For whom did Things Fall Apart for the most?

Things certainly fell apart in Achebe’s novel, but is everything gone?  I am alluding to the final tragic scene.  Upon discovering Okonkwo’s hanged body, Obierika and his friends call upon the white officers to bury him because handling the body of one who has committed suicide and thereby offended Mother Earth is prohibited in their community.  I acknowledge that having Okonkwo buried by the very men that he wanted to destroy heightens his personal tragedy.  Yet, having the novel conclude with one of the clan’s laws being obeyed is a subtle way of giving the clan the last word.  If Achebe wanted to show that the culture was completely decimated we would have seen this law being overruled.

This complicates the debate of whether the book’s title refers primarily to Okonkwo’s personal tragedy or to the tragedy of his entire village.  Yes, the village’s customs are rapidly dying with the imposed introduction of British law and Christianity.  However, it is Okonkwo who is entirely dead (not dying- dead) at the end, while the people are still struggling to follow their old laws, even while under new occupation.  For this reason I argue that the title refers primarily to Okonkwo.

The experiences that provoked Okonokwo’s suicide were all experiences that affronted him personally: being arrested, imprisoned, humiliated, and beaten by the white men.  I argue that it was these unavenged humiliations reaped upon him personally that drove him to suicide more than the indignities that others in his clan had to suffer.  For this reason, I believe that his death primarily represented him and not his community.


A Private Experience

In “A Private Experience,” two women from very different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different religions, and completely different lifestyles are forced to share an intimate experience in a convenient store during a riot. The nature of their coming together — running from the violence and chaos of the riot in the market and taking shelter together in the store — necessitates shared feelings and an immediate connection. Both women, although one is Igbo and the other Hausa, are in equal danger due to an event that really has nothing to do with either of them — other than that they are each a member of the opposite  warring party. 

After telling the woman that she is studying to be a doctor, the woman tells her that her nipples are burning like pepper. It seems the woman is asking Chika because she assumes in her some medical authority, and hopes that Chika will be able to help her. However, when Chika tells her she needs to moisturize and that the problem is from breast feeding, the woman does not seem to believe her. Perhaps she doubts that Chika could possibly know anything about motherhood, doctor or not, since she is young and has not had any children. In order to gain the woman’s trust, Chika tells her that “it was the same with my mother. Her nipples cracked when the sixth child came, and she didn’t know what caused it, until a friend told her that she had to moisturize” (50). The woman then wants to know what her mother used, and decides that Chika’s advice might be warranted.

Chika thinks to herself that “she hardly ever lies, but the few times she does, there is always a purpose behind the lie. She wonders what purpose this lie serves, this need to draw on a fictional past similar to the woman’s” (50). The purpose of the story about her mother, it seems, was to get the woman to believe her “medical” advice. However, Chika’s question about “what purpose this lie serves, this need to draw on a fiction past similar to the woman’s” also suggests a deeper need for trust and shared experience beyond mere medical advice. The purpose of telling the woman about her own mother is also to relate a shared experience, to have something in common, and to show that she is also a human being with a mother and a family. In all of the religious and ethnic turmoil and violence going on outside, here are two women who, through story telling, are able to derive a common understanding and sympathy for one another. The act of story telling enables this shared experience between the two of them. In the face of the religious and ethnic violence, it is difficult — if not impossible — for people to relate to one another.  It seems that the purpose of a story, in one sense, is to foster relationships with people who we might otherwise know nothing about.


I found our class discussion on the many meanings of the title of Adichie’s short story Imitation fascinating.  One meaning (I can’t remember if this came up in class) is the importance of appearance between Nkem and Amaechi.  The first example that comes to my mind is when Amaechi tells Nkem that she should make her husband move his girlfriend out of their home and then let the matter drop (page 34).  When Nkem asks Amaechi what her advise would be if her husband was having the affair but not bringing his girlfriend into their home, Amaechi was at a loss for advise.  This suggests that upholding the appearance of marital fidelity is more highly valued than actually maintaining this fidelity.

