The first story in this collection, “Cell One”, is set solely in Nigeria, time not given but likely in the last 20 years. I read this as part of December’s A Season of Stories and it is unforgettable.
As in most of the other stories, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells Cell One through the eyes of a young woman, sister to trouble-making Nnamabia, the brother her parents favor and cosset. Both young people attend a Nigerian university that is frequently beset by violence as cults (gangs) of young men attack each other, often resulting in murder. The police arrest and jail Nnamabia after a fatal attack and his sister and parents visit him in jail every day via a 2 hour drive.
“Cell One” reaches its emotional height by how matter of fact the sister narrates the events, from shake downs by the highway police to shake downs and bribes in the jail to the endless beatings and humiliation. The brother tries to spare the life and dignity of an older man who is imprisoned because the authorities cannot find his son; the guards beat this older man daily and the brother risks his own life to try and stop it. We do not know what happens after, whether the brother grows up after this or slides back to being the favored child who gets away with stealing from his own mother.
That Thing Around Your Neck includes several stories set in both America and Nigeria. One of my favorites is “Imitation”, about a Nigerian wife, Nkem, whose husband is a Big Man back home. He moved her and their children to America while he spends 50 weeks a year back home. When the wife discovers he is bringing his mistress to their home in Lagos she decides to move everyone back to Nigeria, standing up to her husband for the first time ever. I enjoyed the character Nkem and her combination of realistic expectations (of course her husband strays) with determination to have a real marriage and family life.
Several stories showed how both Americans and Nigerians may have nutty ideas about each other, making overly sweeping generalizations about behavior and culture. One example was “Jumping Monkey Hill” where Edward, the literature seminar leader gently refuses to believe one author’s work is truly African, stating “how African is it for a person to tell her family that she is homosexual?”. In “The Arrangers of Marriage” the new husband seeks a lighter-skinned Nigerian wife, then has her use only her middle name, Agatha, and tries to turn her into an American, cooking American food, speaking American English.
Many of Adichie’s characters are away from home, are lonely, horribly lonely even when surrounded by people or married. The stories are good because we connect with the people. Adichie uses the short story form well, focusing on people’s feelings, their fears and longing, telling stories with small plots and big characters.