BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 6, 2009
The Thing Around Your Neck
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(Knopf, 218 pp., $24.95)
In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” the most wicked story in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new collection, a group of young writers selected from all over Africa have gathered for a workshop at a fancy resort outside Cape Town--”the kind of place,” thinks Ujunwa, the representative Nigerian, “where . . . affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa.” The workshop is run by a white couple of a familiar type: liberal expats who proclaim their attachment to their new home a bit too loudly. (“White people who liked Africa too much and those who liked Africa too little were the same--condescending,” Adichie writes in another story.) The wife compliments Ujunwa’s bone structure and asks if she is descended from royalty: “The first thing that came to Ujunwa’s mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London.” The smarmy husband makes lewd remarks to the women and speaks pompously of his own authority on Africa.
When it comes time for the writers to present their work, the director instructs them that the only appropriate African literature is political. He singles out a story by one of the writers, about killings in the Congo, as “urgent and relevant.” (Ujunwa thinks it “read[s] like a piece from The Economist with cartoon characters painted in.”) But he has no use for the majority of their work, which focuses on personal subjects--love, family life--which he deems “implausible” and “passé.” It is beside the point, he declaims, to write a story about coming of age in Zimbabwe when one could be writing about “the horrible Mugabe.” And stories about homosexuality are not “reflective of Africa, really.” When Ujunwa retorts, “Which Africa?,” he looks at her “in the way one would look at a child who refused to keep still in church and said that he wasn’t speaking as an Oxford-trained Africanist, but as one who was keen on the real Africa and not the imposing of Western ideas on African venues.”
The story is satirical--though not so much so as to remove the suspicion that it might well be, in Ujunwa’s words, “a real story of real people.” But the director’s point has often been made in more respectable ways, including by Chinua Achebe, the patriarch of the African novel, who has argued strenuously for a literature of political engagement. “An African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant,” Achebe once wrote. Adichie, a Nigerian novelist young enough to be Achebe’s granddaughter, has followed in his path in many ways, including her choice of English as the language of her fiction and her interest in African subjects. But while her work is never without political undertones--can any novel about Africa ever be entirely apolitical?--her primary purpose is literary, not doctrinal. Her work does not buckle under its political burden, but supports it with a great humanity.
Even if Adichie had not begun her first novel with the words “Things started to fall apart,” comparisons with Achebe would have been inevitable. She grew up in the university town of Nsukka, in the same house Achebe lived in when he was a professor there. And like Achebe, her family is Igbo, a minority ethnic group whose members were the targets of racially motivated violence in the late 1960s after a military coup. The violence led to the brutal war over Biafra, the Igbo-dominated region of eastern Nigeria that fatally declared independence. Adichie has credited Achebe for providing her with a model as a writer. “It was Achebe’s fiction that made me realize my own story could be in a book,” she once said in an interview. “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”
Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s masterpiece, has been justly celebrated for its straightforward portrayal of rural Igbo life, and of the villagers’ struggle to hold on to their traditions after the encounter with colonialism. If Achebe’s insistence that African novelists have a responsibility to write about African subjects may seem tendentious in today’s globalized literary culture, it is worth remembering that when he was in school, in the 1930s and 1940s, the best-known novels about Africa were by colonialist writers such as John Buchan (who asserted that “the difference between white and black [is] the gift of responsibility”) and Joyce Cary (notorious for describing Nigerians as “jealous savages” and “unhuman”). When Achebe submitted Things Fall Apart to his publisher a little over fifty years ago, his editor wondered whether anyone would buy a novel by an African. As late as the 1970s, Achebe’s wife would report to him that a student of hers refused to refer in his writing to the harmattan--the dusty wind that characterizes the West African dry season--because it was “bush.” “Things like this show one that the writer has the responsibility to teach his audience that there is nothing shameful about the harmattan, that it is not only daffodils that can make a fit subject for poetry but the palm tree and so on,” Achebe observed in his essay “The Novelist as Teacher.”
