Thursday, 23 July 2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I forgot to mention in my Library Loot post this week that finally my requested copy of The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is available to collect from the library. I have been desperate to read it since it was published in early April and now it is only six weeks until it is published in paperback. Oh well, I'll read it and purchase it at a later date. As it is I already have a head-start on reading the collection having read two of the short stories collected.

"A Private Experience" is one of the short stories.

Adichie's writing is understated but possesses a richness and a resonance that is powerful and profound. Both of her wonderful novels and now this short story (not the collection) concern the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, where ethnic tensions and violence escalated. Adichie evokes the War in almost a minimalist way: a devastating truth and reality in a sentence written like a throw-away comment, not embellished or exaggerated but standing upon the merit of its own stark wording. The horror she can convey in one simple line is awe-inspiring and difficult to describe; its simplicity is implied but it is an artistic technique to pack so much punch in a few words. One of Adichie's literary idols is her fellow Nigerian writer -and the founding father of the modern African novel (an accolade given to him by Nelson Mandela) - Chinua Achebe, and he too possesses the gift of constructing words in such a simple yet brutal way, shocking the reader.

"A Private Experience" occurs over one day and night in a small, abandoned shop between two women: Chika, a Medical student and an Igbo Christian from Lagos, who is visiting her aunt in the town, and the nameless woman who leads her to shelter, who is a market trader with five children and also an Hausa Muslim. The women have sought safety from the violent street riot they were caught up in at the market; "Later, Chika will learn that, as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones".

Chika has been separated from her sister Nnedi, and the woman from her eldest daughter; the story provides flash-forward hints to the fate of Nnedi and the future of Chika, who is the main protagonist, but not to the woman, excluding "perhaps the beginning of future grief on her face". The riots are a way of life to the woman but Chika has always been sheltered and somewhat oblivious, "Riots like this were what she read about in newspapers. Riots like this were what happened to other people". Their private experience is shared: two women -one nameless and unidentifiable, one not- who have a shared experience, despite their ethnic, religious and class differences. "The woman's crying is private, as though she is carrying out a necessary ritual that involves no one else" except for Chika who is witness to this personal moment; they also share the incongruous Medical exam of the woman's dry nipples. Later, when the private experience becomes the public, "Chika will read in the Guardian that "the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims in the North have a history of violence against non-Muslims", and in the middle of her grief, she will stop to remember that she examined the nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim."

The other short story from the collection I have read is "Cell One".

I believe that "Cell One" is the opening story in The Thing Around Your Neck and it definitely captured my attention from the opening lines:

The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbor Osita who climbed in through the dining-room window and stole our TV and VCR, and the “Purple Rain” and “Thriller” videotapes that my father had brought back from America. The second time our house was robbed, it was my brother Nnamabia, who faked a break-in and stole my mother’s jewelry.

It starts after the fact, looking back; it is shocking and intriguing; it is dated and contains Western touches. This was not the first criminal act of the narrator's brother, nor would it be the last. The story centres around Nnamabia's arrest in his second year of university for belonging to a cult and his subsequent days in prison and in Cell One, the titular location for punishment. Typically Adichie, the story is told with subtle, understated language that nevertheless conveys horrific situations. It too is political although Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in this interview that she is not a political writer but a storyteller (watch the interview if you have time as I think she comes across as a very interesting and meditative writer). Adichie is indeed a storyteller, a wonderful one, and I look forward to reading the remainder of the collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.


verity said...

Intriguing. I loved her novels and these sound interesting too.

Laura said...

Ditto verity's comments. I have been eagerly anticipating this book. The reviews I've read so far have all been favorable, so I may just have to break down and buy a copy.

farmlanebooks said...

I loved this book. I'm not normally a fan of short stories, but all of these were great. I'm pleased to see that you are liking it as much as i did. I'm sure you'll enjoy the rest of the stories.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I am a huge fan of her novels and even in a different form her writing is still remarkable.

Laura, I will eventually break down but when it was first released I simply couldn't justify it and now that I have the book awaiting collection I definitely can't cave and buy it! I will at a later date though.

Jackie, I have a love/hate relationship with short stories but these two really engaged me. I am certain that you are right that I'll enjoy the volume.

Nymeth said...

Purple Hibiscus is on my tbr pile, and I plan on starting it as soon as I finish The History of Love. Judging from that interview, she does sound like a very interesting writer. I completely agree with her that life is political. The political and the personal often can't be separated.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I agree. Often they cannot be separated from literature either.

How are you finding The History of Love?

Novel Insights said...

I didn't realise this was available so thank you for bringing it to my attention. I loved Half of a Yellow Sun, and would be interested to see how her writing translates to short stories.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Polly, thanks for commenting. I'm interested to see how she sustains the writing throughout the collection and looking forward to reading the remainder. Have you read Purple Hibiscus? I found it yesterday that Half of a Yellow Sun is being adapted into film, which I'm not sure about.