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The Thing Around Your Neck

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Transcending the limitations of diaspora as a category of cultural identity in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck
Dr Elizabeth Jackson
University of the West Indies
St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
Having begun my academic career, not so long ago, as a postcolonial scholar, I have become increasingly critical of postcolonial theory on the grounds that for an increasing number of literary texts by so-called postcolonial writers, postcolonial theoretical approaches may have outlived their usefulness. One example is the Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi
Adichie’s collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck, published in 2009. My paper will examine the ways in which these stories explore the limits of diaspora as a category of cultural identity and move toward a more flexible conceptualization of the impact of globalization on people’s sense of themselves and their place in the world. Although the main characters in these stories are of Nigerian origin, few of them fit easily into the limiting categories of ‘Nigerian’ or ‘Nigerian diaspora’. This is not only because their geographical placement is often in flux, but also because their sense of identity is not based on nationality, national origin, or even a sense of belonging to a Nigerian diaspora. On the contrary, they can arguably be described as ‘cosmopolitan’ – not in the old elitist sense of the term, but in the sense of transcending the limitations of nationality or national origin as a category of cultural identity.
Indeed, many of the stories draw attention to the artificiality of national identity itself, not only by highlighting the tribal, religious, and ethnic divisions within Nigeria, but also by recalling the war which aimed – and failed – to create the independent state of Biafra. Thus, national identity is never straightforward, even for the characters in this collection who have never left Nigeria.
Consequently, the diasporic experience does not seem, in these stories, to create the conventional crisis of cultural identity which has become de rigeur in diasporic fiction of the past few decades.
All categories of cultural identity are socially constructed of course, but I contend that within the context of ongoing globalization, the stories in this collection seem to point to the increasing irrelevance of the concept of diaspora and the idea of nationality on which it is based.
In the context of a different argument about different texts, Adélékè Adéèkó observed in
2008 that ‘the rhythm of life that connects individuals in Lagos is already cosmopolitan, most

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notably in variants of Afrobeat, whatever transplantation of American popular culture is in vogue, particularly music and cinema, Christian and Islamic evangelisms, ruthless mercantilism, and intense hustling of all kinds’ (23). Several stories in Adichie’s collection suggest that this cosmopolitanism applies not just to Lagos, but to many parts of Nigeria, at least among elite families. The story ‘Cell One’, for instance, is set in a university town in which children grow up
‘watching Sesame Street, reading Enid Blyton, eating cornflakes for breakfast, attending the university staff primary school in smartly polished brown sandals’ (5). Here we see an eclectic mix of American, British, and quaint colonial influences. Again, the story ‘A Private Experience’ is set in Kano, where two women shelter together from a riot, one wearing a Muslim headscarf and the other wearing a ‘denim skirt and red T-shirt embossed with a picture of the Statue of
Liberty’, both of which she had bought while spending ‘a few summer weeks with relatives in
New York’ (46). This cosmopolitanism within Nigeria is also reflected in language, and not just among the elite. When the riot breaks out, we are told, there is shouting in the streets ‘in
English, in pidgin, in Hausa, in Igbo’ (44).
Other stories are set in the United States, where ironically, many of the American characters emerge as decidedly provincial, in contrast to their cosmopolitan Nigerian counterparts. In the title story ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’, a Nigerian living in a small town in Maine aptly summarizes many of the local attitudes toward himself and his family as ‘a mixture of ignorance and arrogance’ (115). A few of the American characters are more sophisticated, but that same story (with its unusual second-person narration), describes how
‘many people at the restaurant asked when you had come from Jamaica, because they thought that every black person with a foreign accent was Jamaican. Or some who guessed that you were
African told you that they loved elephants and wanted to go on a safari.’ (119) Even an ostensibly well-educated American character like Neil in ‘On Monday of Last Week’ unwittingly exhibits this peculiar ‘mixture of ignorance and arrogance’ when he sounds surprised that
Kamara is Nigerian: ‘“You speak such good English,” he said, and it annoyed her, his surprise, his assumption that English was somehow his personal property.’ (76)
As indicated earlier, many of the Nigerian characters abroad in these stories do not fit easily into the category of a Nigerian diaspora because of their shifting and sometimes multiple geographical locations. Indeed, some might be described as cosmopolitan in the sense of being at home all over the world, including Nnkem and her husband Obiora in the story ‘Imitation’.