The conversation between the two women also portrays the significance of role of appearance.  For example, Amaechi always asks Nkem’s advise on cooking and Nkem always obliges, despite knowing that Amaechi is the more competent cook.  Amaechi must know this as well, however, it is understood between them that as mistress of the house, Nkem is expected to be more knowledgeable than Amaechi.  Nkem is aware of hypocritical irony of this.  She admits her background is far more similar to Amaechi’s than it is to her own husband, but because she married a man of money and status, she is obligated to mirror her husband’s status over those who would have once been considered her social peers.  In this sense, imitation becomes a form of deception and money becomes the motivating reason for this deception.  Abiding by this standard seems to help both women feel secure and connected to home.  Yet, in spite of her self, Nkem feels her ability to maintain this appearance slipping away in America.  An example of this is how Amaechi and Nkem confide in one another as sisters, rather than as Mistress and servant.  However, Amaechi still has the excuse of appearance to fall back on when a situation gets uncomfortable.  For example, when Nkem asks Amaechi to admit that she knows her husband has girlfriends, Amaechi replies: “it is not my place, madam” (page 35).

Jumping Monkey Hill

“Jumping Monkey Hill” seemed to be an illustration of what most African studies students fear most- being Edward. Not only does he lust after Ujunwa for no reason other than the fact she is African, but he thinks he knows more about African society than those who are actually living in it. He tells them their stories aren’t “African” enough, after flying down from London with his wife and their friends.

We have talked a lot about which stories are directed to an outside, Western audience and which are written for Nigerians. “Jumping Monkey Hill” most definitely seemed to be a warning to Westerners. Edward is proven ridiculous in the end when Ujunwa’s story actually ends up being true. The final scene  seems to be saying, “see how stupid Westerners look when they think they know more about Africa than an actual African?” It is the same warning my class received from my Contemporary Africa professor, who is from Togo, and was reiterated by my Swahili professor from Tanzania. I think for most people who are passionate about a different place, we fear both being an outsider and forgetting that we are one. Adichie definitely captured the consequences of the latter beautifully in “Jumping Monkey Hill.”

Adichie’s talk

When listening to Adichie’s talk: “The Danger of a Single Story” I was impressed by many of her points.  She explained her college roommate’s misguided stereotypes of Nigerian (or as the roommate would have said, African) culture, but Adichie also admitted to holding many of the same over simplified perceptions of people in her own country.  She used her family’s servant as an example, telling us that her mother always emphasized their servant’s poverty, but never told her children of how skilled his family was in crafts.  Adichie later realized that her perception of many Nigerians was very similar to Americans’ perceptions of them.  The main difference being that Americans would assume that Adichie must have come from a similar background as her servant since she was Nigerian.  The reality was that her lifestyle was much closer to many upper-middle class Americans.

Another point that gave me pause was how strongly literature can influence people’s perception of a culture.  I admit that the reason I decided to take this course was because I knew nothing about Nigeria, and taking this course seemed like (and has been) an enjoyable way to gain knowledge of Nigeria.  Before listening to Adichie’s talk, it did not occur to me that reading a story about a society could be a problematic way of forming one’s perception of it.  However, I would not want someone to form their opinions on American society by basing them on a scenario in a Steven King Novel, so I appreciate Adichie’s concern with Americans and Europeans basing their opinions on Nigeria, from reading her novels.  Though novels do reflect the society they come from, they are not meant to be anecdotes or case models.

Abstract: Identity – Performance or Principle?

Jean Baudrillard once said that: “…language never says (only) what it means.” Oscar Wilde added that: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” They were both proponents of what Susan Andrade cites as “anti-mimeticism” and what Andrew Apter, citing Baudrillard, refers to as “mirage of the referent.” What both ideas are concerned with is how the signifier easily replaces the signified as the standard for reality. This resonates with Apter’s suggestion that the Nigerian state stemmed to a great extent from its representation – purely representational value superseding exchange value and resulting in “a social world of smoke and mirrors.” However, Andrade’s image of the funhouse mirror, while it seems to distort reality reflects it more perfectly. In essence, art can cast more light on the given situation than the angle of the camera .ie. the distortion is more truthful than the mere duplicate that the camera provides.

