An analysis of some of the narrative devices used by Chimamanda Adichie in her short stories, by Dr Jennifer Minter
Many of the stories in the anthology, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, explore a generation of Nigerians whose lives have been disrupted by wars and colonialism. (Many of her characters have to cope either directly or indirectly with the consequences of the Nigerian civil war and the ethnic conflict also known as the Biafran War, that took place from 1967 to 1970, as well as with the brutal regime of Sani Abacha who ruled Nigeria from 1993 to 1998.) The loss of African traditions, exposure to Western lifestyles and values, immigration and globalism present many challenges for Adichie’s main characters who are often unable to define and articulate their anxieties and the “thing” around their neck(s).
Politics: Adichie foregrounds the brutal consequences of General Abacha’s harsh, corrupt political system. It oppresses its citizens and many of those in charge have no regard for human rights and escape punishment. (Ugonna becomes a symbol of such brutality). The system denies individuals their basic freedoms and their right to self-determination: hence the pro-democracy rallies.
Through Nnamabia’s change in attitude and behaviour in Cell One, Adichie suggests that individuals must stand up for one’s principles and help those who lack a voice or who are completely victimized by the (political) system. Adichie believes that the various ethnicities must overcome their differences. Each must show compassion and tolerance towards the other in order to live a peaceful and fulfilling life.
Women, politics and human rights: Adichie criticises the political and patriarchal system of Nigeria that exploits and suppresses women. Women are often reduced to sexual chattels and are devalued. Accordingly, women lack fundamental rights and choices. Women are conditioned to behave in submissive ways. Ujunwa asks “why do we always say nothing”.
Religion: Adichie criticises the missionaries and the Nigerians who devalue African culture and praise/prioritise Western lifestyles, views and attitudes. This leads to a lack of pride among Nigerians. Adichie suggests that if there is hope for the Nigerians, they must embrace their own roots and celebrate their culture. They must reject the exclusive values of the Christian missionaries and take pride in their own African roots and religious practices.
Migrants : Adichie criticises Africans/ Nigerians who readily adopt Western lifestyles and who reject or deny their own cultural traditions. Adichie suggests that those who migrate to America often compromise their African roots and diminish themselves in the process. They often lose an important piece of their African identity as they try to assimilate into the white man’s (materialistic) society. Also, those who seek a new life often suffer because of the burden of family expectations. They feel responsible for the plight of their Nigerian relatives, but often do not have the means to fulfil their high (materialistic) expectations.
Nigeria: the consequences of swift and brutal social and political change
Many of Adichie’s characters have to cope either directly or indirectly with the consequences of the Nigerian civil war and the ethnic conflict also known as the Biafran War, that took place from 1967 to 1970 as well as with the brutal regime of Sani Abacha who ruled Nigeria from 1993 to 1998.
Brutality and corruption associated with the political context in Nigeria:
- The constant backdrop of brutality in stories such as Cell One and The American Embassy warns readers of the difficult lives endured by people in Nigeria and their desperate desire to escape. In the American Embassy, General Abacha is accused of “inventing a coup so that he could kill and jail his opponents” . Likewise, in “A Private Experience”, Chika reflects on her participation in a pro-democracy rally at the university. They chanted (“the military must go! Abacha must go! Democracy now!” (45)
- Adichie constantly reinforces the power of the soldiers to show their lack of compassion; their disregard for human rights and their indifference towards the citizens of Nigeria. Their brutality also reinforces the people’s sense of impotence (powerlessness). On one occasion, “the soldier was flogging a bespectacled man with a long whip” (129) while people were watching. One passer-by says, “our people have become too used to pleading with the soldiers” (129). Such pleading highlights their impotence and despair.
