The Thing Around Your Neck

The words “Things Fall Apart” are so frequently associated with Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel that it is easy forget they are not original to it but taken from Yeats’s 1920 poem “The Second Coming.” “The center cannot hold,” the Irish poet wrote, contemplating the disintegration of modern life: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” If Achebe’s novel narrated the destruction of traditional Igbo culture by Christian missionaries and British colonialists in the late 19th century, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie writes from a place where only a few can remember what the center was, if such a thing is construed to be an ancestral culture uncorrupted by outside influences. The 32-year-old Nigerian writer acknowledges Achebe as one of her greatest influences — her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, opened with the line “Things started to fall apart at home,” and her new book of short stories is entitled The Thing Around Your Neck. Adichie’s characters are, for the most part, irreversibly those of the late 20th century. Many of them are global citizens who make their homes between Africa and America but aren’t sure if they truly belong to either.

Five of the 12 entries in this nuanced collection — the author’s first, following a coming-of-age story set in Nigeria and the highly lauded Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Biafran war for independence (the novel won the Orange Prize in 2007) — take place in America; several others are set in Africa but involve American characters. The change in scenery allows Adichie to explore new kinds of experiences, in places where the challenges of daily life are often more subtle than in Nigeria. In “Imitation,” Nkem is a “Bush Girl” who grew up eating “improvised food,” such as plant leaves that always tasted like urine to her, “because she would see the neighborhood boys urinating on the stems of those plants.” She marries a successful Lagos businessman who installs her in a house that “smelled fresh, like green tea,” in a Philadelphia suburb, where she becomes part of what she sarcastically terms the “Rich Nigerian Men Who Sent Their Wives to America to Have Their Babies League.” Nkem bakes cookies for her children’s school classes and goes to Pilates twice a week with a neighbor, but she misses the “sun that glares down even when it rains.” When she learns that her husband is keeping a girlfriend in his house in Lagos, she makes a decision that involves sacrificing material comforts for pride.

The narrator of the title story is also a woman who must choose between a certain level of ease, provided for her by a man in America, and what she thinks of as her personal integrity. Akunna goes to live with her uncle in a “small white town in Maine” after winning a visa lottery. But when he tries to molest her she flees to another small town in Connecticut, “the last stop of the Greyhound bus,” where she gets a job waiting tables and finds an American boyfriend who is fascinated with African culture. He buys her presents that baffle her, like “a shiny rock whose surface took on the color of whatever touched it.” Akunna tells him that in her previous life, “presents were always useful. The rock, for instance, would work if you could grind things with it.” Her boyfriend laughs at this, and in this laughter the reader sees one source of the couple’s undoing — he has never had to endure serious deprivations or occupy himself with wholly practical concerns.

Life in America is not merely disorienting for Adichie’s characters — it can be as unjust as life in Nigeria. In “The Shivering,” a Princeton graduate student named Ukamaka is befriended by a fellow Nigerian who lives in her building, a man who she assumes has problems similar to her own — missing the harmattan season back home and enduring a bad breakup. In fact, Chinedu’s problems involve a male lover who spurned him by marrying a woman, an impending deportation notice, and an inability to send money to his family since he lost his construction job. His apartment is furnished with nothing other than a couch and table; he has been telling Ukamaka he is “fasting” because he doesn’t want to admit that he can’t afford food. “The Arrangers of Marriage” describes a woman whose family commits her to a doctor in America, thinking they have done her a great favor. Ofodile, however, is demeaning and dictatorial, telling Chinaza that she must take an English name, learn to drink her tea without milk and sugar, and prepare meals from the Good Housekeeping All-American Cookbook because he doesn’t want them to be known as “the people who fill the building with smells of foreign food.” In contrast to Nkem, Chinaza learns to endure these indignities and worse from Ofodile because she cannot imagine how to make an independent life for herself in an unfamiliar country.

The stories set in Africa are the most vibrant here, as if in them Adichie is writing about a world that she loves, rather than one she wants to analyze. Her perspective is far from uncritical — “A Private Experience” deals pointedly with the senselessness of a Muslim religious riot; “Tomorrow Is Too Far” shows how a rigidly patriarchal society leads a young girl to “mar the perfection” of her prized older brother — but these tales also include glimpses of redemption that are harder to come by in America. In “Jumping Monkey Hill” the main character attends a writer’s retreat at a lavish resort outside Capetown, where she learns to stand up to the condescending (and predatory) British professor who organizes it, a man who thinks that only stories about “killings” and “prurient violence” can be representative of the “real Africa.” “The Headstrong Historian,” one of the longest and most complex stories in the volume, features a scholar who takes control of her life by writing a new history of her people that supplants the colonial textbook she carried in her schoolbag. That book contained a chapter entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Southern Nigeria,” “by an administrator from Worcestershire who had lived among them for seven years.” Her book is called Pacifying with Bullets.

Throughout, the author proves herself deft with the short story’s demanding form — too much so to be hemmed in. While many of her tales are compact and straightforward, others play fluidly with the genre’s constraints. “The Headstrong Historian” is a standout, employing shifts in time and point of view to show how language itself (English versus Igbo, colonial versus indigenous histories) has been used to oppress. But in all cases these tales yield insight into power — whether it’s the hold one man may have over another, or the more intricately knotted struggles for dominance between groups. They are studies of displacement and belonging that show both how things fall apart and how one might make a tentative start at building individual lives anew.