Adichie has obviously taken this lesson seriously: her fiction has focused exclusively on matters related to Africa. Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, took up one of Achebe’s primary themes: the conflict between tribal religion and Christianity. Kambili, fifteen years old, and her older brother Jaja are kept strictly in line by their father, an excessively zealous convert who orders their free time according to a written schedule and shuns his own father for continuing to practice “pagan” rituals. He beats his wife and subjects his children to excruciating punishments for what he perceives as their crimes against God, such as pouring boiling water on Kambili’s feet after she “walks into sin” by not informing him about a visit with her grandfather. By contrast, the world of women--particularly the household of a widowed aunt, where Kambili and her brother are sent on an extended visit--is warm and consoling, the language sprinkled with Igbo endearments. (The father, whose sister describes him as “too much of a colonial product,” speaks only English with his children.)
Purple Hibiscus was published in 2003, when Adichie was just twenty-six, and in certain ways it feels like a first novel: the book’s symbolism is a bit obvious, and the contrast between male and female, English and Igbo, is too broadly drawn. But Adichie excels at the depiction of complicated relationships, familial and romantic: the love between the children and their father is truly vivid, despite his abuse, and even the most conventional subplot--Kambili’s first crush, on a young priest--is fresh in Adichie’s hands. Most important, the overriding theme feels true not only to contemporary Nigeria (though of course I cannot expertly judge this), but also more generally to human experience: two cultures at war must learn to balance each other out, respectfully and without a hunger for dominance.
Adichie’s second novel was a departure. Half of a Yellow Sun, which appeared three years ago, is an extraordinary chronicle of the Biafran war, viewed through the households of two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, twins brought up in a privileged family in Lagos. At the start of the book, Olanna is about to come to Nsukka to live (somewhat scandalously) with her boyfriend, a revolutionary professor named Odenigbo; and we see her arrival through the eyes of Ugwu, a village boy who has just started work as Odenigbo’s houseboy. (It appears that in Nigeria in the 1960s even revolutionaries had servants.) Kainene, who has assumed the son’s traditional role of tending the family business, becomes involved with Richard, a white Englishman who has come to Nigeria to write a book about Igbo pottery. After two coups lead to genocidal violence against the Igbo by the Muslim Hausa, Biafra declares independence, and Adichie’s characters devote themselves in different ways to the cause.
The shock of Biafra was, of course, its intra-racial brutality: a civil war only seven years after independence in which blacks were killing other blacks. In an essay called “The African Writer and the Biafran Cause,” Achebe declared that “Biafra stands in opposition to the murder and rape of Africa by whites and blacks alike because she has tasted both and found them equally bitter. No government, black or white, has the right to stigmatize and destroy groups of its own citizens without undermining the basis of its own existence.” As Adichie’s characters witness these atrocities, they undergo a heartbreaking loss of innocence. Olanna, who happens to be visiting her aunt and uncle in the northern Hausa city of Kano when the violence breaks out, is protected by her Muslim ex-boyfriend, but discovers that her relatives were killed by a Hausa man who had been their friend. During her nightmarish journey home, seated on the urine-soaked floor of a train car packed with terrified refugees, she meets a woman who is carrying the severed head of her young daughter in a calabash, her hair still braided in neat plaits. “Do you know,” the woman tells her, “it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair.”
The novel gently navigates the era’s racial politics, particularly in the character of Richard, the Englishman who, after falling in love with Kainene, learns to speak fluent Igbo and will proudly identify himself as a Biafran. To win the acceptance of the surprised Igbo he encounters, he repeats to them a native proverb: one’s brother may come from a different land. He identifies far more with Kainene and her family than with the other English expats, whose racism ranges from latent to blatant. One of the book’s most hateful characters is his ex-girlfriend, who threw jealous fits when he talked to white women at parties but did not care if he flirted with black women, whom she did not view as competition. When the violence begins, she says that the Igbo had it coming, “with their being so clannish and uppity and controlling the markets. Very Jewish, really.” Richard himself, it turns out at the book’s end, is not immune to unconscious racism.
