Unconventional Narration in The Thing Around Your Neck

Chimamanda Adichie’s short stories in her collection The Thing Around Your Neck use unconventional means of telling her main characters’ stories. In both “Jumping Monkey Hill” and the book-titled “The Thing Around Your Neck”, Adichie uses a change of tenses or a direct address to her main characters from the narrating voice to single out their stories as particularly significant, and, more importantly, personal.

In “Jumping Monkey Hill”, the protagonist, Ujunwa, a gifted Nigerian writer, is invited to an African writing convention hosted by a white Englishman named Edward, where she meets other talented African writers from all over the continent. The convention is a mixture of Senegalese, South African, Zimbabwean, and Tanzanian writers, among others. What is most notable about this grouping is that, even as Edward and his wife, Isabel, attempt to group them all together under one roof to produce a great work of truly African fiction, the characters never quite mesh together. As Ujunwa judges and characterizes each based on her impressions, the best she can refer to them as at first glance is that “The Senegalese woman was the most promising” (p. 97). There is essentially no unity between the writers. And, despite Edward’s implied assumption that what is feasible or “implausible” must be collectively agreed upon, it becomes clear how distinctly different Ujunwa’s story really is from the rest. Before she leaves the room and exits, in noticeably similar fashion as in the story she has been writing, she questions, “A real story of real people?” (p. 114) She returns to what she knows, what she has lived by, and what is essentially her story.

“The Thing Around Your Neck”, addresses the much broader life circumstances for the main character, Akunna, through second-person narration. By addressing her as “you”, the narrator emphasizes the single importance of her story. This major theme is outlined by the fact that Akunna quickly voices her contempt for those who make their generalizations about Africa. Eventually she meets someone who does not generalize as she so often expects, a man who “had been to Ghana and Uganda and Tanzania…and had read a lot about sub-Saharan African countries, their histories, their complexities” (p. 120). Yet, despite her comfort with the college student, Akunna cannot escape the fact that she has her single heritage, her country to hold on to. By leaving the man nameless and addressing Akunna as the only named character (aside from Professor Cobbledick), and despite meeting a sympathetic other, Akunna’s story nevertheless remains the only seemingly authentic story of the tale. Akunna eventually comes to the realization that she must inevitably return home taking the same type of flight from the foreign misinterpretation of her personal story.

Social Critique in “Jumping Monkey Hill”

I found “Jumping Monkey Hill” to be one of the most compelling and socially critical short stories in the collection. The scathing social critique primarily consists of foreign perceptions of Nigerians, or Africans in general, and the subtle exploitation of women. Although these are not novel ideas by any means, the creativity with which Adichie presents them and the raw force behind her words make “Jumping Monkey Hill” a piece of importance.

Isabel, the wife of the workshop organizer, quaintly falls into the role of clueless rich lady. The observations she makes throughout the story are declared with such conviction, but lack any real substance. She claims that “with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had to come from Nigerian royal stock.” (99). Ujunwu clearly serves as the medium through which Adichie projects her voice. This is made clear when Ujunwu’s first reaction to Isabel’s careless statement “was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London.” (99). I found this statement to be entirely paralleled with the anecdote Adichie gave in “Danger of a Single Story,” where she almost passive aggressively chided an American student who extrapolated a single African character in a novel to represent all Africans. For this reason, I felt “Jumping Monkey Hill” was the story in which Adichie’s personal voice most clearly came through. Furthermore, the characterization of interactions with foreigners, presented above, portrays the exact situation that Adichie denounces in the TED Talk, the single story. Isabel had a clear understanding of Africans as having certain features, and the ones that did not fall under this category had to have some extraordinary reason to explain it (even though diversity of appearance exists within all ethnicities).

