The new book by Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie, The Thing Around Your Neck, is rich with references to history, culture and literature. In this short review, I focus on two stories whose events recall Chinua Achebe and Tsitsi Dangarembga. In “Tomorrow is Too Far”, Adichie creates a protagonist that reminds of Tambu in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. There is the theme of sibling rivalry caused by forces beyond the children’s control. The girl resents her brother, Nsono whom everyone treats better; the mother is happier putting him to bed than she does when she is in the daughter’s room. And the girl notices that the mother’s care for her children is really geared towards comforts for the boy than for the girl.
Back in Nigeria, where the children spend their vacations, the grandmother treats Nsono like a prince, cooking food that only he should enjoy, telling the girl that she should see this as an example of how to take care of a man. The girl always feels ignored and this is not good for the boy.
As in Nervous Conditions, the brother dies, a death the sister accidentally causes but blames on the grandmother. Like Tambu, she at first is not sorry that her brother dies because the family’s attention shifts to her, although the mother is never the same again, and the girl will not see the grandmother again until she goes to back to Nigeria, eighteen years later, to pay her last respects. This story is Adichie’s stinging critique of the patriarchal society and its effects on both Nigerian and American values. Adichie looks at the negative and positive aspects of these values, honestly depicting the circumstances her characters find themselves in.
In “The Headstrong Historian”, Adichie plays pastiche by taking characters straight out of Achebe and providing a new historical perspective. For a moment we are reminded of Umuofia when see the names Okonkwo and Obierika, and the time is the same as in Things Fall Apart–the coming of the white man, the conversion of the villagers to Christianity, the pacification of the tribes of the Niger Delta, Europe’s mission to civilize and to bring light to Africa; but this time we have a very practical woman, Nwamgba, playing a leading role in utilizing what’s useful from the white men, sending her son to school to learn English, because she has seen how much power the language has, but her dream is the demise of her values, as the son changes beyond what she has hoped.
Two cultures in contact and contest, two cultures not trusting each other, and this time both sides are presented as viewing the other as savage. There is nothing new in Adichie’s portrayal of Nigerian history, except that she gives a stronger voice to to her female characters; we see things from their point of view. And then we have a headstrong historian, rewriting the history of her people which has been blighted by European misrepresentation.
“The Headstrong Historian” could as well be a chapter in the Appendix of Things Fall Apart. Some of the questions Achebe raises at the end his novel are answered in this story. The connection is deliberate (Adichie has been labelled the literary daughter of Achebe) and she is showing showing what daughters can do, extend the legacy of their fathers. The daughter in the story, not to be confused with the author, of course, takes it upon herself to reconstruct her people’s history. Having been educated in the mission school system, she knows the whiteman’s religion, but chooses to rebel against it as she sees the contradictions it carries. So she reconnects, against her father’s wishes (he is a catechist), with he grandmother who had always known that she will play a special role in the spiritual future of the family. This is where Adichie takes the popular Umuofia story to new heights.
Remember Okonkwo always wished he had son who would take care of the family’s legacy, and when he saw that his youngest daughter had the wisdom he wanted to see in a man, he was proud but not satisfied; as a girls she could not play that role. But in Adichie’s story, which deals with an Onicha that needs its culture preserved and its story told correctly, the girl Afamefuna is the “headstrong historian” searching in every village for clues of his people’s past, traveling to museums in history to follow traces of that history, which were plandered as part of the civilizing mission. Where a British admnistrator a chapter entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Southern Nigeria”, Ifamefuna will write a book entitled Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria. And she will do this alone, even if it means later getting divorced from her husband in 1972.
The rest of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck deal with contemporary issues of immigrant life, taking us from Nigeria to America and back, showing successfully that the dreams that drive us are sometimes our downfall, yet the desire for life, for happiness, will forever drive us. Her thematic range extends from corruption in Nigeria (the stereotypes), to corruption in America (the usual stereotypes), but it is her balanced approach to life in these two places that leaves the reader satisfied. The basic message seems to be that wherever we are, wherever we go, we are the same problem-ridden people, manipulative, but vulnerable, ambitious but ambivalent.
As I read these stories, most of which are older than Adichie’s two novels we have all fallen in love with, I enjoyed the grace with which the stories are told; then there is the sensitivity or compassion, the honest and humble storytelling voice, showing that in Adichie we have a writer who will keep us asking for more.