Despite all Richard’s efforts, he can never completely eradicate the differences between himself and the native Biafrans--nor, the novel suggests, should he be able to do so. As the war grows particularly bleak, Kainene’s friend Colonel Madu encourages Richard to write articles for Western newspapers about the situation in Biafra. Richard is at first indignant: “You would not have asked me if I were not white.” “Of course I asked because you were white,” Madu replies. “They will take what you write more seriously because you are white. Look, the truth is that this is not your war. This is not your cause. Your government will evacuate you in a minute if you ask them to…. If you really want to contribute, this is the way that you can. The world has to know the truth of what is happening, because they simply cannot remain silent while we die.” The fact that Biafra is not Richard’s war, not his cause, is brought home by his final inability to write his book. “The war isn’t my story to tell, really,” he says near the end. It will be told by others.
Half of a Yellow Sun--the title comes from the symbol of Biafra, on its flags and army uniforms--is not only a political novel. To be sure, it takes a strong political stance; no one could come away from this book unsure of which side Adichie supports. But its primary focus, which guards it from didacticism, is on the human experience of the war. As Biafra starves--its roads and its ports were blockaded by the British-backed Nigerian army--Olanna is reduced to begging for powdered egg yolk to feed her ailing daughter. Meanwhile, children all around her succumb to kwashiorkor, the disease of protein deficiency whose sufferers are marked by their bloated bellies, pale skin, and reddish hair. We feel Olanna’s terror as her little girl’s hair falls out in fuzzy tufts as she combs it, and her relief later as her daughter’s skin darkens once more. (At the height of the famine, it was reported that five thousand to eight thousand people, most of them children, died every day.)
The book’s central drama has nothing to do with the war: it is a story of love (again, romantic and familial), betrayal, and motherhood--a story that could take place almost anywhere. But it is worth remembering that stories of war also can take place anywhere. Contemplating the woman with her daughter’s head in the calabash, one character thinks of “the German women who fled Hamburg with the charred bodies of their children stuffed in suitcases, the Rwandan women who pocketed tiny parts of their mauled babies,” though he immediately adds that he is “careful not to draw parallels.” Such parallels, which inevitably carry a whiff of political motivation, are of little use in ameliorating human suffering. When mothers are carrying around their children’s body parts, it is hard for the mind to linger too long over the question of whether they are in Germany, Africa, or anywhere else.
If Adichie takes Achebe as an inspiration, her reworkings of his themes are as much a challenge as a tribute. After all, if she was truly looking for people like herself in his fiction, she must have been disappointed. Achebe’s books revolve almost exclusively around male characters--naturally enough, since men are at the center of the tribal social structure. Wives are present, often in multiples, but the male dramas are the primary ones.
In The Thing Around Your Neck, by contrast, nearly all the main characters are women. But the setting has changed. Many of the stories focus on recent immigrants--young women who have come to America for different reasons, usually romantic--who must negotiate sexual politics along with cultural politics. The gulf between expectations and realities among these characters is unsurprising: the collision of civilizations has always been a theme of immigrant literature, in the work of writers as disparate as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Monica Ali. But Adichie reveals it in unexpected ways, in a language that preserves the African-ness of her characters while adding their stories to the long history of immigrants in America. In “The Arrangers of Marriage,” Chinaza’s guardians, her aunt and uncle, have convinced her to marry Ofodile: “A doctor in America. What could be better?” But when she arrives in Brooklyn she discovers how much was elided by mistaken assumptions. Instead of the “house” she pictured, Ofodile lives in a musty apartment; he is still completing his medical education, and works from six in the morning till eight at night. Determined to assimilate, he insists that they both use English names (his is Dave Bell), scolds her for using Anglicisms (“It’s an elevator, not a lift”), and forbids her to cook African food. Similarly, in “On Monday of Last Week,” Kamara has come to America to join her husband, who left shortly after their wedding six years before. By the time he finally sends for her, she no longer recognizes him: his “ungainly American accent,” his hairy toes.
