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Short Spot Spotlight On: The Thing Around Your Neck

Friday December 18th, 2020

Since her widely-acclaimed first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was published in 2003, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has quickly risen to prominence worldwide as a leading voice in anglophone literature and feminist thought. She is one in “a new generation of writers willing both to confront the struggles of the past and document the more prosaic realities of life on the African continent today,” writes Edward Nawotka. Born in 1977 in the city of Enugu in Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spent her early life and education in the country of her origin. When she was 19, Adichie travelled to America in the pursuit of collegiate education, briefly studying communications and political science at Drexel University before transferring to Eastern Connecticut State University, where she would graduate summa cum laude by 2001.

Of her experience in the United States, Adichie has said that “it’s a complicated affection, an affection that is very willing to criticize” due to the fact that “there’s a sense sometimes that because you’re an immigrant you should shut up and be grateful that we let you in,” a pervasive mindset that she deems “rubbish.” Because she has spent a great bit of time in the States, Adichie has picked up some American idiosyncrasies, which her Nigerian friends tease her for. “In some ways I don’t see myself as an immigrant,” she says, “So I suppose here I’m Nigerian; in Nigeria, I’m American.” Adichie uses her experience in multi-cultural surroundings as inspiration in her first short story collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck,” bringing her “signature emotional wisdom” in order to examine “the collision of two cultures and the deeply human struggle to reconcile them.” Adichie says that her aim through these stories is “to show the day-to-day reality of individuals,” to tell the stories of “people falling in and out of love, struggling with money, personal problems and politics.”

“The Thing Around Your Neck,” the titular short story in Adichie’s 2009 collection, follows Akunna, a young woman from Lagos who immigrates to America after “winning the visa lottery.” Adichie writes Akunna’s story from the first-person perspective, allowing us as readers to see through Akunna’s eyes into her thoughts and experiences. While the circumstances surrounding immigration are entirely unique to each individual who travels to this country, many immigrants face the same kinds of prejudice and alienation which appear in Akunna’s story. This first-person perspective thus enables us to empathize with the struggles faced by many immigrants to America today, particularly those of young women of color.

Akunna arrives in America to stay with her “uncle” – who is really a near-distant relative by marriage, and not blood related to Akunna – who works for a company “desperately trying to look diverse” which “included a photo of him in every brochure.” She begins working as a cashier in a gas station and attends a local community college, where she must field questions from white women about her hair, her ability to speak English, and whether she had ever even seen a car before coming to America. Her uncle laughs and tells her “to expect it; a mixture of ignorance and arrogance,” and it becomes clear that this is the treatment Akunna can anticipate from Americans.

After Akunna’s uncle assaults her in the night, she decides to leave, taking the nearest bus as far as it would take her, eventually ending up in Connecticut. She finds a local restaurant, where she offers to work for two dollars less than the other waitresses. The manager hires her for one dollar less, smiling and telling her that “all immigrants worked hard.” Akunna thinks often of her home and family in Lagos, of the society and culture she grew up in, and becomes devastatingly lonely. She wants to write her family and friends about all of the strange things she encounters in America—“how eagerly [Americans] told you about…the kinds of things that one should hide or should reveal only to the family members who wished them well,” or “the rich people who wore shabby clothes and tattered sneakers,” or “that rich Americans were thin and poor Americans were fat”—but instead she refrains, ashamed that she is unable to afford the gifts of “perfumes and clothes and handbags” they had requested upon her departure. Akunna becomes isolated, not telling anyone where she has gone. At night, she feels something wrap so tightly around her neck that it might choke her.

