When he asked if she would marry him, she thought how unnecessary it was, his asking, since she would have been happy simply to be told.” Doesn’t this one sentence open up an entire world of gender relations, one that is both static and shifting? The woman is willing to play the traditional role of docility and submission; she is fine with being instructed, and is surprised at being “asked”.
The man, although aware of his own power in the relationship, wishes that there should be at least the appearance of a choice. Instead of confirming his love by asserting his power, he seems to realize that he may be loved more intensely by renouncing it. There are many such splendid moments in Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck, and we take away from these little encounters an understanding of an entire society tussling with its sense of itself.
Conflict zone: One of the backdrops of Adichie’s book is ethnic strife. Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP
Still only in her early 30s, Adichie has earned herself one of the strongest reputations and most substantial readerships among young writers in the world today on the strength of two fine novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. Her new book is a set of smoothly crafted and polished stories that revisit some of the themes of the earlier two—civil war and ethnic strife among Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims, corruption in politics and the corruption of society through politics, the cult of the “Big Man” in society, the similarly lopsided power relations within homes and the allure of America (where many of the stories are set) for disaffected younger people. But for the most part, these issues are seen through the filters of marriage and family, and it is at complex moments such as these that Adichie’s writing burns brightest.
One story, Ghosts, is told through the voice of a retired university professor who now lives alone after the death of his wife and the departure of his daughter to America. It is, despite the literarlness of the title, one of the best ghost stories I have ever read. While on a visit to the university in search of the pension that never arrives, the professor is surprised when he comes across an old acquaintance whom everybody had thought was long dead. This is one kind of ghost in the story. The two men get talking, and the professor can’t stop himself from revealing that he is not as lonely as everyone thinks, because his departed wife, Ebere, has taken to visiting him even after her death. “I do not go to church,” he says “I stopped going after Ebere first visited, because I was no longer uncertain.” The way the past weighs on the lives of old people, the world of flickers and echoes and presences even the most rational of them must feel around them, is beautifully evoked by the yearning tone of Adichie’s narration.
The Thing Around Your Neck: Fourth Estate, 228 pages, Rs299.
This is a book about the Nigerian experience of America as much as it is about the Nigeria of the African continent, and one could usefully draw a parallel between Adichie’s characters and the Bengali Americans of Jhumpa Lahiri. But Adichie’s characters are usually more newly arrived and lower in the class structure than those of Lahiri. As a result, they are willing to sacrifice more, pull out more of their roots in culture, food and language in order to be accepted as part of the mainstream and not be ghettoized. Adichie expertly navigates the details of immigrant confusion and striving.
Whether it is a wife longing for the return of her husband from Nigeria and the comforting sight of “another used towel in the bathroom”, or a husband who perversely insists on speaking in English to his wife newly arrived from the motherland, there are many shrewdly observed moments in these stories.
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