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Whose Reality and the Possibilities that Never Were. A Review of “The Thing Around Your Neck”

January 11, 2012

By Fiorenzo Conte

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories  have the merit to shed light on how the definition of reality is not a given but is contested and continuously produced .  Adichie tells us that often Western media packaged a reality which is presented as a definitive account. It is a single story, it is one of the possible perception of how things look like; yet this account is established as THE reality, THE story. Her book The Thing Around Your Neck tell us the other stories and in so doing it highlights the partial and often incorrect nature of THE single story.

One of the example of the partiality of each account is the way the strife between Hausa-speaking Muslims and Igbo-speaking Christians are reported in western media. Such clashes make the headlines so often that they have come to be quintessential of Nigeria in the Western imaginary. Yet the daily experience of so many Nigerian is sometimes a very different one: it is an experience of peaceful and respectful interaction; it can be the experience -recounted in the story “A Privete Experience” – of an Hausa woman who lead an Igbo girl in a store where they could hide together from the riots that broke out in the market. Their story is one of gentleness and mutual support which does not fit into the framework of violence and hatred. It is not a surprise that stories like these do not make the headlines.

The same status of non-existence is reserved to those novelists who decide to touch topics which are considered by someone  not plausible, not realistic enough for contemporary Africans. One of the novels of the book  “Jumping Monkey Hill” is the story of Ujunwa, a Nigerian writer, who participates to an African Writers workshop organized by the British Council. She decides to write about a women who had obtained a job in banking only to quit later on because she did not stand to sexually please male customers into opening a bank account. Afterall she was educated and she had a degree: she could obtain more. Other participants in the workshop however did not agree. They claimed that  the story was implausible or that “it isn’t a real story for real people”; women in Africa afterall have very few opportunities to find a job so if they find one they wouldn’t let it go so easily . They said so only to find out later that the woman’s story was Ujunwa’s story: what part of it was not real or African enough?

The world that comes out from these other stories is one where the opportunities for the Nigerian characters are not as many as for their American counterparts; is a world where the choice for somebody (who is most of the time American) is acceptance for the choices of others for somebody else (most of the time Nigerian);  it is one where the subject of their lives are well aware of the external boundaries, that they are not the only authors, the makers of their stories; it is a world where the characters often wonder what would have been, pondering about the possibilities which never were because something bigger than them happened.

This realization translates into the acceptance that the destiny is somehow ineluctable, a concept so alien to the American culture to which each of the Nigerian character is exposed to or interacts with. Such life  full of opportunities does appeal: the book is full of characters waiting outside the American embassy to get a visa or that consider a green card as a blessing. And yet these people accept what it comes as much as they  searches for these opportunities or let other do the search (they let other chose for they husband, for their job).  This acceptance however is neither hopeless nor passive: it is rather stoic. It is in fact the acceptance of a superior order which is necessary because it governs and maintains the order of things. Accepting what the arrangers of marriage decided for Chinaza – the main character of “The Arrangers of Marriage” – was necessary for her to say thanks to her aunt and uncle who cared for her when the parents died. It is an acceptance which feeds into an awareness that the destiny compensates at some point, that life is a cycle and that “what is ahead is better”.  As one of the character puts it when asked if his life is a good life “it is not good or bad, I tell her, it is simply mine. And that is what matters”.

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