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Occupying two homes, one a mansion in Lagos and the other a substantial, luxurious house in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, Nnkem had at first been ‘proudly excited’ to have married into the ‘Rich Nigerian Men Who Owned Houses in America league’ (26). But loneliness takes its toll on her as Obiora leaves her to bring up the children in America while he works in Lagos:
Obiora stayed the first few months, so the neighbours didn’t start to ask about him until later. Where was her husband? Was something wrong? Nnkem said everything was fine.
He lived in Nigeria and America; they had two homes. She saw the doubt in their eyes, knew they were thinking of other couples with second homes in places like Florida and
Montreal, couples who inhabited each home at the same time, together.
Obiora laughed when she told him how curious the neighbours were about them. He said oyibo people were like that. If you did something in a different way, they would think you were abnormal, as though their way was the only possible way. And although Nnkem knew many Nigerian couples who lived together all year, she said nothing. (24-25)
This, then, is a case of a wealthy man using his class privilege and the notion of cultural difference in order to manipulate his wife. Not surprisingly, it emerges that he has a mistress in
Lagos who has moved into their house, so when the previously compliant Nnkem finally insists on moving the entire family back to Nigeria, it has nothing to do with postcolonial issues like diaspora and cultural identity. On the contrary, it is for the entirely personal goal of reclaiming her house and her husband.
These are not the conflicted characters in Salman Rushdie’s 1994 collection of short stories East, West, many of whom are uneasy in both India and Britain, with one declaring that
‘“home” has become such a scattered, damaged, various concept in our present travails’ (93) and another complaining that ‘I, too, have ropes around my neck, I have them to this day, pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose’ (111)
While we cannot ignore the possibility that the title of Adichie’s collection The Thing Around
Your Neck refers implicitly to Rushdie’s metaphorical ropes ‘commanding’ the diasporic character to choose between two different cultural identities, Adichie’s characters evidently feel no such pressure to wrestle with their national or cultural identity. On the contrary, when Nnkem in the story ‘Imitation’ asks herself the question ‘Where is home?’, she is thinking about much more concrete differences in the physical settings:
It hardly seems right, referring to the house in Lagos, in the Victoria Garden City neighbourhood where mansions skulk behind high gates, as home. This is home, this brown house in suburban Philadelphia with sprinklers that make perfect water arcs in the summer. (34)

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She does miss home, though, her friends, the cadence of Igbo and Yoruba and pidgin
English spoken around her. And when the snow covers the yellow fire hydrant on the street, she misses the Lagos sun that glares down even when it rains. She has sometimes thought about moving home, but never seriously, never concretely. She goes to a Pilates class twice a week in Philadelphia with her neighbour; … she expects banks to have driveins. American has grown on her, snaked its roots under her skin. (37)
Given the cultural cosmopolitanism of the Nigerian characters in this collection, it is not surprising that to them, America’s racial politics seems narrow and backward and petty. About her white boyfriend in the title story ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’, the narrator says:
You knew by people’s reactions that you two were abnormal – the way the nasty ones were too nasty and the nice ones too nice. The old white men and women who muttered and glared at him, the black men who shook their heads at you, the black women whose pitying eyes bemoaned your lack of self-esteem, your self-loathing. Or the black women who smiled swift solidarity smiles; the black men who tried too hard to forgive you, saying a too-obvious hi to him, the white men and women who said ‘What a good-looking pair’ too brightly, too loudly, as though to prove their own open-mindedness to themselves. (125)
But if racial politics within America can be uncomfortable, identity politics within Nigeria can at times be deadly, as emphasized in the story ‘A Private Experience’ about two women sheltering together in a deserted shop when a sectarian riot breaks out in Kano. One of the women is a
Hausa Muslim and the other an Igbo Christian. As they shelter together and help each other, other Hausa Muslims and Igbo Christians nearby on the streets are hacking each other down with machetes and clubbing each other with stones. Other reminders that Nigerian identity is far from unified are found throughout the collection, including the haunting recollections in the story
‘Ghosts’ of the war which tried and failed to establish the independent state of Biafra in 1967.
To paraphrase Adélékè Adéèkó in the context of a different argument, Nigerians can neither embrace nor repudiate their national identity if they have never experienced it. And not having a secure sense of Nigerian national identity, they have even less of a sense of belonging to a
Nigerian ‘diaspora’ in the United States.
If sectarian divisions are shown to be arbitrary in these stories, so too are national divisions. Indeed, several of the stories call attention to the elaborate institutional structures which are designed solely to enforce artificial divisions of nationality. When Nnkem in the story
‘Imitation’ finally receives her American green card, she is not thinking at all about nationality or cultural identity. Far from it; she is actually thinking about the practicalities of being exempt from the bureaucratic apparatus: ‘She would no longer have to apply for visas to get back into