Soon, Akunna catches the attention of a local college student. He asks her questions about her heritage that surprise her, as they are well-informed and seemingly thoughtful, as opposed to “the superior way” in which many Americans ask her things, the way that Akunna has become accustomed to. At first, Akunna dodges his advances, because despite his perceived sincerity, “white people who liked Africa too much and those who liked Africa too little were the same—condescending.” When Akunna asks the young man why he has yet to graduate college, he replies that he took some time off to “discover himself and travel, mostly to Asia and Africa.” Akunna is surprised by this. “You did not know that people could simply choose not to go to school, that people could dictate to life,” Adichie writes, “You were used to accepting what life gave, writing down what life dictated.” This passage speaks volumes to the difference in circumstances between Akunna and her American boyfriend. Akunna, who has become unable to attend college herself due to her lack of monetary resources, feels as though she has little control over her circumstances. She no longer has the privilege of access to collegiate education, let alone the choice and means to decide to take time off school in order to “find herself.”

The latter half of “The Thing Around Your Neck” is driven in part by this disparity of wealth—of access to experience—and by the tension Akunna feels towards her boyfriend’s use of his wealth. Though she at first denies the young man, Akunna eventually allows him to take her out and allows herself to become close to him over time. However, it soon becomes readily apparent that Akunna and her boyfriend understand life very differently. She is uncomfortable when he buys her presents that have no apparent usefulness. He laughs when she tells him this, and Akunna realizes that “in his life, he could buy presents that were just presents and nothing else, nothing useful.”

When he tells her that he wants to visit Nigeria, to pay for them both to go, she refuses. She wants no part in adding a stamp to his passport, “the list of countries where he went to gawk at the lives of poor people who could never gawk back at his life.” Earlier in the story, he mentioned that on his travels, he prefers to visit the shantytowns, where the real people live. Now, Akunna asks him whether or not he is a real American, “since he was not like the poor fat people [they] had seen in Hartford.” Though they fight, Akunna and her boyfriend make up, and “the thing that wrapped itself around [Akunna’s] neck” begins “to loosen, to let go.”

This peacefulness is short-lived, however. Akunna meets her boyfriend’s parents and is surprised by his coldness towards them. As he explains that they only dole out affection when he complies with their wishes, like their desire for him to attend law school on their dime, Akunna becomes angry. She is angrier still when he tells her that they had been invited to stay at his family’s winter cottage home in Canada for a week, to which he refused. “He showed you pictures of the cottage and you wondered why it was called a cottage,” Adichie writes, “because the buildings that big around your neighborhood back home were banks and churches.” Akunna’s boyfriend is seemingly unaffected by his access to these privileges that Akunna has thus far only heard stories about. He is the wealthy American that her family assured her she would become simply by virtue of being in the Land of Opportunity, and yet his lifestyle is only accessible to her through him. Not only is she unable to grasp that which she had hoped to gain by coming to this new country, but it is actively being withheld from her by someone who desperately wants to experience her own culture through the extremely privileged lens of a travelling outsider, someone who has disdain for the things which he already possesses. “He asked what was wrong and you said nothing,” writes Adichie, “although you thought a lot was wrong.”

When Akunna finally writes her family, she receives the news that her father has died, five months prior. She mourns the loss of her father and begins to prepare for her trip home. Her boyfriend offers to pay for her plane ticket, which she again refuses. When he asks her at the airport before she departs if she will return to him, she holds him tightly and does not answer.

I hope you have enjoyed this breakdown of “The Thing Around Your Neck” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. You can read the short story alongside the many others in her collection of the same name in our collection.

If Adichie’s work interests you, be sure to check out her debut novel Purple Hibiscus, which you can listen to or read online. Or, look into her widely-acclaimed novel Half of a Yellow Sun about the Biafran Civil War.

Next week, we will be reading “There Are Distances Between Us” by Roxeanne Gay, which you can find in our collection in the anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Non-Fiction, edited by Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney. You can also find Gay’s short piece online

Emily is Assistant Adult Programming Coordinator at The Library

The above piece represents the views of the author and is meant to inspire dialogue and increase understanding and a sense of community. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of The Library. Members are welcome to comment below or contact us privately by using our online contact form >