These characters are close enough to American society to observe it well, but distant enough to maintain a mordant and sometimes biting perspective. Kamara, who works as a nanny for a well-to-do American couple, muses on the ridiculous obsessions of the parents: “She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one’s child were the exception rather than the rule.” The narrator of the title story, which is written in the second person, sharply notices the way others react upon seeing her with her white boyfriend:
You knew by people’s reactions that you two were abnormal--the way the nasty ones were too nasty and the nice ones too nice. The old white men and women who muttered and glared at him, the black men who shook their heads at you, the black women whose pitying eyes bemoaned your lack of self-esteem, your self-loathing. Or the black women who smiled swift solidarity smiles; the black men who tried too hard to forgive you, saying a too-obvious hi to him; the white men and women who said ‘What a good-looking pair’ too brightly, too loudly, as though to prove their own open-mindedness to themselves.
The women are all caught in a peculiar bind: no matter how unhappy they know themselves to be, they cannot communicate their despair to their friends and relatives back home. Sometimes it is a matter of guilt. No matter how bad things seem, those left behind have it worse. “Does one throw away a guinea fowl’s egg?” Chinaza imagines her aunt shrieking at her. “Do you know how many women would offer both eyes for a doctor in America?” (So what if it turns out that he is already married to a woman who promised him a green card and now refuses to divorce him?) Kamara longs to confide her misery to an old friend, believing that “if she told Chinwe how she did not like her bed but did not want to get up from it in the morning, Chinwe would understand her bewilderment.” But when she calls, Chinwe is despondent because her husband has gotten another woman pregnant. Kamara hangs up without confessing her troubles: “she could not complain about not having shoes when the person she was talking to had no legs.” It is their unhappiness itself that separates these women from their homeland. They have become American enough to be unsatisfied with what they thought they wanted.
At the same time, even the most assimilated among them cannot entirely divorce themselves from the Nigerian mores that persist in their new lives. Nkem, the main character in “Imitation,” lives in a big house in the Philadelphia suburbs, while retaining an immigrant’s appreciation for American superiority: “She really belonged to this country now, this country of curiosities and crudities, this country where you could drive at night and not fear armed robbers, where restaurants served one person enough food for three. . . . She goes to a Pilates class twice a week in Philadelphia with her neighbor; she bakes cookies for her children’s classes and hers are always the favorites; she expects banks to have drive-ins.” But her husband lives with her and their children for only two months out of the year. The rest of it he spends in Lagos, tending to his business and likely fooling around behind her back. “You know why they won’t move here, even if business were better here?” another Nigerian woman asks her. “Because America does not recognize Big Men. Nobody says ‘Sir! Sir!’ to them in America. Nobody rushes to dust their seats before they sit down.” If they are victims of a culture in which economics, not love, is the decisive factor, the women also are complicit. Nkem remembers that she, too, once dated married men for what they could provide: one paid her father’s hospital bills, another fixed her parents’ house and bought them furniture. America may have “grown on her, snaked its roots under her skin,” but she has other roots as well.
"The Headstrong Historian,” the story that concludes this collection, explicitly rewrites Achebe, taking one of the unseen wives in Things Fall Apart and putting her at the center. Nwamgba is the wife of Obierika, whom readers of Achebe will remember as the friend of Okonkwo, the book’s central character. In contrast to the quiet, docile figures in Achebe’s novels, Nwamgba is “sharp-tongued” and “headstrong,” once even besting her brother in a wrestling match. After she falls in love with Obierika at first sight while the two are still children, her father permits her to marry him rather than choosing a husband for her based on social status or family alliances, so as “to save himself years of trouble when she would keep returning home after confrontations with in-laws.” Obierika, too, flouts custom by refusing to take another wife, even after multiple miscarriages leave Nwamgba barren. At last, after visiting an oracle and performing the required sacrifice, she bears a son, Anikwenwa. Obierika dies soon afterward--murdered, Nwamgba believes, by two jealous cousins who covet his land.
