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.