The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)

When travelling in south-east Africa in 2006 my friend S. and I made a point of stopping in bookstores, looking for local authors whose writing would help us to understand the countries we were visiting. There really weren’t a lot of options, especially in smaller cities: more than one person we met told us that Africans are more interested in oral storytelling. We collected a few novels and some lovely anthologies of short stories, although we had better luck collecting music (sadly for us, none of the songs were in languages we spoke, so their stories are lost on us). I did (finally) discover Chinua Achebe on that trip, plus re-discover Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (who previously published under the name James Ngugi), so our efforts certainly paid off, but I think it’s fair to say that on a simple per capita basis Africa is under-represented in world literature. I’m not going to take a position on whether this is due to a cultural preference for the spoken over the written word, the fact that most of Africa finds itself in the bottom third of the UN’s Human Development Index, or something else (say, the number of publishing contracts, translations, or copies purchased for my local library) – or maybe I just need to be looking harder. Whatever the case, Adichie’s book is a welcome change to this trend in my reading habits.

As I was saying in my reviews of Aravind Adiga’s novels, I particularly appreciate books which go against the grain of typical post-colonial literature. Adichie’s collection of short stories is a fine example, going so far as to include a story about a young writer who resembles the author attending a gathering of African writers hosted by a British patron who encourages them to write about the “real” Africa, by which he means things that “read like a piece from The Economist with cartoon characters painted in”, and not a story in which a young woman would quit her job at a bank courting the business of older men because she was mostly expected to flirt with them. When the patron tells the story’s protagonist that this plot is completely unbelievable, she storms off, laughing, because it had in fact happened to her. Each one of the stories here reads very much like something that happened to either Adichie or a friend, who travel between Nigeria and the US, between city and village (but mostly city), and have entirely believable lives. As I’ve heard from many other first generation immigrants, you get the sense that Adichie feels both very Nigerian when in the US and very American when in Nigeria (the endnotes mention that she divides her time between the two countries). With the exception of the last story, about a woman who is born before the first European contact and her granddaughter (I see a lot of borrowing from Achebe in the description of village life here), Adichie draws deeply on her own life to sketch very personal accounts of lives that span these countries. I’m glad to see she’s published a few other novels; I look forward to reading more about Nigeria and its people, at home and in its diaspora, through her perspective.