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America, no longer have to put up with condescending questions at the American embassy.’ (37)
The artificiality of nationality is again emphasized in the story ‘Ghosts’ when the narrator tells a friend about his physician daughter in America:
‘The hospital board had advertised for a doctor, and when she came they took one look at her medical degree from Nigeria and said they did not want a foreigner. But she is
American-born – you see, we had her while at Berkeley, I taught there when we went to
America after the war – and so they had to let her stay.’ (68)
The point here is that the opportunities of the applicant are shaped more by an accident of birth than by her actual qualifications and experience. Thus, the story calls attention to the arbitrary nature of nationality and the absurdity of the whole edifice of regulations surrounding it.
On the whole, the stories in this collection seem to suggest that although differences of nationality and ethnicity are socially constructed, differences of social class (or more precisely, differences of material wealth) are very real because they are about people’s actual material circumstances. To put it simply, in this rapidly globalizing world, the real divisions are between the haves and the have-nots, regardless of so-called nationality or so-called diasporic status. For example, in the story ‘Imitation’, Nnkem has much more in common with her affluent neighbours in suburban Philadelphia than with the vast majority of people in Nigeria, America, or anywhere else. In the story ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’, the narrator is sent to marry an odious fellow Nigerian in America, but she cannot leave him simply because she lacks the financial means to do so. A journalist in the story ‘The American Embassy’ can pay to flee
Nigeria when his life is in danger after writing an article criticizing the government. That is the crucial difference between him and his fellow dissidents in Nigeria who must tow the line simply because they cannot afford to leave the country.
Perhaps the most effective illustration of the argument that differences of power are no longer connected to nationality or diasporic status (if they ever were) is found in the title story
‘The Thing Around Your Neck’. In this story, the narrator addresses her story to ‘you’, a
Nigerian in America who began a relationship with a rich white boy who had travelled extensively in Africa and Asia, but ‘you did not want him to go to Nigeria, add it to the list of countries where he went to gawk at the lives of poor people who could never gawk back at his life’ (124-25). The irony here is that the putative ‘you’ have been gawking throughout the story at the lives of both the rich and the poor in America:

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You wanted to write about the surprising openness of people in America, how eagerly they told you about their mother fighting cancer, about their sister-in-law’s preemie, the kinds of things that one should hide or should reveal only to family members who wished them well… You wanted to write about the rich people who wore shabby clothes and tattered sneakers, who looked like the night watchmen in front of the large compounds in Lagos.
You wanted to write that rich Americans were thin and poor Americans were fat and that many did not have a big house or car. (118-19)
While pointing out cultural differences from a particular perspective, this narrative at the same time works to reduce distance by insistently using the word ‘you’, implying that this could be your perspective. Moreover, if ‘you’ are tempted to dismiss these stories as somehow inauthentic because they are written by an elite author, mostly about the lives of elite people, it is as if your objections have been anticipated and refuted through ‘your’ retort to ‘your’ elite boyfriend who associates poverty with authenticity: ‘He said you were wrong to call him self-righteous. You said he was wrong to call only the poor Indians in Bombay the real Indians. Did it mean he wasn’t a real American, since he was not like the poor fat people you and he had seen in
Hartford?’ (125)
The point here is that although differences of power in the contemporary world are based more on differences of wealth than on differences of national or ethnic origin, that does not make the lives of privileged people any less ‘authentic’ than the lives of poor people. Moreover, being associated with wealth is not the same thing as controlling wealth, as we see very clearly in the story ‘Imitation’ where the housewife Nnkem, although living a materially comfortable life, is completely controlled by her husband because she is financially dependent on him. It brings us back to the old Marxist principle of power being based on owning or controlling the means of production, including labour, education, and capital itself. This, I think, is a more relevant theoretical approach than postcolonial categories like diaspora which, as these stories seem to suggest, may be increasingly irrelevant in the rapidly globalizing world.

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Works Cited
Adéèkó, Adélékè. ‘Power Shift: America in the Nigerian Imagination.’ The Global South 2.2
(2008): 10-30
Adichie, Chimanmanda Ngozi. The Thing Around Your Neck. NY: Anchor Books, 2009
Rushdie, Salman. East, West. London: Vintage, 1994…...

