The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie has taken me on an emotional journey to Africa and back to the US through several stories, all represented in the book as Chapter 1. These are short stories and they could all be the beginning chapters of stand-alone novels. Different characters – mostly women – are portrayed in a slice-of-life setting with their painful, emotional situation, and how they get out of it. Or not.
As such, it was difficult at first to get into each story. Each story had different protagonists and their African names did not make it easy for me to keep them straight. Adichie’s writing makes these people so real, so believable, you feel like you know who they are after the first few paragraph which describe something they did or felt. And yet, this bursting into their life from paragraph one felt like a movie with lots of close-ups. You did not get an overall picture of any landscape. It wasn’t a bad thing. Just a different way of immersing yourself into a book. And I relish literary challenges.
About a year ago, at the Book Club, we read a book set in South Africa. Even though I enjoyed reading that particular novel (with the exception of a few descriptions of bad human behavior), I told everybody during the discussion that I just have no interest in Africa. I have never felt a desire to go there, on a safari or as a missionary, to help or to visit, to get involved emotionally only to depart and feel powerless for not being able to help more.
If Bono and his celebrity pals cannot help Africa, despite of all their millions of dollars raised through concerts, if Michael Jackson and Annie Lennox cannot help Africa, if Oprah with her school cannot, what can I do? Some celebrities adopted African babies and that did not inspire me to want to adopt either. I don’t do what celebrities do. They don’t have that kind of influence over me. So for me Africa has always been this continent that I cannot help or understand fully.
When Radio France Internationale presents news from Africa, I listen for a bit and then turn it off. No interest. This book helped me connect with Africa. Adichie’s writing helped me look at African people in a deep way, especially those who move to the US and start looking at this culture through their own unique African lens.
Being an immigrant myself, I have gone through similar thoughts and feelings during the assimilation process. I hail from a country which is a member of the European Union – not exactly mud huts and rhinos in the back yard, you see, in Romania – but we do have plenty of Communist-style apartment buildings and lots of corruption to deal with. We do have plenty of gender inequality in Romania and lots of men using their wives to procreate while also enjoying a girlfriend on the side. So I could relate to some of the situations in the book.
But the stories also have universal appeal. Lots of American men are unfaithful to their wives. Lots of French men or German men or English men, for that matter, right? Lots of American women feel like they will have to compromise their principles in order to get ahead in their careers. So this is not just a book about Africa.
Read it. Be inspired. This is good writing and the characters and their situations will tug at your heart and energize you to be true to yourself.