BLM resources: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ collection

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Often embedded in our minds is the notion of the novel’s superiority as a form of storytelling. But why? Why is the novel viewed as a Mount Everest, and short stories as the smaller mountains in the Himalayan range? 

The brevity of short stories creates an illusion of simplicity, of effortlessness. They require a precision of characterization and writing style that a lengthy novel can often afford to neglect at times throughout its reams of pages. This is brilliantly exhibited in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.

This is not to say that there is no value in Adichie’s novels – they are fantastic. The adeptly inter-woven perspectives in Half of a Yellow Sun shine a powerful light on the ties that bind and break people as the characters navigate the brutality of civil war. Americanah is another masterpiece, exposing the painful truths of racial prejudice as Ifemelu and Obinze struggle to adapt to their new Western environments. 

Race is at the heart of these novels, but it is not pigeon-holed as an isolated, universally-similar experience. The experience of race is connected to and complicated by the other pieces that make up the jigsaw of the characters’ lives. Love, sexuality, class, betrayal; race is bound up with all of these in Adichie’s fiction, remaining true to life’s diversity and interconnectedness. 

The Thing Around Your Neck is a dazzling display of Adichie’s skill at spotlighting the multi-faceted experiences of race. Some stories revolve directly around the difficulty of integrating into a new culture, but many reach into other experiences, into the power of religion, the problem of ethnic division, and the pain of grief. 

Laying out the different ways in which race is relevant in people’s lives makes the collection so valuable.

It is this range, laying out the different ways in which race is relevant in people’s lives, which makes the collection so valuable. ‘A Private Experience’ is a moving depiction of the bond formed between a Christian student and Muslim trader when they hide from a riot, sparked by the very religious divisions which fail to break their quickly-formed connection. 

By contrast, ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’ is set in America, and focuses on a wife’s dissatisfaction with her America-obsessed husband and unfamiliar new life. By employing different settings throughout the collection, from a dusty hiding spot in a Nigerian city to a brownstone apartment block in New York, Adichie maps out how race is a shifting and global experience. 

In ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’ the husband commands his wife to say “busy”, like Americans, and not “engaged”. This simple piece of dialogue resonates with complexity for the reader, compelling one to question it. Why should she change her vocabulary to become more American? Does this not endanger the preservation of her cultural heritage? 

Small snatches of dialogue and subtle details such as this in these stories are a signature of Adichie’s style. ‘The American Embassy’, which tells the story of a grief-ravaged woman waiting in line for a visa interview, masterfully unveils her shock through the association of blood with palm oil. The imagery punctuates the story, solidifying into a symbol of the woman’s identity as a mother and Nigerian. 

The use of symbolism to create coherence is also seen in ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. The invisible force suffocating the narrator tightens and loosens as her comfort in America changes. The story’s final words “let go” incite the reader’s imagination; it feels like she is letting go of the struggle, returning to the home where she can breathe freely. Echoes and connections such as these are what makes Adichie’s story-telling so masterful.  The narrator of the story reminds herself, after settling into American life as a waitress, that “you wanted to write because you had stories to tell”. It is this very self-awareness and desire to tell stories which energises Adichie’s fantastic short story collection. 

Adichie’s short stories are all the more enigmatic and luminous for their diversity.

A final note of caution is due: we should not take from this last observation the license to read biographically. Adichie was born in Nigeria and moved to America aged 19, suggesting that her own personal experiences of race may inform her writing. But biographical reading is dangerous here: Adichie’s short stories are all the more enigmatic and luminous for their diversity, their exploration of the different experiences that people have when it comes to race. In a time when recognising people’s different racial experiences is increasingly important, The Thing Around Your Neck is more relevant than ever.

Image: Carlos Figueroa via Wikimedia Commons

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