Thursday, April 15, 2010
One sunny afternoon in 2005, I boarded a bus at a bus-stop by the ever-busy Oyingbo market and sat at the back. As is common with buses at such places, the bus was filled with buyers and sellers from the market and a few office types. The discussions, naturally, were centred on how expensive things had become and how it was not the fault of the sellers as they were only selling as they bought. One particular young market woman caught my attention: she had an empty basket on her laps, her shawl was placed on the edge, her head was bowed and her hands held a book; the book was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. It was an intriguing sight.
The Thing around your Neck, her third book, is a collection of twelve short stories written over about seven years, with some of the stories written as far back as 2002. All but one of the stories had been previously published. Woven around themes of displacement, racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, tragic sibling rivalry, arranged marriages, interrogation of the construction of history, lust, infidelity and unrequited love, life, death and other realms of existence, the book comes with a subtle but discernable urgency, a seeming need to get stuff off the author’s chest. With a steady hand that is devoid of unnecessary digressions and distractions, the author takes us in and out of the lives of her characters as they find and lose love, become free only to lose hope; discover how things are never as they seem and the helplessness that comes with knowing that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it. In other cases, some characters take actions that have tragic consequences that will hunt them for as long as they live.
In “A Private Experience,” as a market goes up in flames and blood flows on the streets Kano, a medical student who is Igbo and Christian hides in a small store besides a Muslim Hausa woman. While senseless violence rages outside, they discover the sameness of humanity within the confined space of a small store. Nnamabia’s truancy grows as a result of his father’s silence and his mother’s quick defences in “Cell One”. But when he his arrested on suspicion of being a cult member, he redeems himself by standing up to the police as they ridiculed as old man. The need for Africa to tell its own stories is examined in “Jumping Monkey Hill”. The title is leading and it’s no surprise then that the attempts of an Oxford trained facilitator of a writing workshop to tell the participants how and what to write about Africa while lusting after some the female participants ends in a rage. Her description of Edward, the Oxford trained British ‘authority’ on African Literature, is telling: “She could not tell his age from his face; it was pleasant but unformed, as though God, having created him, had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face.” In “Ghosts,” a retired mathematics professor, who, by his training, is used to logical conclusions, is stunned by the reappearance of a colleague everyone thought had died during the war. However shocked he was at that return, it was a story he could tell. The story he cannot tell, especially to his Americana daughter, is that the ghost of his dead wife visits often, and he has come to look forward to the opening and closing of doors at night.
In a recent interview the author confesses her love for dark spaces: “My vision is a dark one -- I am sort of more drawn to dark than I am to light, both in my writing and my reading.” Little wonder then that the strongest stories in the collection, in this reviewer’s opinion, are also the darkest ones. The title story, The Thing around your Neck and Tomorrow is too Far resonate with Adichie’s signature calmness as she delivers a shocking tale. In The Thing...a young Nigerian woman finds herself in America after wining the Green Card Lottery. Her uncle and custodian attempts to have sex with her and because she refused sends her out of the house. While subsisting on a waiter’s wage, she meets and falls in love with a middle-class white American at the restaurant where she works. As they discover each other and cultures clash, loneliness becomes the thing around her neck, even while in a relationship with someone who seems to have an expanded worldview. While she is suspended between situations, her father dies at the steering wheel in Lagos and she decides to go home. She knows not what she’s going to and while she’s sure she would come back, she knows not what to come back to. Told in the second person, this story grips and grabs and doesn’t let go even after a painful ending. In Tomorrow is too Far, sibling rivalry takes a tragic turn when a young girl tricks her elder brother into climbing to the top of an avocado tree. She goes ahead to scream that the poisonous snake whose bit kills in ten minutes was nearby and he loses his grip and lands with thud. She calmly stands and watches him die, all the while holding on to the hands of her cousin Dozie, whom she was in love with. It was, to her mind, a necessary fight for survival, a need to reclaim some of the space that Nonso had occupied by being the only son of their father. Sibling rivalry is commonplace and this story paints a haunting reality.
To a critical eye, some of the stories will seem dated, especially the ones that deal with racial issues and cultural clashes. The collection needs to be understood in the context of how it is a collection of works done over time. Also, a few stories, like “Imitation”, fall flat and do not reflect the artistry we have come to associate the author with. What is however never in doubt throughout the collection is that Adichie’s maturity, willingness to take on issues, however controversial, and consistent subtle advocacy has placed her among Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s indispensable writers.
In many ways, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is still unravelling. This inspired and inspiring writer is best positioned to be the pearl among her peers, the one who is daily becoming the reference point.