When the first missionary arrives, most of the villagers greet his teachings with bewilderment: “He spoke about their god, who had come to the world to die, and who had a son but no wife, and who was three but also one. Many of the people around Nwamgba laughed loudly. Some walked away, because they had imagined that the white man was full of wisdom.” But Nwambga, like the priest in Achebe’s Arrow of God, realizes that her son can gain an advantage by learning English--then he will be able to take Obierika’s cousins to the “white man’s court” and take back the land that rightfully belongs to him. She is thrilled when this happens, but less pleased by the other changes in Anikwenwa, who now calls himself Michael: he won’t eat her food because it is sacrificed to idols, he instructs her to cover her breasts, and he refuses to participate in the clan initiation ceremony. He goes away to Lagos to become a teacher, and eventually returns to the mission as a catechist. “She looked at him, this man wearing trousers, and a rosary around his neck, and wondered whether she had meddled with his destiny. Was this what his chi had ordained for him, this life in which he was like a person diligently acting a bizarre pantomime?”
Nwamgba is likewise unimpressed by her son’s meek wife, but takes pity on her when she has trouble conceiving. Since the Christian couple refuses to visit the oracle, she goes herself and makes the sacrifice, and afterward the woman bears two children. The second is a girl, named Grace by her parents but whom Nwamgba calls Afamefuna, or My Name Will Not Be Lost. The two develop a close bond, and Nwamgba teaches her granddaughter traditional poetry, stories, and pottery. When Nwamgba is dying, Anikwenwa refuses to call his daughter back from secondary school, but she returns of her own accord, “her restless spirit urging her home.” In a final wink to Achebe, Adichie writes that Grace is carrying in her backpack an essay called “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Southern Nigeria,” written by “an administrator from Worcestershire who had lived among them for seven years.”
This “administrator,” of course, is the man who appears at the end of Things Fall Apart. In the novel’s last paragraph, his voice takes over the narrative, dramatizing what would happen to his colonial subjects: their stories, their history, would for decades be told by others, by occupiers who did not understand or appreciate their culture. Who will take it back? asks the silence at the end of Achebe’s novel. Adichie here offers an answer:
It was Grace who would read about these savages, titillated by their curious and meaningless customs, not connecting them to herself until her teacher, Sister Maureen, told her she could not refer to the call-and-response her grandmother had taught her as poetry because primitive tribes did not have poetry. . . . It was Grace who, as one of the few women at the University College in Ibadan in 1950, would change her degree from chemistry to history after she heard, while drinking tea at the home of a friend, the story of Mr. Gboyega . . . a chocolate-skinned Nigerian, educated in London, distinguished expert on the history of the British Empire, [who] had resigned in disgust when the West African Examinations Council began talking of adding African history to the curriculum, because he was appalled that African history would even be considered a subject. . . . It was Grace who would begin to rethink her own schooling--how lustily she had sung, on Empire Day, “God bless our Gracious King. Send him victorious, happy and glorious. Long to reign over us”; how she had puzzled over words like ‘wallpaper’ and ‘dandelions’ in her textbooks, unable to picture those things. . . . It was Grace who, driving past Agueke on her way back, would become haunted by the image of a destroyed village and would go to London and to Paris and to Onicha, sifting through moldy files in archives, reimagining the lives and smells of her grandmother’s world, for the book she would write called Pacifying With Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria.
The language of this story is recognizably Achebe’s: the transposition of Igbo expressions and proverbs into English, the dispassionate portrayal of both traditional religion and Christianity. And the message is his as well: the reclamation of African culture from colonialist writers whose texts were predicated on racist assumptions, subtle or blatant, and from an educational system in which children read stories depicting members of their own race as uncultured savages and Europeans as the bearers of wisdom. But Adichie has gone beyond, or away from, Achebe in an important way. Finally she is optimistic. She may have grown up on Enid Blyton, but in her lifetime she has already seen things that fall apart begin to come back together
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.