“It is one of the things she has come to love about America, the abundance of unreasonable hope.”
“Imitation” (p. 26)
The Nigeria in these stories is the Nigeria that Adichie heard about as she was growing up. Both of her grandfathers died as refugees in Biagra. "I grew up in the shadow of Biafra. I grew up hearing ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war’ stories; it was as if the war had somehow divided the memories of my family," she writes. The Nigeria-Biafra War, which ended seven years before her birth, resulted in the deaths of more than 3 million people, mainly from starvation and disease.
The impact of this trauma is felt by Adichie’s characters who have friends and relatives, including children, who were killed during the war; continue to work but receive no paychecks; live in an atmosphere of unrest, bribery, and corruption; disappear when they have the courage to tell the truth; are sold fake drugs to cure illnesses; live surrounded by hunger and poverty; and continue to cope with the “deep scars of colonialism.”
Some of Adichie’s characters choose to leave their wartorn home country and emigrate to the United States. These are the most interesting and well-developed characters in this collection, especially the women protagonists.
Aciche writes the title story in second person, sweeping readers into the story and making it very personal and powerful from the beginning:
You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans. (p. 115)
“You” go through a series of experiences with the protagonist, but none of them are what you anticipated when you were the envy of your family, winning the lottery to go to the country where you would surely get rich quickly and “bring them handbags and shoes and perfumes and clothes” on return visits.
In “Imitation” Nkem learns that while her husband travels back and forth between Nigeria and the United States for his business, he has taken a young mistress to live in their home in Nigeria. She loved it when she had married into an elite group—the Rich Nigerian Men Who Sent Their Wives to America to Have Their Babies league. When she and Obiora bought a lovely suburban home “with sprinklers that make perfect water arcs in the summer,” (p. 34) Nkem joined another coveted group—the Rich Nigerian Men Who Owned Houses in America league. She never dreamed she would have a housemaid or that her children “would go to school sit side by side with white children whose parents owned mansions on lonely hills, never imagined this life.” (p. 27) But it is not enough. Her husband spends more time in Nigeria than in the United States with his family. “‘Can we compress marriage?’” she wants to know of her husband. (p. 41) But she already knows the answer.
The Nigerian immigrant who narrates “The Arrangers of Marriage” comes to the United States to begin an arranged marriage, thinking she is marrying a doctor but quickly learns that he has not completed his internship. He lives in a “furniture-challenged flat” and drives a car that rattles as if parts are coming loose. He has Americanized her name from Chinaza Okafor to Agatha Bell and insists that she speak English, not Igbo. “‘If you want to get anywhere you have to be as mainstream as possible,’” he tells her. “‘If not, you will be left by the roadside.’” (p. 172). When she cooks coconut rice and pepper soup, her husband objects, saying he doesn’t want to be known as the “‘people who fill the building with smells of foreign food’” (p. 179). He'd rather eat pizza and Big Macs. When she wonders why her work permit has not arrived, her husband reveals he was married before and the divorce has not been finalized. She flees to a friend’s apartment who assures her that in the United States she is not obligated to stay in an unhappy arrangement. “‘You can apply for benefits while you get your shit together,’” she says, “‘and then you’ll get a job and find a place and support yourself and start afresh. This is the U. S of fucking A., for God’s sake.’” (p. 186).
Like so many characters in immigrant stories written by Jumpha Lahari, Chitra Divakaruni, and others, the United States the women protagonists in these stories anticipated before they came is not the one they find once they arrive. While adjustment to American culture may be daunting, however, the women in these stories each develop a strength of independence and a belief in their own abilities to make decisions that will govern the future course of their lives. For “you” in “The Thing Around Your Neck” the decision is to return to Nigeria without handbags and shoes and perfumes and clothes to show your newfound wealth. For Nkem the decision is to leave the Rich Nigerian Men Who Owned Houses in America club and strike out on her own, not knowing what the future may bring but unwilling to living in a “compressed marriage.” And for Chinaza the decision is to “start afresh” in the “U. S of fucking A” when her arranged marriage starts to crumble.
Your job as a waitress doesn’t pay enough for you to buy these things so you feel too ashamed to write to anyone. Your dream of going to a community college is dashed so you go to the library and read some of the books. You want to write your friends and family about the rich Americans who are thin and the poor Americans who are fat; about the Americans who guess you are African and tell you they love elephants and want to go on a safari; about how you often feel invisible; about how you often sit on your lumpy mattress and think about home.
When you do finally write, you discover your father died five months ago. You curl up in bed and wonder what trivial thing you were doing in this strange country on the day he died. You buy an airline ticket to go home to see your family and it is for one way.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Writing Style
We ate the pizza sitting at a small round table in what he called a “food court.” A sea of people sitting around circular tables, hunched over paper plates of greasy food. Uncle Ike would be horrified at the thought of eating here; he was a titled man and did not even eat at weddings unless he was served in a private room. There was something humiliatingly public, something lacking in dignity, about this place, this open space of too many tables and too much food. (p. 176)
Adichie is also very skilled at writing simple but compelling story beginnings that entice readers to keep reading. In addition to the excellent opening of the title story, here are two others I especially liked:
Here is the opening paragraph of “Imitation”:
Nkem is staring the bulging, slanted eyes of the Benin mask on the living room mantel as she learns about her husband’s girlfriend. (p. 22)
And the first two sentences of “A Private Experience”:
Chika climbs in through the store window first and then holds the shutter as the woman climbs in after her. The store looks as if it was deserted long before the riots started…. (p. 43)
About Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It was not until Adichie was ten years old when she read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that she began to realize that “‘people who looked like me could live in books.’ She has been writing about Africa ever since.” By the time she was 21 years old, Adichie had published a collection of poems and a play. She studied in both Nigeria and the United States, earning masters degrees in creative writing and African studies.
Her two novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), are both set in Nigeria and won several awards. Her most recent novel, Americanah, (2013), which explores issues or race, identify, and love in post 9/11 Nigeria and the United States, has also won awards. The Thing Around Your Neck is her first collection of short stories.