Chris Abani once offered that “the cause of all our trouble is the belief in an essential, pure identity.” This is complicated by the fact that identity is dependent on meaning through language which is constantly in flux — there can always be a gap between what a person is ascriptively and the identity they perform. In Graceland, Abani prompts us to be aware of the socio-historical construction of identity/race/nation and how a label works despite the absence of an essence.

By exploring Abani’s play with alternate reality and contradiction through his bilateral description of character and setting; his unorthodox structure; his use of dramatic irony and the deployment of ambivalence throughout the novel, I seek to prove that Graceland may act as the fun-house mirror – reminding us that the performance is so often what is authentic.


What is Around Your Neck?

“The Thing Around you Neck” is not just the title of the volume, or even the title of a short story, but some feeling that Adichie seems to be claiming is universal. This “thing” is mentioned twice in the story.

Adichie herself came to the US from Nigeria and spent some time in Connecticut, going to a University outside of Hartford. It would appear that Adichie might have projected her experience upon her character and is further extending the “you” by placing it in the title of the book, read by all who even walk by a book shelf. The use of “you” in the story projects Akunna’s experience upon the reader. Therefore lines like “At night, something would wrap itself around your neck , something that very nearly choked you” and “The thing that wrapped itself around your neck , that nearly choked you before you fell asleep, started to loosen” seem to assume that the reader has had a similar feeling. This universal “you” suggests that what Akunna is going through can be felt by and has been felt by a large demographic of people. Whether Adichie’s “you” is speaking to the large population of Africans, or all immigrants, who have come to America with expectations or to an even wider demographic that includes anyone who has felt “the thing around your neck” it is not clear. Just before Adichie first mentions the tightening of the “thing,” she mentions how Akunna does not write to her family, and is therefore isolated from them and her country.

Just before Adichie mentions the loosening of the “thing,” she describes Akunna and the nameless boy as being happy and being close. For these reasons, it would seem that the thing that kept Akunna up at night, was a sense of loneliness or a disconnection from her people. I would argue that the tightening feeling is more of a sense of disconnection and not loneliness. The constricting nature of this feeling, something “that almost chokes you” seems to have more to do with unresolved feelings from home. Feeling alone, or invisible, she associates more with an empty, airlessness, describing how she feels she could walk through a wall.I would associate choking more with a sinking feeling as opposed to the empty invisibility that goes with being totally alone.  The thing around your neck tightens, she does not say that it was originally tight. Therefore, it is something that could be dangerous but is not necessarily so. Also, the thing wraps “itself” around your neck, showing that is is something you may have no control over, and did not wish for. Because of these two characteristics I see the “thing” as definitely being related to a sense of origin/family/past.  Making this phrase the title of her book suggests that Adichie sees this sensation that can be found in each of the stories and I would agree. 

The Nigerian Outside of Nigeria

One of the things I appreciate most about The Thing Around Your Neck is that it provides insight into the lives of Nigerians outside of Nigeria. All of the other novels we have read this year focus on the effects that outside forces have on Nigerians. These things have been everything from colonialism and globalization, to the spread of religion or culture clashes between ethnic groups. What makes The Thing Around Your Neck so compelling in light of the other literature we have read this semester, is the fact that we are exposed to characters who have uprooted from their homes in Nigeria and are trying to live in the West. We see this scenario in “Imitation,” “On Monday of Last Week,” “The Thing Around Your Neck,” “The Shivering,” and even – to an extent – in “Jumping Monkey Hill.”

By taking the characters out of Nigeria the question of identity is further complicated. In every novel we’ve read this summer characters struggle with the question of identity. Among others we’ve seen Olanna struggle with the constraints of her class, Elvis and Okonkwo with their “manhood,” and Bolanle with concept of self-worth. What I found interesting about the characters who have been moved outside of Nigeria in The Thing Around Your Neck is that they all seem to identify more with their “Nigerian-ness” through facing the extreme cultural differences of the west. This isn’t to say that the characters, necessarily, rebel against Western society, but instead that they can be seen clinging to their heritage more than they would perhaps do if they were still living in Nigeria. It makes me think of a concept we discussed in another one of my classes – the best way of creating communal cooperation is providing a common enemy. I think in Adichie’s stories we see Western culture serving the same purpose. Someone mentioned, last class, that its ironic that having listened to “The Danger of the Single Story,” the Americans in The Thing Around Your Neck are presented in one way. Though I agree with this statement, I think that the reason this is done is so that Adichie can paint these various pictures of Nigerians. The Americans are the “common enemy” of sorts that allows for the multiple stories of the Nigerians to be contrasted against.