- The soldiers are indifferent to human rights. In Cell One, the old father is imprisoned because they cannot find the son/suspected criminal. He is dehumanised, humiliated and treated contemptuously. To secure a “free bucket of water” he had to take his clothes off and parade the corridor. “The cell mates were laughing.” (20)
- The narrator, who waits for her visa in front of the American Embassy, notes the power of the soldiers by drawing attention to the “glower on his face”; “the glower of a grown man who could flog another grown man if he wanted to , when he wanted to”. (131) This brutality sets the scene for the brutal assault on her husband, who was detained for two weeks; the soldiers had “broken his skin on his forehead” (135) The Narrator in this story is severely depressed because of the pain of loss; she is simply unable to function and deal with the devastating sense of shock. (131)
- Corruption is rife and their lives are desperate: in Ghosts the lecturers were not paid and did not receive their pensions. It was rumoured that the vice chancellor had “deposited the money in high interest personal accounts” (58) “Money disappeared and then we would see new cars stamped with the names of foreign foundations” (69)
Social and political context:
In a Cell One, a sense of lawlessness begins to take hold as many of the younger Nigerians join subversive cults as a sign of the breakdown of authority. In this short story, Adichie focuses on the wayward, rebellious son and his experiences with the corrupt political system. The policeman’s advice to the narrator’s parents reflects the attitude of many in positions of authority. He tells the parents, “you cannot raise your children well, all of you people who feel important because you work in the university. When your children misbehave, you think they not be punished. You are lucky, madam, very lucky that they released him”
Family members experience an overwhelming sense of fear as they seek to track down their son, Nnamabia because they know that the prison system is unjust and the policemen and guards are harsh. Even the prisoners themselves fear Cell One which is deemed to be worse than their current conditions. The son could not “imagine a place worse than his cell which was so overcrowded that he often stood pressed against the cracked wall”. (12)
The senior policeman’s “blank face” kindles their feelings of rage and anger at a system that dispenses so easily with the lives of its citizens. As the narrator recalls, their encounter with the policeman is filled with dread because “each of us suspected privately that Nnamabia had been killed by trigger-happy policemen and that this man’s job was to find the best lie to tell us about how he had died”. (18) The son is transferred to Cell One because, as the policeman says euphemistically, he “misbehaved”. Their fear is palpable and the author constantly repeats the daughter’s feelings. She felt “chilled by fear” and her “heart was beating” as they drove across to the “deserted” part of town where unruly prisoners are despatched.
As a foreshadowing device, Adichie recounts the incident of two policemen who were “flogging somebody who was lying on the ground under the umbrella tree”. The boy on the ground was “writhing and shouting with each lash of a policeman’s koboko”, but it was not Nnamabia; however, the son is not immune from punishment. When he is released, “he came close enough for my mother to hug him and I saw him wince and back away; his left arm was covered in soft-looking welts. Dried blood was caked around his nose”.
Adichie does not recount Nnamabia’s traumatic experiences as he tries to resist the unjust treatment of the old man, but she fills in the gaps from her own assumptions and intuitions. She repeats the phrase, “instead I imagined him raising his voice” and gives a picture of the typical actions that are likely to transpire. She also asks us to imagine that those in positions of power would be “stunned at the audacity of the handsome boy from the university” because of his stance.
The fact that Nnamabia “misbehaved” reveals his own personal turmoil. He evidently sought to challenge or question the authorities and their treatment of the old man. The son reveals that he seems to be struggling with his principles and his views about human rights. If he misbehaves, it is ironically, not because he is stupid or arrogant, as the policeman suggests. It is because he questions the harsh and unjust use of authority.
See Notes for Cell One: The Thing Around Your Neck by C.N. Adichie
Ethnic and religious conflict:
As a consequence of the corruption, the brutality and the ethnic violence (between Christians/the Igbo tribe and Muslims (the Hausa), Adichie shows how life can change so coincidentally at any moment.
Fortuitously, Chika (an Igbo woman) finds refuge and a place to hide in the small shop. She knows that she will never find her sister, Nnedi. She is aware that she will “comb the hospital mortuaries looking for Nnedi”. Nnedi’s and Chika’s lives are transformed just because they were in the wrong place (the market) at the wrong time (the gang assault) (47) Life and death are often reduced to luck on the day.
