The Thing Around Your Neck Virtual Book Discussion

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Published in 2009.

Synopsis: This is a collection of 12 short stories either set in Nigeria or about Nigerian expats living in the United States. Some pretty heavy topics are covered – imprisonment, isolation, loneliness, ethnic and religious-based violence, memories of the Biafran war, outsiders’ perceptions of Africa and African perceptions of the United States, asylum seeking, arranged marriage, death. While the stories are not inter-connected, and many have been previously published on their own in magazines and literary journals, the stories in this book can be read in order.

About the Author: At 32-years-old Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has already been dubbed the successor to Nobel Prize Winning Fiction author Chinua Achebe; they both are of Igbo descent and hail from southeastern Nigeria. Adichie holds an MFA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and an M.A. in African Studies from Yale Univesity. Her two novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, are both award-winning. She is a 2008 MacArthur Genius Fellow.

My initial reactions about the book

I have to say, this is one talented writer of literary fiction, and it is hard to believe she is only a year older than me. My first question for those of you who have read this book, is what was your favorite short story out of the 12? I would pick 2 of the stories as my favorite.

The first story ‘Cell One,’ is about the person narrating the story’s brother going to jail in Nigeria. I loved the powerful opening of the story (and of the entire collection for that matter):

The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbor Osita who climbed in through the dining room window and stole our TV, our VCR, and the ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Thriller’ videotapes my father had brought back from America. The second time our house was robbed, it was my brother Nnamabia who faked a break-in and stole my mother’s jewelry.

Most of all, what I loved about this story was the way it ends by showing the compassion of her troubled brother, through his standing of for the innocent elderly man who was imprisoned for a crime his son committed.

My other favorite story was ‘Jumping Monkey Hill,’ the story about the writers’ workshop in Cape Town. I found it interesting that the organizer of the workshop, the English man who proclaimed himself an expert in ‘African studies,’ was in search of the perfect ‘African’ stories for non-Africans to read. He praised stories about violence in Tanzania, yet condemned the Zimbabwean author for not writing about Mugabe, and found the stories about lesbians in Senegal and women standing up for their rights in the workplace in Nigeria as unrealistically representative of Africa. In this story, Adichie raises the question of what is truly considered to be African.  I also found it interesting (coincidental?)that the short stories she had previously published in big-name magazines and literary journals in North America – Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Prism International, Virginia Quarterly Review – were the stories about violence in Nigeria or customs most North Americans don’t agree with (such as arranged marriage).

After reading Adichie’s Wikipedia page, I’m wondering how much the stories were based on her own life and the experiences of her family members. For example, the only story in the book written from a male’s perspective is ‘Ghosts.’ I read that her father was a statistics professor at the University of Nigeria, and the narrator of this story is a retired mathematics professor. I wondered how much of her characters’ impressions of life in the United States are similar to her own experiences as an expat living in the United States.

So what did you think of the book? How did you like Adichie’s style of writing? What was your favorite short story in this collection? Have you previously read any of her other books? Please post your comments below.

Next up for discussion: Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Iranian author Azar Nafisi. Discussion begins September 9th, but you can always join in anytime after that.

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3 Responses to The Thing Around Your Neck Virtual Book Discussion

  1. Charla says:

    I have really enjoyed reading The Thing Around Your Neck. This is the first book that I have read by Adichie and I really like her honest writing style. I skipped around a bit, and haven’t finished all the stories, but there were a couple so far that were very interesting to me. The first two stories grabbed my attention right away because of their location. The first one takes place (or partially takes place) in a town in Nigeria called Enugu. I went there during my trip to Nigeria 2003/2004. I was having flashbacks of my car ride from Enugu to Nnewi. It was the most adventurous car ride I have ever had in my life because of one of the reasons that was mentioned in the book. The presence of the militant police in that area is unreal. I remember my driver having to bribe them with money so we could continue on our journey several times. Once, when he did not stop b/c we were being followed by robbers, they beat on the car with sticks as we drove through. I say that to say that the first story Cell One was also very moving for me. I can only image, after seeing how the police behave there what the characters brother was experiencing in jail. I believe his experience was quite realistic and quite horrifying when I think about it.

    The second story that I really enjoyed so far was Imitation. I’m also biased to this one b/c it takes place outside of Philadelphia, where I live. I loved the ironic and metaphoric picture that she painting in describing her “wonderful” life that she came to know living the American Dream right where there was so much U.S. history with the liberty bell ect… That plus the emotional ride that I went on along with the character as she discovered her husband had a girlfriend that had moved in to her house in Nigeria. It was really sad and suspenseful at times. And the ending, oh my goodness, it was perfect although I wanted to keep reading to see what happen next. At the same time I was satisfied b/c the character seemed satisfied that she knew and now her husband knew that she knew. And it was done. Lol. I think her wording was genius.

    ” “We can spend holidays here, together.” she says. She stresses the “we.”
    ” What . . . ? Why?” Obiora asks.
    “I want to know when a new houseboy is hired in my house,” Nkem says. “And the children need you.”
    “If that is what you want,” Obiora says finally. “We’ll talk about it.”
    She gently turns hims around and continues to soap his back. There is nothing left to talk about, Nkem knows; it is done.”

    Wow!! Love it. There was so much more that I loved about this particular story, but I won’t write a book here. I’ll just say that some parts made me laugh and some made me sad. I read some parts aloud to my boyfriend and we had our own little book discussion about how some “Big Men” act and about the ironic story setting 🙂

  2. beckyajohnson says:

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the book so far, Charla. If you like Adichie’s style of writing, then I definitely recommend her novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun.’ I have never been to Nigeria, and didn’t know much about it’s history before reading that book. It’s set in 1967, amidst the Biafran War that divided the country. Having read that book, I better understood the ethnic tensions which still exist in Nigeria today. It also helped frame some of her other stories such as ‘Ghosts’ and ‘A Private Experience.’

  3. Emily Davila says:

    Great stuff! I think Adichie is one of the most exciting writers writing right now. Half a Yellow Sun was absolutely amazing, I found her other book Purple Hibiscus to be quite sad actually. When That Thing Around Your Neck came out I bought it immediately. I have shared all of them with my friend Christine who is from Kenya and we both go crazy for her. The story about the writers workshop is one of my favorites, but I agree with what you two have said. I am anticipating the day when I get to see her in person somewhere but not sure when that will be.

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