Review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "The Thing Around Your Neck"
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
The Thing Around Your Neck
$9.99/ 300 pages in print/ eBook
Winner of the MacArthur "genius grant", Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian fictional writer who is renowned for commenting on the immigration, relationship, and religious and political struggles of Nigerian people. Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, and Americanah fearlessly commented on controversial topics such as General Abacha’s government (1993-1998), the Biafran war (1967-1970), and the Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria. Her exploration of Nigerian lives serves as an excellent example for creative writers who want to write compelling short stories.
The Thing Around Your Neck lives up to Adichie’s reputation by mixing genres such as fiction, romance and Bildungsroman to create twelve gripping short stories set in the nineteenth century to modern day Nigeria, and the United States. Styles utilised include third-person, first-person, and second-person narration in past, present, and future tenses. The Thing Around Your Neck predominately revolves around Nigerian women who struggle with their relationships, religious and political violence and adjusting to Western culture.
‘A Private Experience’ follows Chika who hides from a riot in a house with a Hausa Muslim woman. While the present shows Chika calmly chatting and medically examining the woman, the narrator uses future tense to capture the violence outside, “later, Chika will learn that, as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones” (Adichie 2016, p. 62). This story is an open window into the political and religious conflicts between Igbo Christians and Hausa Muslims in Nigeria.
Imitation follows Nkem, who moved to a suburb near Philadelphia years before after marrying a rich man. Now, Nkem not only finds out about her husband’s mistress, she realises he moved her into her old house in Lagos. Following the erosion of a long-distance relationship, the story explores the pressures of immigration, unfulfillment of marriage and follows the reclamation of Nkem’s cultural identity.
The Thing Around Your Neck short story uses second-person narration to place the reader in the shoes of a struggling immigrant. After winning the American visa lottery, Akunna moves in with her uncle in America in search of the American dream, “…they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house” (Adichie 2016, p. 157). Instead, she ends up facing sexual harassment, poverty, loneliness, and exploitation in the workplace.
Adichie on the cover of Ms. Magazine in 2014
Although this is the first time I had read her work, it is clear why Adichie was awarded multiple awards for her previous books. Her ability to capture the lives of Nigerians culturally-shocks readers who are unaware of the issues they face. Instances of cheating, violence, racism, death, political strife, sexual harassment, police brutality, and poverty are normalised in the protagonists’ world to effectively shock the audience. This, along with her stylistic choices and characterisation, demonstrates why her book should be read by short story writers.
For example, the juggle between the present and future tense evocatively comments on the political conflict A Private Experience. Adichie points out the hypocrisy of the Igbo Christian and Hausa Muslim conflict by contrasting the violence with the characters’ bonding moment, “…she will see other bodies, many burned… it will strike her that she cannot tell if the partially burned man is Igbo or Hausa” (Adichie 2016, p. 74). By providing information characters do not know in the present, such as how Chika will never find her sister again, Adichie shows how a writer can torment readers with foresight.
Adichie insightfully comments on the political climate of Nigeria, “explaining that riots do not happen in a vacuum, that religion and ethnicity are often politicised because the ruler is safe if the hungry ruled are killing one another” (Adichie 2016, p. 67). Instead of this conflict being resolved, it is presented as another moment for news outlets to exploit,
Later, Chika will read in the Guardian that "the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims in the North have a history of violence against non-Muslims", and in the middle of her grief, she will stop to remember that she examined the nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim— Adichie 2016, p. 75
Adichie’s showcases how creative writers can keep the audience from reaching a cathartic release by leaving conflicts unresolved. This style evocatively engages the reader and leaves them with discomfort that forces them to sympathise with the injustice Nigerians deal with.
Adichie’s ability to put her experiences into her stories brings an undeniable sense of realism and authenticity to her characters. Being an immigrant herself, Adichie uses her experiences to put the reader into the shoes of a struggling immigrant in The Things Around Your Neck. She then successfully spotlights the struggles of immigrants by contrasting the expectation of Western society with reality. Thus, her book is an excellent example of how writers can use personal experiences to explore themes and create multidimensional characters readers will empathise with.
Chimamanda Adichie, 2019 Yale Class Day Speaker
Her ability to portray character development through symbolism is also a commendable strength in The Thing Around Your Neck. The symbolism of hair in Imitation demonstrates how Nkem conformed to Western beauty standards for her husband by cutting it the way he likes, “long hair is more graceful on a Big Man’s (rich man’s) wife” (Adichie 2016, p. 57). Nkem regains control over her identity by cutting her hair the way she likes and deciding to move back to Lagos. The disappointment of Nkem’s relationship becomes a moment of Bildungsroman. The way symbolism illustrates Nkem’s transformation into an independent woman portrays how short story writers can develop their characters.
In summation, the way Adichie fearlessly exposes the audience to the struggles of Nigerians in a raw and evocative manner serves as an example for how creative writers can write gripping short stories. For these reasons, I give this book a 4.5 out of 5 stars.
First-time critical reviewer, Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying towards a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Creative Writing.
Chimamanda Adichie: Beauty Does Not Solve Problems
Adichie, Chimamanda 2003, Purple Hibiscus, Harper Perennia, New York.
Adichie, Chimamanda 2006, Half of a Yellow Sun, Knopf, New York.
Adichie, Chimamanda 2013, Americanah, Knopf, New York.
Adichie, Chimamanda 2016, The Thing Around Your Neck, 4th Estate, London. eBook version, retrieved 16 January 2018, from iBooks.
Irvine, Lindesay 2008, Adichie wins a $500,000 'genius grant', The Guardian, London, viewed 18 January 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/24/fiction.awardsandprizes>
Narayan, Andreena 2010, Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria warrants probe, rights group says, CNN, Downtown Atlanta, Georgia, viewed 18 January 2018, <http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/01/23/nigeria.massacre.probe/index.html>
Shariatmadari, David 2012, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: religious leaders must help end Nigeria violence, The Guardian, London, viewed 18 January 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jan/13/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-nigeria-leaders>
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© 2018 Simran Singh