The other critique Adichie provides is the subtle exploitation of women in the work force by men. The story presents two situations in which Ujunwu finds the voice to speak out against men in positions of authority taking advantage of her position through sexual harassment. In both situations, Ujunwu storms out, understandably insulted by the innuendos made. Although I appreciated Ujunwu finding this strength, I did not exactly take to Ujunwu’s reactions, simply because of what it implies. By storming out, it seems that Adichie does not see the possibility of even interacting with people that act this way or that remain silent in such situations. I do understand Ujunwu’s reasons for walking out, and I honestly believe that I probably would have done the same thing, but I think this makes an interesting point. Adichie’s purpose in writing such literature seems to be simply explaining realities, rather than proposing manners of fixing the situation. In Professor Larson’s class, we extensively discussed the idea of African art being an art of utility, rather than aesthetic. We used various pieces of literature to frame this thought that African art generally serves some practical purpose, such as the traditional masks that served as communicators with ancestors, not simple decoration. However, it remains clear that Adichie does not fall under this category. Her writing, at least in the case of this story, does not serve a practical purpose; it does not offer a solution, instead it simply frames a situation. This is not necessarily a negative aspect to her writing, I just felt it was notable.

Abstract: Magical Realism and Reclaiming a “True” Past: The Role of Witchcraft and the Occult in Modern Nigerian Literature

How can magical realism be used as a counternarrative to the history of colonization? Contrary to the single story of Africa as a “black” continent, magical realism in works by authors around the continent attempts to run counter to the colonizers’ “official” account of what occurred in the past. In Nigerian literature specifically, magical realism is seen most often in texts attempting to fill in the gaps of the country’s history: From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to the works of Ben Okri, fantastical elements like shamans, visions and dreamlike journeys work as a means of adding the personal to the political. Instead of allowing one version of their national history to be told, authors of magical realism draw on extraordinary events to resist the limits of one understanding of the past, from the arrival of Europeans onto the continent to the Nigerian oil boom. That literary tradition is mirrored in the contemporary practice of and belief in witchcraft and the occult, social structures that resist governmental authority and instead choose to self-fashion themselves as their own definitive systems. The uncertainty of the government leads individuals into these organizations and pseudo-religious groups, which promise them the riches, stability and power the government cannot. Therefore those who engage in university cults, identify themselves as teenage witches or otherwise engage in the occult are resisting a Nigerian identity being given to them by the country’s government or mainstream, much like magical realist authors use the fantastic and supernatural to provide another explanation of colonialism’s and capitalism’s effects on Nigeria. This paper will examine how, viewed together, the tradition of magical realism and the modernity of witchcraft are working—sometimes at odds with one another—to create a multilayered version of Nigeria that resists a single identity and instead transforms itself to fit its citizens’ needs. This paper will use Things Fall Apart, “Stars of the New Curfew” and other Okri short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, Graceland and postcolonial and magical realist theory.

Realness and Things Around Your Neck

I appreciate Adichie’s work with the short story completely. When compared with her novels, Things Around Your Neck shows a different writing style to the reader. Along with over all brevity, her sentences are made without trying to be too winded. They are efficient in conveying to the reader the reality and experiences felt by the characters. 

And common to what we have spoken throughout the semester and to what she spoke about during her TED forum, is the analysis of what is considered to be real in terms of authenticity of culture and heritage. “Jumping Monkey Hill” delves deep into this subject, something that is integral to Adiche and arguably every writer of the course thus far. This sense of authenticity is brought up through the main character’s novel being challenged by the condescending and lustful Edward, the host for a Pan-African writer’s workshop. The main character finally exhibits some form of self-defense of herself and her authenticity, lashing out at Edward and a strong manner. This is perhaps the most demonstrative of examples of authenticity. 

So what is the point of including this? What these short stories all seem to hammer home is the danger of the single story, Adichie’s central thought. This danger can stem from the prejudices held by individuals, who adhere to singular examples of what they have seen, heard, or learned. The danger that arises is the inflexibility of understanding a person. 

I’d like to end this post with short story named after the book. There is a powerful moment, where our (different) protagonist mentions how she can alleviate herself of the things around her neck? There are a plethora of symbols of this moment. It could be being alleviated of her personal trauma at the expense of her uncle or it could be lifting her own prejudices against the Americans, who can’t seem to understand her. I’m interested in what everyone else thought.

 

Ps. sorry for not knowing any of the names. 

