As I mentioned in my last post, I recently attended an event at the Tenement Museum featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She read from her new collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, and then was interviewed by—more had a conversation with—Tayari Jones. Now, the one other time I attempted to see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie read, her stunning novel Half of a Yellow Sun had just come out and there was a line stretching about a hundred miles long outside of the New School. I didn’t have a dream of getting near to her. Now, she has published her third book, been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and been named one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40, yet there was room to spare in the tiny Tenement Museum storefront. Inexplicable, but truly lucky! I felt so privileged to be there, thanks to the keen notice of my friend Kristen, who found out about the reading on Tayari Jones’ blog. Both women were gorgeous, warm and full of brilliance. The only time I’ve cared about the World Cup—sorry, everyone—was when Ms. Adichie spoke about how, now that she divides her time between Nigeria and the States, she identifies more with all Africans rather than only with Nigerians, and so after Nigeria got knocked out, she is free to cheer for Cote d’Ivoire. I loved hearing her talk about how she never considered herself black until coming to the States and how taken aback she was the first time a man on the street called her “sister.” Tayari Jones closed out the evening delivering an extended metaphor comparing starting lots of stories before finding your novel to dating lots of men until you find the one you want to go all the way with, which was a really special kind of amazing.
As is The Thing Around Your Neck. I’d read quite a few of the stories here and there, but they were definitely worth revisiting. Ms. Adichie writes about Nigerian women in Nigeria and in the States, struggling with their husbands, brothers, employers…the list goes on. There is always struggle. In some stories, such as “The Headstrong Historian,” it is a more mythic sort of struggle, intermingling fate, curses, superstition, history and legacy. In others, such as “On Monday of Last Week,” the struggle is private. Kamara, the Nigerian protagonist, nannies for a little boy, the child of a neurotic, overcautious white father and a seductive, mysterious black mother. Kamara nurtures not only the child but a secret yearning for the mother. This story ends in a small, silent humiliation that Ms. Adichie writes with no less compassion or attention than she does her endings involving government oppression and war.
In the story “Jumping Monkey Hill,” Ujunwa represents Nigeria in an African Writers Workshop, run by a smarmy, condescending British man named Edward. As a veteran of countless writing workshops, I drew added pleasure from this story, which dramatized some of the more unfortunate dynamics that can get played out when writers get together to critique each other’s work. Sexual tension often abounds in writing workshops and this one was no exception—Ujunwa is horrified to discover that her fellow writers all notice Edward’s creepy fetishizing of her and ogling of her body. The writers represent the diversity of the African continent and are interested in writing about an array of subjects, yet are consistently called inauthentic by Edward, who maintains that London agents and British readers are not going to believe that things like a same-sex love story could happen in Africa. War stories? Those, they’d believe. At the Tenement Museum reading, Ms. Adichie said that this story is the closest she’s come to writing autobiography, which is terribly sad but also sort of great, because it’s clear who ultimately triumphed. Not the sniveling British guy.
I am pretty sure that in all my years going to readings, I’ve never once taken the microphone to ask the writer a question. Perhaps one day I’ll feel the same way about that as I do about never raising my hand when I was in school now that I teach. But, anyway—I am always too shy to do it. If I weren’t, I would have asked Ms. Adichie about her use of the second person. She’s got two stories in this collection, the title story and the tragic penultimate story “Tomorrow is Too Far,” that are written in the second person. I certainly didn’t hate these stories—they are both moving, particularly “Tomorrow is Too Far,” a story that deals with the emotion I am most afraid of—guilt—in such a guarded, miserable way that I am not even ready to think about it yet—but I am not sure I gained anything from reading them in the second person. I don’t think that point of view compelled me to put myself in the place of their protagonists any more than I was compelled to in a story like “The Shivering”—my favorite in the collection—which is told in the third person. In fact, I think the Ms. Adichie left out details about the protagonist in these two second person stories because, by calling her “you,” a certain familiarity with the reader was assumed. I would be interested to hear what other readers think about this aspect of the book.
Despite my slight POV issues with these two stories, this collection did not disappoint. I urge you to believe what you read about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–she is a (MacArthur) genius, is certainly under forty (ugh, and was way under 30 when she published her first two novels) and has a lot of art and insight to share. And, believe me when I say that “The Shivering” is a story you should read on your own, not in summary here. When you read it, you’ll see why I like it so much.