Monday, April 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Thing Around Your Neck

Hopes and Impediments

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new collection of stories, many Nigerians leave their troubled country for safety and opportunity elsewhere. But, Amy Rosenberg writes, getting away doesn’t get them much.

In a 1962 radio interview, Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s best-known novelist, explained that he started writing out of anger over Mister Johnson, a 1939 novel by the white British author Joyce Cary. The title character is an ambitious but clownish Nigerian clerk who blindly and cheerfully enmeshes himself in larceny, graft and murder while trying to gain the respect of his colonial superiors.

Of the much-praised novel, Achebe said: “It was clear to me that this was a most superficial picture of – not only of the country, but even of the Nigerian character. I thought… someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.” Forty-five years later, during a talk at Harvard, another Nigerian novelist explained that she began writing because she was startled, as a young child who had devoured books by Enid Blyton, to stumble across Achebe’s work and realise that novels also could be about black people. “Things Fall Apart is the book that gave me permission to tell my own stories,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said.

Achebe and Adichie’s tales are part of the same story, one that encompasses both Nigeria’s development as a modern, independent nation and the idea of the novel as a force for social and personal transformation. When Achebe made his statement, the Nigerian novel was only about 10 years old; the country had been independent for only two years; and the conflicts that would explode into civil war five years later were just simmering. By the time Adichie made hers, Nigerian literary life had blossomed: Wole Soyinka had won the Nobel Prize, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ben Okri and Chris Abani, to name a few, had gained international recognition.

But these achievements came in the aftermath of the civil war of 1967 to 1970, which killed between one and two million people, most of them Igbo. The Igbos, largely Christian, comprise one of the main ethnic groups in Nigeria; the Hausa and the Fulani, mostly Muslim, and the Yoruba, a mix of Christian and Muslim, comprise the others. Massacred during hate campaigns before and during the war, the Igbos seceded, carving out the southeastern corner of their country to create the short-lived nation of Biafra. Following Biafra’s collapse in 1970, Nigeria suffered a series of coups and dictatorships, which ended only in 1999; the democratic governments that have been in power since have been thin in democracy and thick in corruption, riding the revenues of an oil boom that has created a rich elite without redressing the country’s essential problems.

Adichie’s first two novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2007), addressed some of these historical complexities. In the former, a masterful coming-of-age story about a girl whose religious father abuses her while government corruption threatens to destroy the entire family, Adichie acknowledged her debt to Achebe with the opening line: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” In The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie’s rich and thoughtful new collection of short stories, the 32-year-old writer turns her attention to the present. The book focuses on independent Nigeria’s grown-up grandchildren – granddaughters, mostly – who came of age right around the time their country adopted democracy, who are middle class or better, but whose lives are rarely comfortable.

For this group, the West beckons; nine of the book’s 12 stories take place in, or are in some way connected to, America. But having grown up in the double shadows of colonialism and failed secession, with the additional burdens of patriarchy and religious oppression, the characters in these stories cannot rest easy with America, even when they are drawn to it. They have too much history for a country that pretends history is irrelevant. The problem is laid out neatly in Ghosts, which features the only protagonist in the book who is not a young woman, a 71-year-old retired mathematics professor nicknamed Prof. He scoffs at his daughter’s campaign to move him from his Nigerian university town to Connecticut, where she lives with her son and works as a doctor. “I will be forced to live a life... littered with what we call ‘opportunities’,” he says. For Prof, there is a difference between American-style opportunity and what he and his generation once had, then lost: “time immersed in possibility”, the hope of creating a new nation for an oppressed minority.

One day Prof runs into a former colleague he thought had been killed 37 years earlier during the war. As the two catch up, a picture of a difficult life emerges. Prof watched his first daughter, a little girl at the time, die during the war. He left his university town when it was evacuated at the start of the war and returned three years later to find that his books had been burnt and his personal belongings defiled. He saw his wife die a preventable death because she was given fake drugs to treat an illness. Each month, he is turned away from the university bursary, where he goes to pick up his pension, because the vice-chancellor is using the pension funds to buy new cars for himself. Still, he refuses to leave Nigeria.

For his daughter’s generation, the story is different. Lacking firsthand memory of a clear cause like the nation of Biafra, reeling from the decades of coups, oil scandals, human rights abuses and hard-grinding life, many younger people chose to move to America, a country where, as Adichie writes in Imitation, “you could drive at night and not fear armed robbers, where restaurants served one person enough food for three”. Members of this generation saw what America had (safety, plenty, possibility) and wanted it too.

