Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck
Sometimes students can be intimidated by texts that closely examine or are set in other cultures, so at first glance Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s postcolonial collection of stories, revolving around Africa and Africans living in America, might seem like it’s going to be hard work. But The Thing Around Your Neck doesn’t assume any existing background knowledge of the geography, politics or social and religious cultures of Nigeria (or America, for that matter). The stories incorporate elements of all of these contexts, broadening readers’ knowledge while keeping the focus always on the human experience, so that the narratives make sense from a domestic perspective. We learn a little about Nigerian religious division in ‘A Private Experience’, about the Nigerian Civil War in ‘Ghosts’ and about political persecution in ‘The American Embassy’. But in each of these cases, the social issues are gently woven into the experiences of the protagonists so that we see the issues’ impact on ordinary individuals. It’s a manageable way for students to digest important contexts surrounding this text, and to begin considering how these contexts influence and support the themes and ideas Adichie conveys. Her authorial context is a valid discussion point too: she writes about what she knows, having biographical details in common with a number of her characters. This is a good reminder about the links between fiction and reality, and of how authors translate experience into narrative.
Like many of the other VCE text options, this one is set far from Australia (geographically; though many of the stories are contemporary, making them quite accessible). However, most of the themes and issues will have relevant parallels for Australian students – these are stories about place, displacement, isolation, belonging and immigration; they’re stories about family; stories about identity (both national and personal); stories about grief; stories about gender, power and agency; stories about hopes and regrets. It sounds like a lot of ground to cover in one collection, but in fact the ideas are closely tied together and flow through the stories with similar thematic motifs popping up again and again, so it doesn’t feel too heavily packed.
The same goes for characters. The collection is full of mothers, wives, daughters and the men in these women’s lives: recurrent character types whose stories begin to feel familiar. So it’s a really interesting way to broaden students’ concepts of what ‘characters’ in texts can mean. Adichie makes her comments on immigrant African women’s experiences in America not by exploring the life of one or two central characters (as she does, for example, in her 2013 novel Americanah). Rather, she paints an almost pixelated composite, of mothers, of immigrants, of siblings, of wives – using many examples of people in similar situations as a way to show experience, rather than a single dominant protagonist. Some characters even remain unnamed, focussing attention on their social and domestic roles and the identities and ideas they represent, rather than on individual quirks and personalities. In this way, Adichie encourages us to think about what these roles and identities (wife, parent, sibling) mean in society and in relationships, rather than telling simple individual stories.
Yet, at the same time, each story does sketch an individual experience. While it may be representative of something much larger, it also gives us miniatures: portraits of each of the stories’ unique protagonists. They are impacted by their political and socio-cultural contexts, but at the same time we see them facing sometimes mundane personal challenges and dilemmas: falling in love unexpectedly; grieving; becoming independent. So there are two layers for students to explore: how characters are created, and how they represent and convey themes and issues. This is a tremendous introduction to the form of not just short stories but anthologies – the stories are not randomly collected, but rather curated so that they tell distinct tales as a body, as well as on their own.
A further aspect that suits this collection well for the study of how language creates meaning is that the multiple, independent stories provide opportunities for exploring varying language techniques within the one text. For example, two stories are written in the second-person voice (‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ and ‘Tomorrow is Too Far’) – a rare opportunity for students to see this narrative perspective in action, and to engage in discussion about how it impacts on a reader and how it can enhance the ideas, themes and relationships in a text. This is a chance to analyse an unusual stylistic device, and one which is generally avoided because it is difficult to sustain but, here, with short stories in the context of many others (mainly in third-person limited), students can investigate a really tangible connection between use of language and the construction of meaning. Similarly, several of the stories use multiple tenses, including future tense, again offering students a less familiar narrative language device, and one that is engaging to study. These less common techniques offer bold scope for students to really analyse the impact of authors’ language decisions (for example, how does Adichie use the future tense in ‘The Headstrong Historian’ to help communicate themes relating to the past?). Although the majority of the stories are quite short and fairly direct, there’s a lot of depth here to work with, and a lot to stimulate students at varying levels of confidence.
Suggestions for exploring The Thing Around Your Neck:
- What ‘thing’ does each of the central characters carry ‘around [their] neck’? Is it the same thing for each of them, or something different?
- There are no happy endings in these stories. To what extent do you agree?
- How does Adichie use the form (short stories – specifically a collection) to communicate her main themes and ideas?
- The stories in this collection suggest that hardly anyone has complete control over their own life. Discuss.
Need help getting to grips with The Thing Around Your Neck? Click here to purchase our Insight Text Guide for The Thing Around Your Neck, written by Anica Boulanger-Mashberg. With a story-by-story analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, practice essay topics and much more, the Insight Text Guide for The Thing Around Your Neck provides clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis on the whole text.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, your independent, Australian educational publisher.