: her stories penetrate the local even as they reach beyond to tell us things about ourselves.
Justin Pfefferle is a Joseph Armand Bombardier CGS-SSHRC Doctoral Scholar, and Ph.D. Student in the Department of English at McGill. There, he studies the culture and politics of later British modernism in poetry, film, and life-writing of the Blitz.