Tales of Nigerian outsiders, trapped between two worlds

By Saul Austerlitz
July 12, 2009
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Anger. Defensiveness. The feeling of being unloved, unwanted, undesired. Above all, the nagging sensation that your story - your truth - is being stifled by flashier, louder tales. “The Thing Around Your Neck,’’ pointedly, is not relegated to an impersonal, unspecific other; it’s closing ever tighter around your neck, too, buster, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is intent that you don’t forget it.

The Nigerian-born author of the Biafran War novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,’’ Adichie made a name for herself with that searing vision of a stratified society torn asunder by fraternal strife. This volume, her first collection of short stories, is purposefully cooler; the baking yellow sun is mostly banked behind clouds. It is Nigerian life seen from outside: the perspective of the American immigrant, the memory tourist, the second-class gender. They are the stories of those whose tales are not told.

Like those of Jhumpa Lahiri, whose work bears a notable resemblance to Adichie’s, the characters of “The Thing Around Your Neck’’ are caught between past and present, original and adopted homelands. Many of them, like Ukamaka in “The Shivering’’ and Nkem in the “Imitation,’’ are forgotten women, abandoned by their men to American life, and a slow, unconscious acclimation to its foreign ways. Nkem’s husband is a member of “the Rich Nigerian Men Who Sent Their Wives to America to Have Their Babies League,’’ and she feels strangely proud when he uses the plural instead of the singular to characterize his decisions: “She liked it when he said ‘we,’ as though she really had a say in it.’’ Ukamaka talks obsessively about her ex-boyfriend Udenna with a fellow countryman she meets in Princeton, N.J., until he finally snaps: “Udenna did this to you and Udenna did that to you, but why did you let him? Why did you let him? Have you ever considered that it wasn’t love?’’

America is a land of yoga classes, drive-through banks, and copious supermarket carts, but it is also a surprisingly unsatisfactory promised land. It is the “airless hallway with frayed carpeting,’’ instead of the green grass and white picket fence she had eagerly expected, that the new bride in “The Arrangers of Marriage’’ discovers waiting for her across the Atlantic. It is the place where all the equivocations, half-truths, and buried secrets that form a life are ruthlessly exposed, making it, for all its advantages, a strangely gloomy place.

Adichie returns again and again to the stories of these new Americans, but where Lahiri’s fables of immigration are bittersweet, hers are mostly just bitter. Men are callous and conniving, and women uniquely gifted in the art of self-deception. The unstated foundation of these lives - women’s unquestioned subservience to their men - is acknowledged.

Those stories set in Nigeria are more immediately reminiscent of “Half of a Yellow Sun,’’ with war, unrest, and death, rather than middle-class ennui, their fundamental concerns. Adichie deftly accesses the privileged mindsets of her Nigerian characters, who stubbornly insist on believing that they are to be protected from the worst. “A Private Experience’’ is the story closest in tone to “Yellow Sun,’’ with another pair of sisters separated by civil unrest, and spared none of the hardships that birthright had lulled them into expecting they would avoid. As Chika waits out a clash between Christians and Muslims, “she realizes that what she feels is this: she and her sister should not be affected by the riot. . . . Riots like this were what happened to other people.’’

Adichie’s Americans are outsiders clamoring to be let into society; her upper-class Nigerians are insiders clamoring to be let out of history. “It would have been so easy for him,’’ the narrator observes on the occasion of her brother’s release from prison in “Cell One,’’ “my charming brother, to make a sleek drama of his story, but he did not.’’ Nor does Adichie, who prefers ambiguity, and a certain abruptness of tone, to the carefully raked garden paths of other writers.

In the acerbic “Jumping Monkey Hill,’’ Adichie confronts the thing around her own neck, with a well-regarded African novelist chafing at her inclusion in a writers’ retreat run by an elderly white academic. The other writers interrupt their drinking and dining to agree that African literature must be more than realistic; it must also be reflective of the best of the continent. The prickly Ujunwa rejects this sentiment, as well as the notion, put forward by another attendee, that her stories reflect some personal trauma to be worked through. “Ujunwa answered with an emphatic NO because she had never believed in fiction as therapy. The Tanzanian told her that all fiction was therapy . . . no matter what anybody said.’’ The Tanzanian writer may not be entirely mistaken. Ujunwa’s story appears to be fairly close to that of the author, offering a tantalizingly ambiguous hint about the possible relationship between Adichie’s life and her work. Whether these stories reflect the writer’s own experiences, only Adichie knows; that they reflect the lives of her countrymen, there can be no doubt.

Saul Austerlitz is at work on a history of the American film comedy.

THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Knopf, 218 pages, $24.95

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