Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Thing Around Your Neck

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has compiled a series of elegant vignettes in her most recent book, The Thing Around Your Neck. I had just read Half of a Yellow Sun, and was still wallowing in stunned admiration, when I heard an interview with the author on BBC, and learned she had written this book, The Thing Around Your Neck.

I loved Half of a Yellow Sun. I loved Purple Hibiscus. I felt I began to understand just a little bit about life in transitional Nigeria, with all the social and political forces blowing to and fro, straining the very fabric of nationhood.

In The Thing Around Your Neck, something else happens. It shares with Cutting for Stone and other books I like the impressions of those who come to live in the USA for the first time.

“Would that the wee wee giftie gi’e us, To see ourselves as others see us . . . ”

I’ve had a lot of experience going to live in foreign countries. One of the things I learned is that most of what I learn the first couple years isn’t much. You learn a lot of things wrong. You filter everything through your own cultural biases; you judge, you interpret, you try to make sense of things that just seem wrong.

I love to watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characters do this in reverse, come to America and make judgements based on their own cultural expectations. I love to see us through these eyes.

Once, many many years ago, we entertained a Nigerian in our home, and when we served dinner, steaks, he looked at his plate and said “This would feed my family for a week.” We kind of laughed. We kind of thought he was exaggerating, or even kidding. We just didn’t know. We had never seen anyone truly hungry, we had always lived in this land of plenty. We had no idea what we didn’t know. We saw only what we knew.

Each story is a gem. Each treats the expat experience, coming here, or the reverse, coming to America and then going back and seeing Nigeria through eyes which have changed.

One story I had read before, in the New Yorker magazine and loved reading again, The Headstrong Historian. It starts with a smart woman, weaving her way among the ways of her people, whose husband’s family wants her husband to take another wife. He doesn’t want to. These two chose each other, and managed to live their lives together as best they could, by their own standards. Her son disappoints her, but her granddaughter – she sees her husband’s brave, courageous spirit in the eyes of her little grand daughter. You’ll have to read the story to find out the rest.

Other stories have to do with newlyweds, with students, with love and marriage and affairs – the full spectrum of human experience, through Nigerian expat eyes. There are settings common from all three books, the college campus at Nsukka, a prison outside of town, small villages outside the city. If you read all her books, you recognize place: “Aha! I’ve been her before, in Purple Hibiscus!” You learn how to bribe the guards so you can bring in food for your imprisoned family member, you learn to keep your eyes down to show respect, you learn how Nigeria smells when the rains come, and how dry and dusty it gets during the harmattan.

I’m just sorry there isn’t another book by this author – yet – that I can read!

I guess these books that I love deal with a theme dear to my heart – that we are culturally blind to so many things, and that as human beings we are more alike than we are different. Short of packing up all our lives and our assumptions and moving to many different countries, the best we can hope for in learning different ways of thinking is for books like these by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which show us how differently we perceive things, depending on our cultures, and how alike we are in the things that we feel, as human beings.

June 17, 2011 - Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Books, Character, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Political Issues, Values, Women's Issues | ,

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