Prove your humanity

By Nyambura Mutanyi

Filled with stories from her home country Nigeria and away, this book is an anthology of twelve stories that reflect the experiences from these varied places. The Thing Around Your Neck presents a microcosm of the Nigerian experience in Nigeria and abroad with may interesting and entertaining turns.

One of the things I love most about anthologies is how each tale is succinct and presents a tight narrative. The shortness of the tales seems to lead to a culling of the various things that sometimes pull down a story. Adichie is a great writer, anyone who has read her stories in Granta and other such publications can testify to that. A wonderful storyteller, she harnesses this medium masterfully in this book.

‘Cell One’, the first story is a harrowing story of a young man coming of age in Nigeria during the time of military leaders. A difficult but well-loved child, those of us who have grown up in Africa will recognise the picture of the male child who is coddled. A short stint in jail transforms him as the pages progress as he learns lessons in the cost of freedom and human dignity. Set in the very university town that Adichie grew up in, the reader gets a snapshot of Nigeria from the time of the military dictators.

America features greatly in the stories. I found this quite curious because there is a significant Nigerian population in the United Kingdom. She surmounts this hurdle, in my opinion, by presenting a multiplicity of the various ways of being Nigerian in America. In ‘Imitation’, a woman acknowledges that the comfortable life she has in America is not the best possible thing she could have. The young woman in ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’ is shocked by the reality of her husband’s life in America and learns the true cost of American freedom.

Nigeria itself makes an appearance in the book. ‘A Private Experience’ is a portent tale that brings together two women from disparate backgrounds in the commonality of shock and loss. Adichie presents a picture of a knowing without knowing that is a wonderful take on the African telling of magic stories. A snapshot of life that I had had a chance to read in another publication before I read this book, it has an eerie significance what with the spate of attacks by Boko Haram that have filled news reports coming from Nigeria.

Featuring an all Igbo cast, I found it strange that people from other tribes only seem to make cameo appearances. Anyone with any knowledge of Nigeria knows that there are myriad tribes there. Yet for some reason, Adichie took up the stories of a small segment of Nigerians and populated a book. Granted, there are many stories from many people and it would be disingenuous of us to ask that she present all of Nigeria’s richness in this one book but I had a few questions on reading it.

The mono-tribal nature, however, does not subtract from the multiplicity of stories. Both ‘On Monday of Last Week’ and ‘The Shivering’ present a picture of desire that is stirring. In the first, a woman who feels special because of her relationship with an American is forced to face the truth. The second introduces us to a girl trying to navigate through the loss of love with the help of a neighbour who has weighty secrets of his own. ‘The Shivering’ features the quintessential Nigerian that has been so well exported around the continent: the one who prays with a fervour that is stultifying and almost scary. Faith is explored beautifully in this tale; there are no answers but there is comfort.

The lone story based away from Nigeria and America happens in South Africa and features a Kenyan author. Adichie offers up a hilarious and insightful look at the nature of writing and acceptance on the continent. Every time the Caine Prize and other literary prizes are announced, a furore emerges about the ‘Africanness’ of stories and who determines the truth of the African story. That story, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ gives us a glimpse of just what censorship can do to art and the courage that can transform the life of an individual on many levels.

Readers of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun will recognise the characters in the post-Biafran War story ‘Ghosts’ and be haunted by the ramifications of that period. The title story puts the disconnect between life abroad and that at home in focus. A young woman, in becoming liberated, is forced to confront all the realities of her life. At times chilling, funny, sad and empowering (the last story is a cross-generational gem), this book is a study in beautiful writing.