Narrative devices/syntax: Adichie uses the hypothetical, conditional future tense to convey the enormity of Chika’s loss which she wants to bury. (51) “Later when Chika will wish that she and Nnedi had not decided to take at taxi to the market just to see a little of the ancient city of Kano outside their aunt’s neighbourhood: (Likewise the other woman, will wish that her daughter Halima had been sick on that particular day.) She knows they will live to regret their unfortunate decisions, but that is fate and she will have to live with the consequences.
There is no security; nothing is certain in the lives of the Nigerians. The narrator in the American Embassy relays the sudden transformation of her life owing to the sudden death of her son, Ugonna. She reflects on the fact that two days prior, her life had been “normal”; “She had taken Ugonna to school, had bought him a sausage role at Mr Biggs, had sung along with Majek Fashek on the radio” (131).
Broken relationships: women are powerless
Many of the characters have broken lives and endure broken relationships that compound their unhappiness and their dissatisfaction. The relationships also suffer because of the devastating lifestyle of the Nigerians. Ugonna’s death leads to the break-up of the family
Sister-brother relationships are just as problematic as those between spouses. In both Cell One and Tomorrow is Too Far , the sister is brought up in the shadow of the brother’s limelight. Typically in Adichie’s stories, the brothers enjoy the parents’ adulation and favouritism. In both, the sister feels a sense of inferiority which leads to jealousy.
Literary device: The tree becomes a symbol of the brother’s power and authority; his fall from the tree could be seen as the subconscious desire of the narrator to destroy his power.
In-between two worlds
Families are disintegrating as Nigerians are caught in two worlds (between America and Nigeria, especially after the civil war). Often the younger people move to America for greater “opportunities” but Adichie suggests, they reject their traditional lifestyle and Nigerian customs at their peril.
In Ghosts the Father reminisces about his daughter’s new life in America and the grandson he will never know. He does not want to live in America with her, because “I will be forced to live a life cushioned by so much convenience that it is sterile” (67) It is a life “littered with what we call opportunities”.
This sense of “sterility” is reinforced by a sense of loss — of traditional customs, culture and lifestyles. That life lacks passion, vibrancy and intensity is often highlighted in comparisons between America and Nigeria. America as sterile place: loss In The Shivering, Adichie also draws parallels between the passion, the fervour and the vibrancy of catholic sermons in Nigeria as compared with those in America. Father Patrick sprinkles water from a big saltshaker (166). The narrator reflects upon how much more “subdued Catholic masses were in America” (166). In Nigeria, the priest would have been “splashing and swirling holy water” and the “people would have been drenched”.
In Arrangers of Marriage: Chinaza, who is pressured into a “perfect” arranged marriage, discovers first-hand just how sterile life is in America. Her husband encourages her to adopt American customs and to forget her Nigerian habits.
Literary devices: Food becomes a symbol of assimilation: the husband prefers pizza, Macdonald’s, supermarkets, frozen meat and diet pepsi. Dave tells her that migrants must “adapt to America. They will never move forward unless they adapt to America” (175). She must learn to say “pitcher” not “jug”. Contrastingly, Chinaza prefers to cook her traditional cuisine but the smells are offensive to her newly-wed husband.
Naming devices: In many of Adichie’s stories, the main characters often change their names as they seek to assimilate into a new society. Ofodile’s name change to Dave (172) symbolizes his desire to assimilate as completely as possible into American society. It also reveals the clash of differences as Nigerians are forced to renounce their African identity and their cultural views and values that define them and give them dignity. Likewise, when Dave coerces her to change her name to Agatha Bell, Chinaza feels her identity as a Nigerian slipping. Like the food and drink she renounces, the name change becomes yet another symbol of the social and cultural differences that erode (undermine) her identity as a Nigerian.