But making it to America does not entail the automatic achievement of wealth, let alone carefree daily living and fulfilment. Money is certainly an issue for Adichie’s characters – especially for Akunna, the protagonist of the collection’s title story, a young woman from a lower-middle class family who wins a visa lottery and is sent to live in a small town in Maine – but most of the immigrants described here are students, doctors, art dealers and their wives, not working-class newcomers struggling to get by. As members of the global middle class, they wrestle more with psychological afflictions than material want.

Akunna, for example, moves in with her “uncle” – really her father’s sister’s husband’s brother – who shows her how to apply for a cashier job, enrols her in community college, and attempts to molest her in his basement. She strikes out on her own, taking a Greyhound bus to its final destination somewhere in Connecticut. The story is narrated in the second person, a choice that imbues the tale with a sense of inevitability – an I-know-exactly-how-this-all-ends feeling – and also creates a discomfiting intimacy between the protagonist and the reader.

At the community college Akunna attended in Maine, other girls were curious about her, asking ignorant questions: “They gawped at your hair. Does it stand up or fall down when you take out the braids?… All of it stands up? How? Why?” It is easy to imagine one of these well-intentioned classmates affably asking, in reference to an elaborate African necklace, “What’s that thing around your neck?” But Adichie’s title ends up referring to something else altogether:

“Nobody knew where you were, because you told no one. Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway, and when you bumped into the wall, it left bruises on your arm…. At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.”

That suffocating loneliness afflicts many of the characters in the collection, especially the wives who are brought to America because of their husbands’ work, or, more chillingly, who are brought to America, dumped in big suburban houses, and left there by husbands who want to join “the coveted league, the Rich Nigerian Men Who Sent Their Wives to America to Have Their Babies League”. Nkem, in Imitation, is one such woman. Her art-dealer husband visits her and their two children in their house in Pennsylvania for a couple months each year. He collects imitations of ancient Nigerian statues and masks, but the real imitation in this story is Nkem’s life. It looks similar to the lives her neighbours lead —“lives [her husband] often called ‘plastic’” – but it’s filled with suppressed desire for the smells and sights of Lagos, the touch of a dusty harmattan wind. Like many of the angry, sad or lonely women in this collection, Nkem cannot speak about her emotions; she barely acknowledges them to herself. Perhaps she, and some others, have found safety and plenty, perhaps even “opportunity”, but the price has been steep: their dreams, their voices, even their names (as with Chinaza Udenwa, in The Arrangers of Marriage, whose husband forces her to become Agatha Bell).

Adichie offers some respite from her characters’ silence by giving them the power to act. This is true especially for those who have not left for America, as if staying in Nigeria connects them to a source of strength. One young woman throws a rock at the windscreen of her parents’ car rather than explain why she doesn’t want to visit her brother in prison. Another, whose journalist husband has been chased out of the country and whose four-year-old son has been shot by government thugs, turns away from the American visa interviewer assessing her application for asylum and heads to the village burial ground where her son’s body lies. When a young writer on a retreat designed for African writers by a lecherous, white Englishman can no longer stand to be lectured on what is allowable in African fiction, she stands up at the dinner table, laughs uncontrollably, and leaves the room.

Adichie is at her best when she’s with these characters, the ones who haven’t left yet. Her descriptions of their lives are suffused with tenderness and longing – perhaps the longing of a writer who has crossed the border to the West herself (Adichie currently lives between the United States and Nigeria). In the stories set in her home country, the pace picks up, the sentences breathe more freely, the nuanced simplicity with which Adichie writes becomes less simple, more nuanced. This quality builds throughout the collection, so that the final story feels almost like the climax of a novel. It takes place entirely in Nigeria, and it’s the only one that shifts its gaze fully from the present to Nigeria’s colonial past, spanning from the late 19th century to the 1970s. It recounts the life of a village woman who sends her son to a missionary school and lives to regret his subsequent harsh Christianity – his turning away from her and their African way of life. At the end, however, the woman’s granddaughter simultaneously moves forward and turns back to the past. She defies the expectations of family, friends and Church by earning a university degree, studying in London, divorcing her husband – then returning home, writing a book about a reclaimed history of southern Nigeria, and changing her name from Grace to Afamefuna. She embraces her homeland, and, in doing so, she finds a kind of modest empowerment that has eluded many who left.

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