"African/American" by Jess Row, New York Times, August 30, 2009
[review of] THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
218 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95
Midway through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first story collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck,” a gentlemanly British professor who has convened a workshop of African writers at a resort near Cape Town pronounces a Tanzanian’s story about massacres in Congo just the thing he wants for his magazine. “It was urgent and relevant,” Adichie writes. “It brought news.” The professor goes on to say that the story a Nigerian writer has submitted — about a bank clerk in Lagos who is asked to offer sexual favors to secure a new client — is “agenda writing.” “Women are never victims in that sort of crude way.” The young woman interrupts him to say that the story was in fact her own experience, and then walks out, leaving his leering glances behind.
The tensions embodied in this moment — between fiction and autobiography, the expectations of the observer and the experience of the witness, not to mention the value of certain experiences in the global literary marketplace — practically seep through the pages of this collection. As a whole it traces the journey Adichie herself has taken. Brought up in the Nigerian college town of Nsukka, in the aftermath of the failed war for Biafran independence that killed two of her grandparents, she moved to the United States at 19 to attend college and had early literary success with her novels “Purple Hibiscus” and “Half of a Yellow Sun.” All these personhoods are represented here: the sheltered child, the vulnerable immigrant in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the foreign student adrift in a dormitory in Princeton, the young African writer asked to objectify herself for an uncomprehending audience.
In this way Adichie traverses a landscape and a mode of writing we’ve seen before, in the work of — for example — Bharati Mukherjee, Amy Tan, Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri. And as with these writers, there’s occasionally the feeling that these stories exhaust themselves too soon; they collapse under the weight of all that can’t be said in the terse, monochromatic sentences of the conventional Anglo-American short story. This is particularly the case in two stories about Nigerian women trapped in the United States by marriage, “Imitation” and “The Arrangers of Marriage.” In both cases the narration reveals so little about the protagonists’ inner lives that we begin to feel, a little uncomfortably, that Adichie is delivering the “news” the West wants to hear about Africa: pitiful victims, incorrigible villains, inspirational survivors.
Thankfully, that feeling doesn’t last long. “Ghosts,” in which an elderly
professor in Nsukka meets an old colleague he assumed had died in
war, is a nearly perfect story, distilling a lifetime’s weariness and wicked
humor into a few pages. “Tomorrow Is Too Far,” a kind of ghostless ghost story,
delves beautifully into the layers of deception around a young boy’s accidental
death, remembered by a young Nigerian-American woman who wants desperately to
avoid her own culpability. And there is a whole suite of stories here in which
Adichie calmly eviscerates the pretensions of Westerners whose interest in
Africa masks an acquisitive, self-flattering venality.
Adichie is keenly aware of the particular burdens that come with literary success for an immigrant writer, a so-called hyphenated American. Though in this book she strikes a tricky balance — exposing, while also at times playing on, her audience’s prejudices — one comes away from “The Thing Around Your Neck” heartened by her self-awareness and unpredictability. She knows what it means to sit at the table, and also what it takes to walk away.
Jess Row is the author of “The Train to Lo Wu,” a collection of stories. He
teaches at the College of New Jersey.