Without a doubt, this period of isolation is inseparable from self-reflection. For myself, this entails considering what it means to be home, exploring the transition from one culture and language to another, and acknowledging the possibility of loneliness despite being surrounded by people.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ examines precisely this isolation. She urges us to ask ourselves what it means to be alone beyond the physical level. What does it mean to feel like a stranger in your own home, or leave your home and feel like a stranger? When one feels alone, is it because of the bonds they have with their family?
The beauty of Adichie’s work lies in how deftly she works within the short story form to create nuanced, substantial characters. Though one of Adichie’s predominant themes is the impact of immigration from Nigeria to America on interpersonal relationships, her work doesn’t run the risk of repetitiveness. Her vivid vignettes enable us to read the room in a way a lot of her characters cannot, because what is present becomes as noticeable as what is absent.
In ‘Initiation’, the loneliness of a wealthy Nigerian housewife envelops the reader, ascending the walls of her house in a Philadelphian suburb. The absence of her husband and children is as palpable as her emerging friendship with the housegirl, her only friend. The second-person narration of ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ gives way to a powerful sense of interiority, strikingly illuminating the rift between the protagonist and her boyfriend as she realises that her own experiences will remain permanently foreign to him, due to their very different upbringings.
Beyond departure from home, and outside the sphere of romantic relationships, the theme of isolation is resonant throughout the other stories. Specifically, Adichie examines the loneliness that emerges when other people are unable to empathise with individual experiences, thus robbing one of credibility.
‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ is about an eponymous writer’s retreat which turns out to be more alienating than it is illuminating. Led by a white lecturer passionate about African literature from his study at Oxford, such a passion is placed into question when he assumes he knows more about this literature than the people who write it.
The same theme is explored in ‘The American Embassy’, thrusting us into the corrupt arena of military violence as the nameless protagonist is unable to apply for an asylum visa due to insubstantial proof. Adichie presents us with characters who are constantly asked to prove themselves because their own realities are deemed implausible: it is no wonder that they feel such isolation.
One of my favourite aspects of this collection is how Adichie portrays the unlikely friendships that emerge as a result of immigration. ‘On Monday of Last Week’ features the wholesome friendship between a babysitter, Kamara, and the child, Josh, which acts as a strong counterpoint to the nascent sense of estrangement she feels toward her husband. Similarly, in ‘The Shivering’, two Nigerian students at Princeton befriend one another. Adichie captures the organic connection between the two, moving fluidly from dialogue to interior monologue.
Throughout this collection, Adichie is not dependent on long, expository passages precisely because of the uniquely cinematic quality of her short stories. Each character is well-rounded; each story strikes the delicate balance between finality and ambiguity in the end. In uncertain times such as these, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ strikes highly resonant notes, reminding us that the isolation we have experienced was a collective experience.
Image: Alex Guillame, Unsplash