The Thing Around Your Neck
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dallas Morning News
21 June 2009
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie embodies a literary cosmopolitanism as expansive and mellifluous as her name: reared in Nigeria and college-educated in the US, she offers tales that make world literature from American fictions. Adichie sprinkles Igbo into English as if spicing jollof rice, finding her Nigerians in Lagos, Nsukka, Philadelphia, and New Haven.
In The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie’s third book and first story collection, the author maps narrative possibilities for examining postcolonial Nigeria, the haunting ramifications of civil war and government sanctioned terrorism, and the aching process of immigrant acclimation to the United States.
These stories explain the consequences of the era Adichie describes in her Orange Prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). Yellow Sun is a zaftig, Tolstoyan novel about intellectuals, political idealism, love, and betrayal in the midst of the Nigerian-Biafran War (1967-1970). Adichie’s close character observations, contrapuntal plotlines, and pointillist documentation of war’s ravages make the elegantly polished Yellow Sun intense, staggering reading.
Adichie’s new stories are cooler tonally, while maintaining an intimate focus on political realities and characterization. Thirty-seven years post war, reconciling with phantoms, James Nwoye, the protagonist/narrator of “Ghosts”, recalls that immediately afterwards Biafrans “hardly talked about the war . . . It was a tacit agreement among all of us, the survivors of Biafra. Even Ebere (my wife) and I, who had debated our first child’s name, Zik, for months, agreed very quickly on Nkiruka (for our second daughter): what is ahead is better.”
However, in stories like “Ghosts” and the outstanding title story, Adichie suggests that what lies ahead or abroad may not offer protections from history’s indignities. In “The Thing Around Your Neck”, Akunna explains her decision to immigrate to the US by describing her disdain for her father’s willingness to degrade himself before rich Nigerians. As she reveals this to her white American lover, he takes her hand in empathetic comprehension. But Akunna retreats: “You shook your hand free, suddenly annoyed, because he thought the world was, or ought to be, full of people like him. You told him there was nothing to understand, it was just the way it was.” Using the second person point of view, the narrator floats away from her own story as if regarding another’s life; thus Adichie lets the reader feel Akunna’s experience of observing and being observed simultaneously.
Throughout, Adichie displays strong control of the short form. However, measuring these stories against her other works (Purple Hibiscus  and Yellow Sun), her passions and powers are better served by the novel’s roominess. The collection’s long closing story, “The Headstrong Historian,” is a perfect representation of the author’s great imagination and sentence-level skills, and the inadequacies of the short story for her narrative concepts. Chronicling a Nigerian family across several generations --nineteenth-century British colonialism to twentieth-century nationalism -- the story seems too short by half even as Adichie’s abilities to compress and drive the narrative dazzle us.