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Monday, December 9, 2013

The Thing Around Your Neck: Stories of Nigeria

This year, I've made a concerted effort to read more short stories — specifically, after reading a novel I love, I've been going back and reading that author's collection(s), as well. In the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, this "strategy" couldn't have worked out better. That's because Adichie's short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck (published in 2009) reads like a blueprint for her fantastic novel that came out earlier this year, Americanah. Indeed, the themes and issues in many of these stories are what form the cornerstone of that novel — race, class, the treatment of women in Nigeria, and the Nigerian immigrant's experience (including poking fun at American quirks).

It's a great collection, overall — each of the 12 stories designed to provide a different perspective on characters and issues that may be unfamiliar to American readers. As is usually the case with short story collections, there are a few clear standouts.

My favorite is titled "On Monday of Last Week," about a Nigerian woman named Kamara who babysits the spoiled middle-school-aged boy of a wealthy American couple. (In Americanah, Ifemelu also babysits for rich Americans.) The mother is an artist, and spends her days in her basement studio. The father coddles the son, and Kamara thinks his over-parenting is ridiculous. She gives us what I think is the best line of the collection:
“She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure.”
The story concludes on a rather somber note though — when Kamara finally meets the artist mother, the mother asks her to draw her without her clothes. This causes Kamara to form something of a crush on the mother, thinking she's been singled out; that she's special. But she finds out at the end she's not as special as she might have thought.

Another standout story is titled "Jumping Monkey Hill," about a writer's colony for African writers. The Nigerian writer is constantly being ogled by Edward, the guy who's running the workshop, and it annoys her to no end. She can't understand how he thinks it's okay. The story she writes for the workshop is about a woman who goes to work for a bank in Nigeria to try to secure new accounts — on her first sales call to a rich Nigerian man, it becomes clear he'll expect more from her than to just manage his account. The character immediately quits the job. Edward tells her the story is unrealistic — no woman would quit such a good job. And the Nigerian writer decides this is the last straw, and like her character (who may be her!) she quits and leaves the workshop. 

All of the stories here are pretty short — some fewer than 10 pages — and many of them feel simply like character sketches or experiments with a theme. They're good on their own, but it was really fun to see how many of the ideas Adichie explores in these stories are brought to fruition in her novel Americanah.

3 comments:

  1. Finally, a book of yours I've read haha! My favourite was the artist story and 'Cell One'. She can write!

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  2. I'm not a fan of short stories but you've totally sold me (here and on Book Riot) on Americanah!

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