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The R&R Journal: The Thing Around Your Neck

The R&R Journal: The Thing Around Your Neck

 

“The trick was to understand America, to know that America was give-and-take. You gave up a lot but you gained a lot, too.” (Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck, p. 116)

 

I love short stories, especially writing them. Even though I’ve always enjoyed writing short stories, I didn’t spend a lot of time reading them. I always read novels which isn’t a bad thing but, I decided to change that, so I’ve been scouting out short story collections to sink my teeth into.

For me, The Thing Around Your Neck was the perfect first collection choice. It is heartbreaking and startling, yet familiar and moving. This is the first work I’ve read of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and, naturally, I’m a fan. Since this is a review of a collection of stories, I want to give my general thoughts on the collection, then get into which specific pieces that struck a chord with me.

 

 

THE REVIEW

 THE COLLECTION

The Thing Around Your Neck offers its readers an intimate look at the tensions, struggles, and realities when two cultures collide.  With each story moving from America to Nigeria, back to America, to South Africa, back to Nigeria and more, Adichie opens your eyes to an internal and external process many don’t experience themselves. For me, there were parts that I could empathize with and others that were unfamiliar and challenged me.

Each story in this collection is potent and defining. You travel to Nigeria and are deeply immersed the pains of civil war in American Embassy as a mother waits in line at the embassy for asylum. You cross the ocean and find yourself in America, where you are pulled into the tensions of assimilation as Chinaza navigates wifehood to her “doctor in America” husband in The Arrangers of Marriage and you are given a front row seat to it all in The Thing Around Your Neck. You find yourself at a writer’s workshop just outside of Cape Town at a resort called Jumping Monkey Hill where Ujunwa struggles with her story and speaks up for herself.  These are only a few journeys you embark on as you read The Thing Around Your Neck.

This collection explores a myriad of themes and conflicts ranging from the influence of colonization and Western culture to the propaganda of the “American Dream” and its reality for immigrants, specifically Nigerian immigrants, to the impact of government and war on a nation.

There is a total of twelve stories each riveting, challenging, and startling. Out of the twelve stories, I adored six of them, which is saying something. The six stories that struck a chord with me are Jumping Monkey Hill, The Thing Around Your Neck, The American Embassy, The Arrangers of Marriage, Tomorrow is Too Far, and The Headstrong Historian. I won’t get into the nitty, gritty of each, but I will share about three of the six: The Thing Around Your Neck, Tomorrow is Too Far, and The Headstrong Historian.


 THE STORY

Plot Development and Progression/Flow

 

The Thing Around Your Neck

What I absolutely loved about The Thing Around Your Neck, was the easy flow of the story. You are quickly drawn into the internal process of what you’re told the American Dream is and what one experiences/sees when they come to America for the first time. You remain engaged as time passes in the story and the dichotomies of expectations are felt more deeply. It reads quickly, but you won’t feel jibbed at the end.

Tomorrow is Too Far

THIS. STORY. Y’all. It took me by surprise. Written similarly like The Thing Around Your Neck, Tomorrow is Too Far, draws you into a seething sibling rivalry gone awry. This story takes you between summer in Nigeria and the other seasons in America. It is easy to follow and engage with. Because, I found the story so unnerving, it was hard to put it down. I wanted to see happened next.

 The Headstrong Historian

I found this story to be powerful. It reads slower than The Thing Around Your Neck and Tomorrow is Too Far, but it is just as potent of a story. While reading, I could feel the history wrapped in the narrative. This piece centers around Nwamgba, a woman is who struggles to have a child until she does not. You are brought into her struggle, her triumph, and ultimately her legacy. Again, it’s a slower read, as it is filled with very intricate details to tribal life and rituals, but it is beautiful and worth reading to the end.

 

 

CHARACTERS

Character Development and Engagement

The Thing Around Your Neck and Tomorrow is Too Far

What’s fun about The Thing Around Your Neck and Tomorrow is Too Far is that in both stories, you are the character. So, character development and engagement are driven by you. Adichie gives her readers full permission to show up to and in the story as they see fit.

For me, I found myself stepping intently into the shoes of the story. I felt each emotion and tension spilled on the page.

The Headstrong Historian

Adichie does a beautiful job of pulling you into Nwamgba’s life and journey. You first meet her as an eager young wife wanting to produce a child for her husband. Once she able to provide him with a child, you experience her as she mourns loss. From mourning loss, you encounter her as a mother who longs for her son to be educated so he could fight for his inheritance. In each phase you encounter Nwamgba, you encounter her determination. Her drive to see her son succeed, to fight for his family. You see her passion for her husband and his legacy in her prayers and rituals.

 

  STYLE

The good stuff---the icing

The Thing Around Your Neck and Tomorrow is Too Far

For both stories, Adichie wrote in second person. Each story opens from the perspective of you as the character. I found this style choice and technique extremely effective. It was easy to read and engage with but also made the themes of each story strike deeply within you. For example, in The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie opens with:

“You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.” (Adichie, p. 115)

When I started this story, I saw myself in the room in Lagos, Nigeria preparing to leave for America surrounded by my fictional family. I love that the language here is simple and direct while tapping into the propagated American Dream. It also foreshadows that it’s not what society says it is.

In, Tomorrow is Too Far, however, the language is much more colorful. Within the first paragraph, you are drawn into the setting:

“[…] You remember the heat of the summer clearly, even now, eighteen years later---the way Grandmama’s yard felt moistly warm, a yard with so many trees that the telephone wire was tangled in leaves and different branches touched one another and sometimes mangoes appeared on cashew trees and guavas on mango trees. The thick mat of decaying leaves was soggy under your bare feet.” (Adichie, p. 187)

Adichie’s choice of language in this story was more descriptive than The Thing Around Your Neck. I think it fits for the plot. The plot in Tomorrow is Too Far needed striking language, while the plot of The Thing Around Your Neck needed to feel more conversational.

Either way, I loved her choices in language and point of view for both stories. Reading them challenged me to give second-person narrative a go.

The Headstrong Historian

I will keep this one short. When I read this story, I felt like I was listening in a close friend or neighbor sharing about Nwamgba. Adichie use of the third person omniscient point of view, for this story, offered more showing of the narrative than telling. You were able to see and hear the thoughts of other characters through the voice of the narrator unlike Tomorrow is Too Far and The Thing Around Your Neck.

There is a weight to Nwamgba’s story being told in this way. It offers a holistic experience as you hear from her son, granddaughter, villagers and the like.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck is a powerful collection of stories. I deeply appreciate her intention to draw you into the experiences of each character. Each story stands alone and offers you a different journey. Journeys of loss and legacy in The Headstrong Historian to journeys of identity and the struggle of assimilation in The Thing Around Your Neck and Tomorrow is Too Far and many more.

The Thing Around Your Neck will startle you, challenge you, and move you. It will open your eyes to a world you may not know and will give you a seat at the table to observe, to listen, and to witness.

 So, would I recommend this book? Yes! If you’ve never considered short stories, I would recommend The Thing Around Your Neck. Each story moves at its own pace but will engage you.

 My biggest takeaway? 1) Culture deeply influences how one experiences the world around them. Each place we go to be that a country, state, city, town----each place has its own culture and no one culture is the same. 2) We all leave a legacy and how it manifests may be different than we imagine.

10/10 Recommendation


Community Chat

 Have you read The Thing Around Your Neck? If not, will you? What are your thoughts on culture and its influence on one’s experience with the world around them?

 

Thoughts for Morrison