I often forget that literature can be a good means to emotionally challenge yourself. But it is not often that I pick up a novel wanting to face that kind of challenge. I’ve read a few good feminist texts that have redefined the way I think of womanhood, The Vagina Monologues for example, but not many that achieve something like a melodic undertone. Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck is beautiful in it’s multitude of definitions, it is human, it is feminist, it paints stark realities about corruption. But it also feels honest, but in a quiet way. The Thing Around Your Neck does not point at the root of evil at your door while screaming, instead it withholds judgement while it demonstrating injustice.
This is a novel that like so many people could fall into that trap of getting angry and arrogant and dismissive of those who do not share it’s core views. But instead it seems to take a step back and steel itself. Around Your Neck is a considered set of narratives, handled with apt dexterity and no where does it run away from the author and shatter it’s own integrity or dignity.
The short story collection moves around some themes you’d expect, immigration, sexuality, infidelity, unhappy marriages, sibling rivalry and the ugly faces of corruption and violence. There is a lot of displacement and an incredible amount of female narrators. Some of these women desperate to find pride in their culture but are forced to shed it when they immigrate to America. Some of these women are experiencing terrible tragedy and loss. Some of these women are from either side of waring religious groups yet find a strange sort of peace in a life threatening situation. But more than anything there is a lot of unhappy characters and in particularly unhappy women at the mercy of their male counterparts in this collection.
There is a stark frankness to Adichie’s writing, it is uncomplicated which adds to the harrowing kick of some of these short stories. Rape is handled like an offhanded norm, as if Adichie’s characters are speaking of going to get apples and oranges from the supermarket. It is an almost desperate reality for many of these characters that they half expect to always to be something less significant. Their bodies seem like public property to be graffitied upon and owned by who ever chooses to. They are the socially subordinate sisters who tell their brother’s stories and not their own and sometimes, a minority of them take small revenges. But these feelings cascade throughout the collection.
When we do come across empowered characters, they are usually women our narrator is warned against, or they appear in ways we do not anticipate such as the subject of same-sex desire. Or they live with guilt, from past actions that they should never have been forced to undertake.
The culture clashes in this collection are perhaps more poignantly felt through the young women in the collection who are visiting Nigeria from the USA or where women escaping Nigeria find themselves faced by an oppressive individual elsewhere. It as if Adichie dangles the hope of change and autonomy in front of a lot of her characters and then snatches it away. There is very little space or time for grief, because in many of these stories survival is the focus and there is no room to slow down or stop. Or there is no worth given to grief or magnitude of emotion that they experience because they are women and some how less important than their male counterparts.
This is my first real taste of African literature and as I expected it was an emotionally fraught experience and I did find it challenging. But it was only a challenge because this is a topic that I am passionate about and I empathised with these women, fictional or not. Adichie’s candid writing hasn’t made me feel any less convinced that feminism is important. Around Your Neck has only strengthened my convictions that this is a global issue and that feminism isn’t something that is over and ‘old news’.
I think you should read this novel. I think that if you are in a position of privilege and believe that feminism is only important and relevant when it is concerned with the west and is entirely whitewashed, then you should really try to read this novel. I think that if you want to emotionally challenge yourself and the staying power of your convictions on this topic then you should also really read this novel. It will give you a lot to think about.