Literary devices: the “thing around your neck” becomes a symbol of the narrator’s anxiety and desperation at her lack of control in America. She feels lonely, isolated displaced and alienated . At night “something would wrap around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep” (119). She not only suffers from a lack of control but from the burden of expectations placed upon her by Nigerians at home. (See Summary Notes: “The Thing Around Your Neck”)
Syntax: Significantly, Adichie uses sentence constructions that refer to Akunna impersonally as “You” and repeat consistently the fact that “you wanted to write because you had stories to tell” but because of her own desperate circumstances “you write to nobody” (118-119)
The impersonal “You” reflects her own sense of detachment; her inability to deal with her anxiety and her problem of distance; it is also her inability to help her relatives and tell them about her problems; it is difficult to tell them because of the stereotypical impression they have of American people and their lifestyles.
Akunna experiences anxiety because she cannot fulfil the relatives’ expectations of her; she struggles to pay her rent on a waitressing salary and consequently cannot send home extra gifts expected by the Nigerians. Nor does she want to disappoint them. She wants to write to her relatives about the “real” America; the Americans who are not rich and who do not live in big houses and own big cars. But she finds that she does not want to disappoint them. Perhaps she feels that they are even more desperate than her and is anxious because of their sense of hope and dependency.
Akunna suffers from the burden of the stereotypical image of a wealthy American: Many Nigerians have a stereotypical impression of America as a place of wealth and luxury; big cars and big houses where people had plenty. (37/ 182/ 124) “You thought everyone in America had a car and a gun.” (117) the Nigerians build expectations based on these stereotypes; their relatives in Nigeria also expect a great deal from the immigrants which places enormous pressure on them. She makes herself completely invisible as a reflection of her omnipotence and insignificance (“Nobody knew where you were, because you told no one.” 119 “Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway (119)
(Akunna finally writes home when she is able to send some ‘crisp dollar bills” (127) which helps her alleviate her anxiety, but she is confronted with the news of her father’s death five months ago. The fact that she was unaware of the death; did not attend the funeral or the goat celebrations reinforce her alienation and desperation.
Symbols: The father’s death become a symbol of just how much she loses in order to assimilate into a new country.
Stereotypes: Contrastingly, Americans also have a stereotypical idea about Africa, for example that Botswania is swamped by AIDS (119) This makes it hard to establish rewarding relationships and be accepted as an individual. Juan’s mother does not expect Akunna to be well-read or educated. She is surprised that she has read Nawal el Saadawi (126). Many Americans view the Africans as an “exotic trophy” or an “ivory tusk” (126) (Akunna values her relationship with Juan because he knows more about Africa than most.)
Many are helpless because of their plight in America. In The Shivering, Ukamaka has not had a visa for three years and has been working for cash which the employer is revoking. The narrator in the Arranger finds out that her husband’s divorce to an American has not come through and leaves her vulnerable and feeling cheated.
As migrants, women are particularly vulnerable. They are often exploited by men – either Nigerian or American – and struggle to survive. In a strictly patriarchal society, which continues in America for many Nigerians, the women are advised to “guard your husband like a guinea fowl’s egg” (178). This alludes to the lack of power experienced by many women who struggle with their sense of dependence.
The narrator (Akunna) experiences an overwhelming sense of anxiety because of the helplessness of her situation. She refuses to compromise her dignity and resists the uncle’s advances; this leaves her destitute and she must rely on her own individual resources to find work and shelter. She is wary of the boyfriend’s often condescending attitudes and feels burdened by the pressure to help her relatives in Nigeria who expect her support; (119). She makes herself completely invisible as a reflection of her omnipotence and insignificance (“Nobody knew where you were, because you told no one.” “Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway (119)
There is a sense that the relationship will not endure the test of time or the difficulties encountered by Americans and Nigerian couples. They are gawked at; (125). Akunna’s boyfriend buys her an expensive “scarf hand-painted in Mexico”. In “A Private Experience, the scarf is a sign of the Hausa’s ethnicity and of reconciliation and compassion, but here it is just a materialistic token.