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...are thinking in your mind now – asylum seekers. I will start to discuss about this topic by asking you a question! Do you ever think that the Australian Government should change a way they process and treat the asylum seekers who arrive by boat? With my own opinion. I think they should do it! (change the slide) When we were born, no one could choice the destinies or what will happen to us in the future. All refugees exchanged their lives for the Death to escape the wars, escape the poverty and the desire to change their life in another heaven. But what did they get after all? Indifference from the Australian Government and others. (change the slide) Did you see this picture before? That child is Aylan Kurdi - 3-year-old came from the northern town of Kobani Syria, near the Turkish border where are the hot spots of war between IS and Kurdish. Aylan and his family including parents, his brother Galip - 5 years old got on two boats with other people to leave their homeland - Syria and seeking a new land, where is no war, no bombs or bullets. They wanted to come to Kos Island, Greece. But life was always unfair, their boats sank on its way from Syria, taking the lives of 12 people including Aylan, Galip, and their mother. Please look at the picture! He lies on the beach, hands down along the body, face down in the sand. Aylan looked like a little angel is sleeping. But this little angel will never wake up. Maybe when you are seeing this picture, deep in your heart might......

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Thing Aroung Your Neck

...Thing around your neck themes and stuff Relationships and marriage | Family | Prejudice and racism | Violence and corruption | Abuse of power and women. | | Tomorrow is too far- Nonso, Dozie and the sister (the unnamed protagonist)Cell one- the family | Thing around your neck- “America is seen as a place with complicated politics” Akunna, second person narrator arrives in America after winning the America visa lottery P.115… she ends up with her family in a small white town in Maine where she works with a company who employed him because they were desperately trying to look diverse | VIOLENCE A private experience, Ghosts, American embassy- all deal directly with individuals who lose children (and a sister) because of violence… Adiche uses this to hit readers hard with the message of the disastrous effects of this violence.A private experience- ethnic tensions between Hausa Muslims and Igbo Christians in the 1990s during general Abachas presidency.The American embassy- the violence here is more personal. The corrupt government send soldiers to take the radical journalist and instead they kill his young son.Adiche is clearly positioning her readers to despise volume and corruption.CORRUPTIONGhosts- James beloved wife died as a result of someone selling expired medicine and his pension has never been released by the university.Cell one- Nnamabias family are forced to accept the way they are treated by the police in hope that by not complaining they might be......

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The Thing Around Your Neck Analysis

...The Thing Around Your Neck In C.N. Adichie’s anthology The “Thing Around Your Neck” is one of Adichie’s most powerful stories in her anthology, by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works) The “thing around your neck” becomes a powerful symbol of the narrator’s feelings of anxiety in the new country. As Adichie points out, the story of migration is often one of exploitation (take advantage of someone) and impotence (powerlessness) for many Nigerian women. (They suffer also under the burden of stereotypes, both from the African and American perspectives.) In America, Akunna is lonely and desperate. She is exploited by her uncle and suffers from a sense of powerlessness. The new life in America: (leads to loneliness and desperation) : In “ The thing..” the narrator (Akunna) tries to build a new life in America but she endures a great deal of adversity and anxiety., She feels lonely, isolated, displaced and alienated . As Adichie suggests, this is a rather typical experience of Nigerians in America. She also feels anxious because she cannot adequately support her relatives in Nigeria as they would expect. Symbol: The ‘think around your neck” becomes a symbol of anxiety. Akunna is gripped by fear. She feels utterly powerless. She feels that she lacks control. p. 119 “At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.” p. 125 “the thing that wrapped itself around your neck, that nearly choked you...

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The Thing Around Your Neck - Tomorrow Is Too Far Analysis

...Dozie was only the son of a daughter. It was this summer that you found the shedded skin of the snake your Grandmama called echi eteka, ‘Tomorrow Is Too Far’ because it would kill you in ten minutes. The main character made it very clear that it was not this summer that you fell in love with your cousin, Dozie. That had happened three years earlier. The most significant thing about this summer was the death of Nonso. No one in Nigeria actually called it summer. It was the time between the rainy season and harmattan season. The weather could vary greatly, from pouring rain to bright and sunny. The day Nonso died it was mild, just light rain in the morning and lukewarm sun in the afternoon. With Nonso’s death Grandmama worried about who would carry on the Nnabuisi name and protect the family lineage. The neighbour came over when she heard Grandmama screaming. She got you to tell her your mother’s phone number in America. She tried to protect you from hearing the conversation on the phone between your mother and your grandmama. Your mother was insisting Nonso’s body be sent to America, but Grandmama saw this as madness. When you spoke to your mother you noticed the line echoed it had never done this before in all the summers you’d spent in Nigeria. You mother told you she would get a message to your father. During your conversation you thought about your mother’s laugh. She only ever laughed with Nonso and not with you. Grandmama believed Nonso should be......

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