This book is a collection of 12 different stories. Short. Exciting. Leaving you on the traffic lights. Eyes wanting to continue but Adichie does not give you that luxury. She puts the red light in the middle of the streets before any junction. Each story in the book is entertaining. But not only that, it also brings into words the reality that many African youths (especially females) go through. Noticeably, most of Adichie’s main characters in each of the story are women.
Women and the issues facing them in raising children, in dealing with husband’s stress especially when it comes to a presence of a mistress, in being settled for an arranged marriage, in being sexually abused, in handling their hair, etc. are all covered in different stories. Coherently, Adichie captures all these issues in the series of different stories.
Family. Extended families. And their centrality in Nigerian culture is well covered. The complications in families and its tapestry knitted with different colour threads such as traditions and culture, poverty, religion, religious-ethnic violence, and globalisation are covered in various stories in the book. It is impressive how in her last story in the book – “The Headstrong Historian” – Adichie handles a complicated subject of balancing religion and traditional beliefs. The identity crisis that was brought by the “white man’s” religion and education in Nigeria, that which its implication is felt in all countries of Africa. Such is a good reminder to young readers of African literature who are entrenching themselves in the globalisation superficiality at the risk of forgetting the foundations and complex issues lying deep on the ground of African societies – balancing its own strong traditions with the hegemonic dictated education system their children receive. The audacity of facing true life in Africa vs. comforting one self’s in Western convenience while your African identity is always around your neck for everybody to see no matter how much you hide it. A catching phrase for that in book that was randomly found in one of the conversation holds that well – i.e. “…back to America and I will be forced to live a life cushioned by so much convenience that is sterile”(p.67). Making the thing around your neck sterile. Being at a comfort zone to the point that you forget the real issues- of where you came from. Issues that no matter how much you run, there will still be there. Somehow the phrase reminded me of the Plato’s allegory of the cave. We need to be careful not to become sterile in our comfort situations amidst our enormous potential to solve poverty and its consequences in our African societies.
As noted above, each story is different but there are crosscutting themes that are present in all stories. These include identity, culture, family, religion, gender, and history. I am tempted to argue that “the thing around your neck” is the identity – i.e. your identity will always be around you and haunt you whenever you go. No matter how much you try to ignore or leave it behind. It is there.
In a subtle way, Adichie confronts the sad reality of the falling glory of academia in Nigerian institutions – it was clear that war and politics were some of the reasons that Nsuka’s academic vibrancy died. Academics had to run away abroad and some compromised. The new generations of academics did not have the same ethical and moral discipline to their own noble careers. Corruption, compromises, and other unethical insecure ways of finding means of living became cancerous cells in the academic body. Interesting how Adichie (through conversations) brings in small details such as bribing to change official and true date of births so as not to retire (see p.69). I’ve personally come across such labour relations issue and have to deal with a similar problem in real world. Complicated. In general, politics in Africa have indeed killed academia. Academics in African countries- in particular our new generations of African academic- will have to be reminded of the noble humble and independence character of academia. To reflect on the African academics of the late 1960s and 1970s however few they were. To function and serve its purpose, academia needs to be independent with the sole interesting of contributing to knowledge and disseminating (teaching) that knowledge as it is.
Upon reflection, I feel the book had lots of similarities to Americanah. This is probably due to the fact that Adichie, in her writings, is trying to capture same ideas of globalisation, writing, education, the falling glory of academia (in particular at Nsukka), Nigeria society, ethnicity, conflict, women, marriage, mistresses, hair, etc. With the hangover that I felt after completing reading the book, my wish was that I had read the book before Americanah. I would have appreciated the details in the Americanah more. So for those who haven’t not yet read any of Adichie’s work yet- please start with this “The Thing Around Your Neck” then get yourself tantalised for the Americanah.