Individuals and families: Loss of control and exploitation
In The Shivering, Adiche parallels the stories of Chinedu and Udenna and Ukamaka and Abidemi to show their similar loss of control in their relationships. (Their loss is symbolised by the crashed plane in Lagos just after it left Abuja) . Both the protagonists who share a conversation about the plane, and pray together in Chinedu’s apartment experience the pain of failed relationships. Both their partners were controlling and obsessive types; the disintegration of their relationships leaves them feeling empty and disoriented. (Abidemi is extremely possessive and “runs the relationship” in such a way that Ukamaka feels very angry and empty when it ends; Abidemi marries a Nigerian girl and is very indifferent and nonchalant towards his ex-partner whose feelings he simply tramples upon.) (160; 153)
Cause for optimism?
There are often moments of great sensitivity and nobility between many strangers in Adichie’s stories suggesting that it is possible for people to overcome their differences and provide each other with comfort. Despite the obstacles and the hardship, the characters do survive.
- In The Thing Around Your Neck, the narrator refuses to succumb to the “uncle’s” demands and this exacerbates her hardship. However, she does survive.
- Ikenna Okoro, the man who once disappeared in Ghosts “did not die”. (p 73) His mysterious return becomes a symbol of the Nigerians’ ability to survive enormous obstacles. As the lecturer-narrator says, “we had survived. It was a tacit agreement among all of us, the survivors of Biafra.” (73)
- Likewise, the narrator in The Arrangers of Marriage, knows that has little power in their relationship, and that as Nia advises her, “you can wait until you get your papers and then leave”. (186)
Reconciliation and hope:
Adichie shows that the ethnic violence, unnecessarily, destroys communities and people’s lives. In the cleverly crafted story, A Private Experience, the Muslim (Hausa) and the Christian women (Igbo) poignantly share refuge in a very small market-store and identify their troubles with each other, whilst mob violence rages. Each is reeling from the senseless and sudden loss of a loved one, and yet Adachi depicts this as not inevitable. The two women sympathise with and console each other. The strangers share intimate secrets: “Nnedi, the woman repeats, and her Hausa accent sheaths the Igbo name in a feathery gentleness” (47).
The women find some fulfilment in shared conversations and shared experiences. There is no sense of sarcasm in the woman’s voice as she recounts the suffering endured by the stall holders. It seems that whether the victims be Hausa Muslim or Igbo Christian they are all suffering. Adichie recounts in italics the thoughts of this woman: “Hold me and comfort me because I cannot deal with this alone”.
Chika realises that the media focuses on the brutal and dangerous actions and consequences of this religious and ethnic conflict but overlook the sense of shared grief and suffering. Chika will read in the Guardian that “the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims have a history of violence against non-Muslims” and yet in this deeply personal and poignant relationship both women come to share their universal experience of womanhood. Chika examined the “nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim”.
Narrative device (the symbolism of the scarf); Whilst Chika offers the woman advice for her chafing nipple, the woman gives Chika her scarf (a sign of her ethnicity as a Muslim, a Northerner with a strong Hausa accent) to scorch the blood running down her leg. Chika keeps the scarf as a symbol of their close intimate encounter while the flow of blood connects the women in a deeply personal way and reminds them of their common humanity. If there is hope, Adichie would suggest that it resides in an individual’s recognition of shared human bonds often forged through deep suffering. (50) As she departs, the woman “hands the scarf back to Chika and turns to climb out of the window”.
In The Shivering, Adiche parallels the stories of Chinedu and Ukamaka which provide each other with a degree of comfort. Chinedu reveals her secret: that she is overwhelmed by an almost supernatural “shivering” when Ukamaka prays (p. 164-166)
This friendship also seeks to overcome differences: Chinedu encourages Ukamaka to come to her Catholic Church. She assures him that she will accompany him to his Pentacostal church on another occasion. (165-166) Comparisons: These assurances reflect the Igbo and the Hausa women’s experiences as they take refugee in the store.)