Abstract- What Makes Literature Specific: Temporality and the Fantasy of Exile in Elvis and Bolanle

This paper takes Charles Piot’s theory of Togo and applies it to two examples of Nigerian Literature. Piot’s book, Nostalgia for the Future discusses “fantasies of exile,” and refigurations of temporality and space which is applied to his study and experience in Togo. In this paper, I use these ideas in Graceland’s character, Elvis and The Secret Lives of the Four Wives’ Bolanle to show how literature makes this theory of a country specific to individual identities. While hybridizations characterize the Togolese culture and politics, it also characterizes the individual characters in Nigerian literature. Both Elvis and Bolanle experience a traumatic break, which then disrupts their identity and encourages a ‘fantasy of exile.’ These characters reject the past as a way of moving toward a new future. While at first Bolanle rejects her past education for a more traditional future, she ends up moving in the same direction as Elvis – towards an unknown yet desirable future. However, there is a gap between a known, rejected past and an unknown, desired future. There is also the desire to erase the past, which Piot describes as noncontinuous temporality, as a means to mend this gap to get to the future. The question that I examine then is, can one have a future that erases the past? Furthermore, the idea of ‘re-temporalizations’ is displayed in both works, showing the change in space. As Piot describes it, “the distant is now proximate in ways that it never was before, and the proximate seems distant” (164). The ideas of the global and modern now seem easily attainable while the local and traditional seem more distant. In essence, this paper looks at these characters as those who do not feel at home in the world; they do not have a place where they fit; they are ‘others’ that Piot refers to as having nostalgia not for the past but for a future that they themselves are unsure of.

 

Who is the Real Impersonator: the Real Impostor–Final Abstract

This paper will examine the misconceptions regarding what it means to be a “true”Nigerian man.  The sexual minorities who live in Nigerian society are persecuted by representatives of African nationalism.  These representatives include: the police, soldiers, and ordinary men.  Queers are viewed as pariahs and depraved creatures by men who refuse to see their humanity.  Despite the mistreatment of this oppressed group they still exist whether Nigerians are willing to accept them in the larger society or not.  Homo-hatred is state sanctioned in Nigeria.  In a country that considers itself modern and progressive politically and socially.  Although, the illusion of what it means to be a masculine African man is rooted in centuries of tribal beliefs, customs, and traditions: the fact remains that queers have alway been a part of Nigerian society.  Today’s African men who have nationalistic beliefs wear imitation masks of what the original representations of manhood are.  Many Nigerians believe that queerness is a manifistation that originated with the arrival of colonialism.  In Chris Abani’s novel,Graceland, Nigerian society is revealed with all of its ugly homo-hatred and lack of respect for human life in general.  The main protagonist, a sixteen year old queer, Nigerian young man, named Elvis, performs on a beach as an Elvis impersonator to make enough money to eat.  He lives in one of the poorest ghettoes in Lagos.  His friend (and salvation) Redemption, secures him a job in a night club for the rich as a dancer with single wealthy women.  Unfortunately, Elvis accidentally bumps into a high ranking general who threatens to kill him.  In the novel, the police along with the military are corrupt and dangerous–a threat not only to queers but to all Nigerians.

Yet, I argue that in Chris Abani’s novel, Graceland, African queers are represented in the way Nigerians see them as impersonators of white men’s desire and impostors of “true” African maleness and masculinity, when in fact, the African nationalist leaders and other representatives of that same mind set are the real impersonators and impostors.

The Bitterest Pill: Adiche’s reflections on “The Single Story”

Adiche’s TEDtalk on “The Danger of a Single Story” seems particularly poignant after reading several of her short stories, which work at length to present both the Nigerian story that is hidden and the one that is presented abroad.  In her TEDtalk, Adiche warns that a single story of any place and any people will narrow our vision and cause misunderstanding, lack of empathy, distance.  She proposes a flourishing of arts and media that overpowers the single story, presenting alternatives, but never undermining the reality of that original story.

In “The Thing Around Your Neck,” Adiche does not shy away from the reality of rape and abuse, an injustice which is so often directly associated with Africa and Africans.  In “A Private Experience,” she writes of the religious and ethnic tension that erupts in violent riots in Nigeria—the bloodthirsty and savage African being one of only a few sparce images of Africa that permeate Western culture.

Yet, in bringing these clichéd images to bear in her stories, Adiche strikes a balance that few other writers manage to do: she confronts the single story of Africa, without denying the inequities that make that story popular.  Yes, there is rape in “The Thing Around Your Neck,” but there is also something that looks like love, and the contestation between caring about the developing world and knowing it intimately.  Yes, there are riots on a macro level in “A Private Experience,” but there is also reconciliation and understanding on a micro level.  Adiche strives in her stories, always, for a sense of balance, and equity in the representation of a country where sometimes the stereotypes are true.