Re-presenting Africa?

Of the short stories we read for this week, “Jumping Monkey Hill”  stood out to me in the ways it portrays the assumptions and re-presentations of Africa. First, I particularly liked the (maybe?) allusion to the 1962 African Writer’s Conference, held in Makere, Uganda,  and about which we read a piece by Chinua Achebe concerning the use of the English language in African literature. In Adichie’s story, rather than an emphasis on Western language, the writer’s conference was overshadowed by Edward Campbell’s insistence on Western content, or, the content of African fiction which would align itself most readily with Western notions of Africa. It is an interesting turn; the idea of content, of expressing a “real Africa” in literature, for Achebe and wa Thiong’o alike, was lacking in the 1962 discussions, whereas the issue of language is absent from this story. Adichie is asking an urgent and important question, I think, namely, “What are African stories about?”

It seems a silly question at first. African stories are about Africa, of course. But, in “Jumping Monkey Hill” there are at least two Africas: Campbell’s and the writers’ (among whom Africa is rightfully split into its disparate nation-spaces). Campbell’s is a space of ostrich-eating closeted homosexuals, whose lives are circumscribed by witch doctor contraceptives and violent rapists, because those stories make such mah-ve-lous news. Importantly, this is simply “Africa” for Campbell. He doesn’t ask how Senegalese it would be to come out to one’s family, or how South African it is to eat ostrich meat, etc. Ujunwa’s reaction to the Tanzanian’s story is just as telling; she reads it as caricature rather than “urgent and relevant.” There is something instead, perhaps, about how re-presentative the stories can be, how they can present Africa anew, and challenge preexisting norms.

Yet, considering this, I find it strange that the far majority of the characters are nameless throughout. The Zimbabwean is simply “the Zimbabwean,” etc., and I do not quite understand why they are not given their own individuality. I can see the statement made if Ujunwa was dubbed “the Nigerian” and Campbell the “douchey Brit,” a statement, perhaps, about the implicit anonymity, or the way a person can stand in for a nation, present in the Western view of Africa. But why does Ujunwa get to seem an individual, a person that cannot be as easily read as a caricature of Nigeria? Why is she the only one that defends that individuality (since I will not count the Senegalese’s “incomprehensible” outburst in the face of Campbell’s swiftness in relegating her back to her place, and certainly not with the others’ chuckling)? In the end, we seem to be left with so much more of the “imposing Western ideas on African venues,” of the mute subaltern African, of the fetishized female body, all of which undermine whatever individuality Ujunwa hopes to claim.

I love Chimamanda Adichie

First of all, you all missed an awesome Igbo language workshop.  The teacher was really engaging and we learned a super cool song that translates to, “clap, clap again, clap for the smart ones.” We also had delicious meat pies.

          My goal in life is to meet Chimamanda Adichie.   My goal for the summer is to read all of her books. 

          I think that it might have been interesting to read Jumping Monkey Hill at the beginning of the semester because it challenges how we think about the “African Writer” and invites a lot of discussion and debate.   The setting for this short story set up a perfect framework for the awkwardness and in a way conflict between the “African Writers” and Edward.  The resort shows how white tourists see Africa, as an exotic place with exotic animals.  It is an imitation of Africa, or a single story of Africa, that too many people are willing to buy into.  The same awkward tension that exists in the relationship between the resort and the ‘real’ Africa exists between the ‘African writers’ and Edward.  One side is trying to endorse what the rest of the world wants to believe is ‘authentically African’, and the other side is trying to tell real stories about real life.   The best part is when Ujunwa sticks it to Edward and is like this IS a true story so fuck you.  I also really like when Adiche lists the participants of the workshop.  It’s such a random sampling of “Africans” that British people picked out to be a part of this workshop.  There is no possible way to get a complete picture of what life is like in Africa.  It’s such a huge continent that encompasses such a wide variety of people, we should stop trying to put it into a box and stop generalizing and stereotyping.