As the noose, the elusive, indefinable “thing around your neck” loosens, so too the narrator starts to take greater control. The narrator does not want to become indebted to her American partner and so refuses to let him buy a ticket and accompany her home. Impersonally and assertively, the narrator comments, “You said no, you needed to go alone”. She refuses to give her partner a guarantee that she will come back specifically to him, but admits she must return or lose her green card. They embrace “and then you let him go”. (127), suggesting that the narrator will make up her own mind about the future of the relationship.
Adichie skilfully uses a metafictional format in The Jumping Monkey to reflect the women’s growing assertiveness and confidence. The narrator recounts her “real experiences” in an embedded third-person narrative format that parallels the emotional experience of the narrator. Accordingly, Adichie presents the notion that art mirrors real life and that the seeds of art lie at the heart of lived experience. The resolution of one story mirrors the other.
The exploitation of women looms large in both the embedded and the first-hand story; Chioma realises that she will need to compromise her dignity if she is to secure employment. Likewise Unjawa is shamed by Edward’s leering and offensive (lascivious) approach.
The conclusion of the embedded story and that of the main story converge: it is a story of the narrator’s resistance of sexual exploitation. Chioma walks out of the job and refuses to please the Alhaji, (111) and “goes to the office to clear out her almost empty desk”. The narrator finishes the story, “the only thing I didn’t add in the story is that after I left my Jeep and insisted that the driver take me home because I knew it was the last time I would be riding in it”.
Importantly, Afamefuma’s story (the “Headstrong Historian”) concludes the anthology which becomes an affirmation of Nigerian cultural traditions and literature. Significantly, if many characters struggle with their nameless fate, Grace overcomes her Christian-conditioned upbringing and makes a very significant name change to Afamefuna.
Syntax: and optimism and pride: Adichie repeats the future past conditional tense, “It was Grace who would” to reinforce the importance of her change in attitude towards her own upbringing and her relationship with her cultural traditions and myths. Phrases such as “it was Grace who would read about these savages”; “it was Grace who would nurse a deep scorn for her father for years”, reveal the author’s endorsement of Afamefuna’s change. These phrases also criticize the Christian’s missionary agenda that sews the seeds of discontent among Nigerians. In order to capture the Nigerians’ allegiance (support) the missionaries deliberately devalue African culture, the tribal customs and their history and myths. As Grace comes to realise there is a strong connection between education and dignity that is exploited by the missionaries in their attempt to control the Nigerians.
The missionaries betray the Africans by devaluing their culture. Grace’s father, Michael/Anikwenwa, becomes a victim of the missionaries’ re-education schemes that make the Nigerians complicit in their oppression.
Specifically, Adichie criticises the missionaries who treat the Africans as “sinful” and as “black heathens”. They seek to distance the Africans from their cultural and spiritual myths. They teach that “nakedness is sinful”.
As a result, Nwegamba feels that she is losing her son. The loss of the son also symbolises the loss of cultural roots. The missionaries disrupt families as a symbol of the disruption of society.
A symbolic name change: Typically, Adichie uses the name change as a powerful symbol of identity. Associated with this change in name, is a woman who gains confidence. Adichie portrays Afamefuma as a character who proudly rejects the missionaries’ version of history; she also rejects her husband’s (George Chikadibia’s) attempt to downgrade the historical book “she would write” entitled “A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria”. Adichie thereby reaffirms and praises Afamefuma’s attempt to privilege African literature and culture and to return to her own cultural roots, traditions and literature. Adichie suggests that this is necessary if the Nigerians are to retain cultural pride, dignity and confidence. This is the best opportunity they have for a hopeful future. As testimony to her and her grandmother’s shared courage, Afamefuma holds her grandmother’s hand, “the palm thickened from years of making pottery”. Owing to this proud connection, Afamefuma looks to the future with confidence.
“A more hopeful future: The Thing around your neck” , by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works Notes, 2016)
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