A Private Experience vs. Half of a Yellow Sun

As was the case with mostly all of the works we’ve looked at this semester, Adichie’s short stories touch on the subjects of America vs. Nigeria, religion, and sexuality. However, her story A Private Experience gives a slightly different commentary on religion. While the background action of the story follows the same pattern of religious violence that can be found in Adichie’s other work Half of a Yellow Sun as well as Abani’s novel GraceLand, Adichie’s short story shows a more hopeful side of the religious wars that pull Nigeria apart. I believe this switch to a more hopeful tone about religion can be attributed to Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” TEDtalk. In this talk her discussion about dispelling single stereotypes about certain groups allows Adichie to write this story from a different angle.

Within this story, Adichie’s protagonist, an Igbo woman named Chika, hides with a Muslim woman in an abandoned store during a religious riot in the Kano marketplace. The two make best of their situation and are able to bond over their missing loved ones. The woman even prays to Allah for both her daughter and Chika’s sister to survive this riot. By allowing these two women to bond over the normal reactions to a situation like this, Adichie shows that, regardless of religion, each person is essentially the same in their reactions and concerns relating to specific experiences.

A similarity between Half of a Yellow Sun and A Private Experience is also present. In both cases, close sisters are torn apart. Chika’s sister is lost, and, at the end of the story, Chika resolves to the fact that she will never find her sister again. I’m not sure if when Adichie wrote this story predates or postdates the publication of Half of a Yellow Sun, but I wonder why Adichie chooses to have this happen to her characters. Kainene’s disapperance held more weight due to following the entirety of Half of a Yellow Sun’s events, but, in a short story, the disappearance of Nnedi does not fully resolve much of the story’s conflict. This makes me question the importance of Nnedi not being found.

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A dialect dilema

I find The Master a more difficult film for me to follow than Emotional Crack for three main reasons. The first cause of my difficulty is language related. Emotional Crack lacked the local dialect that was present in The Master. While watching the latter film, I kept wishing that there were subtitles. Also, there were many arguments in both part 1 and part 2 of The Master. And during those arguments the dialogue would speed up, making it more difficult for me to understand. The second component of my difficulty is that while Emotional Crack is a drama of domestic relationships where nearly all the conflict is acted out on film, The Master is a drama dealing with con artists and the corruption of marketing, and contracting. Many of the dilemmas are talked about (rather than shown) in meetings, at an extremely fast pace, in heavy dialect. Because of this, I missed a lot of the key information. Therefore, I did not understand events that occurred in subsequent scenes. The third component that made The Master more difficult for me to understand is that deception is key element of its plot. Because I was not able to understand half of the plots and schemes that were vocalized during the business meetings, I was never initially sure when one of our lead characters was seemingly in trouble, whether it was act to con one of his clients or genuine. In addition to these three main points of difficulty, I will also acknowledge that part of my struggle may have been that my interest level affected my attention level. Emotional Crack already had the advantage of holding my attention more than The Master did because I typically tend to find films and literature that focus on relationships, marriage, domestic issues, and familial drama more enticing than get-rich-quick plots.

African Cinema vs. Nigerian Films

The Brian Larkin article discussed (once again) Jameson’s argument that third world literature is a national allegory. Larkin discusses the applicability of this argument in terms of film, and decides that traditional African cinema began as political allegory but that the Nigerian films we know as Nollywood have strayed from this tendency.

Larkin argues that African cinema began as a response to colonialism. They were almost explicitly in the vernacular and drew heavily on political turmoil for plotline. Larkin argues, however, that Nigerian films “share neither the political ambition nor the cultural effort of this earlier generation of film production.” Nigerian films have become more of an economic endeavor. Using English expands the field of potential customers. Creating melodramatic plots and shock-and-awe scenes open the market to include more than just the elite upper class of society. Nollywood films do not attempt to make intellectual critiques of the government, nor do they claim to. They embrace the fact that they are meant to entertain the people and show off that which is usually taboo- the occult, superstitions, sex, corruption, betrayal.

If Larkin is right, and Nollywood films are moving further and further away from Jameson’s idea of a national allegory, will the same thing happen with Nigerian literature? Have we already seen this trend with The Secret Lives of the Four Wives?