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06.17.09

The Hypocrite Killer

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie created a sensation with 2006’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Her new story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, is potent mix of compassion and zingers.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie entered the literary world in her 20s with a precocious one-two punch. Her 2003 debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, narrated by a 15-year-old whose devoutly Catholic father beats his wife and children in private, won the Commonwealth Prize and was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize, ranking Adichie, then 25, along with authors Margaret Atwood, Shirley Hazzard, and Andrea Levy.

“I have a huge crush on Michelle Obama because I am a dark-skinned black woman and I am so used to people who look like us being presented in only the most negative ways in the public imagination.”

She followed up with an audacious and vividly imagined second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the 2006 Orange Broadband Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Adichie’s newly published third book, The Thing Around Your Neck, extends her scope as a masterful storyteller. These 12 nuanced stories, published since 2001 in publications including The New Yorker, Granta, and Zoetrope, present a kaleidoscope of characters responding to the dangers, frustrations, dreams, and disappointments of life in the U.S. and Nigeria. They display a range of subject matter, from the pervasiveness of corruption to the vicious sibling rivalry of childhood, and a potent mix of compassionate poetic passages and stinging zingers. Adichie knows how to nail a hypocrite, a bigot, a predatory “Big Man” or academic.

When I first met Adichie in 2005, she was a Hodder fellow at Princeton, working on Half of a Yellow Sun. She spoke with passion about the solemn task she had set herself in writing the novel, drawing upon her father’s memories to evoke a civil war in the 1960s that traumatized her family and her country. (Her grandfather died in a refugee camp during the war.) Her love for her family and for Nigeria was palpable.

book-cover---the-thing-around-your-neck
The Thing Around Your Neck By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Knopf 240 pages $24.95 ()

Adichie was born in Enugu, the fifth of six children, and grew up on the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria, where her father taught statistics and her mother was registrar. The legendary Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe had once lived in the house where she was raised. She came to the U.S. to study, graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University, studying creative writing at Johns Hopkins, and recently completing an M.A. in African Studies at Yale. She won a 2008 MacArthur Foundation fellowship. She now divides her time between the U.S. and Nigeria.

When I caught up with Adichie via email, she was in Michigan preparing to deliver a commencement address and receive her first honorary degree, from Kalamazoo College on June 14. She had just spent three months on the road promoting her new book—in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The book is being published in the U.S. this month, and in Nigeria in July. “After the book-hawking travel, I plan to go into hiding for a very long time,” she joked.

In March, when she had returned to the U.S. after seven months in Nigeria, she had emailed to say she felt “strange and exhilarated” about President Barack Obama, and had “an odd sense of hope.” I asked her to elaborate.

“My exhilaration was because of a U.S. president who cares about ideas, who acknowledges complexity, who is respectful of difference, who believes that the global conversation, such as it is, can be civil and who has skin the color of my mother’s and whose wife has skin my color,” she said.

“I have a huge crush on Michelle Obama because I am a dark-skinned black woman and I am so used to people who look like us being presented in only the most negative ways in the public imagination (and I stress dark-skinned because it remains largely true in America that the more acceptable kind of black, in both black and white communities, is the light-skinned version).”

She didn’t expect Obama to “change water into wine,” she added, “but I am comfortable with the idea of the person who wrote Dreams From My Father making decisions that will affect not only Americans but the rest of the world.”

Adichie’s global connectedness, as well as her uncanny ability to evoke the effects of the past on the present and future, are prominent in The Thing Around Your Neck.

I asked her about a couple of my favorites, stories set in Nigeria.

A Private Experience” begins in the midst of a riot that started when several Muslim men beheaded a Christian Igbo man because he had accidentally driven over a copy of the Koran. Chika, a well-to-do young Igbo woman, has been pulled to safety in a deserted shop by a Hausa Muslim woman. Later, Chika learns that, “as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones.” The intimacy that develops between the two women is a sharp contrast to the violent men in the story, a contrast Adichie told me was intentional. “I think that women are brought up differently and because they are raised differently, they are more likely to compromise, to reach across, to have empathy.”

In “ Ghosts,” a retired professor whose pension is being withheld is visited by the ghost of his wife and also encounters Ikenna, a man he had not seen since the Biafra-Nigeria conflict in the 1960s.

“ ‘Ghosts’ is in many ways a love letter to my father,” Adichie said. “It is about a town I love, about that slow nostalgic change that overwhelms us when the people and places we love go into a kind of decline. My mother is very much alive (while the character’s wife is dead) but I think the story is also about the love they have. They have been married for 46 years and have a solid and real partnership.”

The pension situation she describes in the story is “much better now,” she explained. “My dad gets his, but for months he didn’t, and neither did all the retired staff of the university and many of the poorer ones died.”

Biafra, she added, “isn’t something people really talk about openly; it’s still contested and contentious…But I did hear a few stories when researching my novel about people who reappeared after many years, and worse, of people who just never came back and still haven’t.”

Like Achebe, Adichie has written consistently of about Nigeria falling apart, a country in decline. Has that downward trajectory continued?

“I do have hope,” she responded. “There’s a lot that has changed for the better in Nigeria—the middle class destroyed under military rule is slowly re-emerging. But the divide between rich and poor is still atrocious, as is our leadership. Individual initiative is incredible though. Nigeria is a kind of libertarian exercise, in some ways.”

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Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum, The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost magazine.