Probably the first book about Africa most Westerners my age read was written by a European. Most likely it was Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, with its depiction of the white man who was deemed to have gone crazy because he went "native". The West has been pillaging the various countries of Africa for centuries now. First for their people to use as slaves now their natural resources for our material goods. No matter what we take, poverty, corruption, and all that accompany the two trail behind us like the wake of some malevolent creature who sucks the goodness out of its prey, leaving behind a husk containing only the bile and other noxious wastes.
Yet we know nothing at all about Africans as people, as we hardly ever read stories that don't have something to do with atrocities or are "heartwarming tales of survival". Of course very few of us even stop to think about just how many cultures we're talking about when we say Africa, although each country is home to at least one or two distinct people with their own histories. The only time its even brought to our attention is when cynical leadership pits one ethnic group against another in a bid for power and violence results. Thankfully over the past couple of years the number of African writers whose work is either being translated into English or written in that language in first place is increasing, and with a little bit of searching you can find a voice that will tell the stories of his or her people.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, recently published by Random House Canada, is a collection of short fiction travelling across time and geography to give us glimpses into the lives of Nigerian women and their experiences both at home and as immigrants to the United States. Adichie currently divides her time between her homeland and the United States, where she attended university, which gives her a perspective on both worlds that very few others are able to offer. The 12 stories are roughly split between the two settings, but no matter where, or when, the story takes place, what struck me most was the emotional honesty she brings to her work.
Perhaps this is what makes her stories both compelling and believable at the same time. Her characters, no matter what their status or situation, react to their circumstances in ways that we might not understand, but which prove to be true to who they are and their needs. Who are we to say if we were in the same situation as the young bride in "The Arrangers Of Marriage" we wouldn't act like she does. What would you do if upon arriving in America you discover the husband your aunt and uncle had picked out for you had omitted to tell your family details like he had married an American woman to obtain his green card and still hadn't divorced her? What else can she do but stay with him until he obtains the divorce so she can get the papers she needs in order to be legal. Deportation would send her back to a family, who would find a way of not only making the marriage's failure her fault, but also a sign of her ingratitude for all that they'd done for her.
Although some of these stories, like the one above, feature women in circumstances that cry "victim", none of the women are drawn as such. They might have to do things they don't like, or compromise about certain things, but so does everybody else. Not once do you ever get the feeling that any of Adichie's characters have been created as deliberate objects of sympathy. They deal with their situations with as much dignity and pride as they are capable of under the circumstances. At the same time however, we are told in no uncertain terms that gender and race are still issues that cut both ways.
In "Jumping Monkey Hill," a Nigerian novelist attends a writer's workshop with a number of other "promising" African writers given by an eminent, white, British scholar, where they each are to write and present a story. The scholar turns out to be the type who knows more about Africa than Africans. He criticizes one person's work because stories about homosexuals coming out to their families aren't representative of "the real" Africa. When the protagonist reads a story based on her experiences as a bank employee and how she had been expected to trade sexual favours in order to secure accounts for her bank, the scholar informs everybody that women are never victims in that crude sort of way, and certainly not in Nigeria. In fact her story, he says, has no basis in reality.
On the other hand in the title story, "The Thing Around Your Neck", a young woman who immigrates to America has a hard time believing in the sincerity of a young white man's affection for her. Even when she realizes he is genuine, she is constantly suspicious of perfectly innocent things he does or says, as she's looking for any signs of a condescending or patronizing attitude. However just as she starts to relax, to let go of that thing around her neck, her suspicion, that is choking her, she finds out her father died five months earlier and has to return to Nigeria. Her young man asks if she'll return and although she hugs him hard at the airport – she lets him go. The differences in their class, he's from inherited wealth and her father lived in fear of people higher up on the social scale than him, and race, might just be barriers that she can't overcome.
Adichie's stories are all extremely well written and offer us a perspective of the world that we don't often see. What's even more refreshing is that her characters are neither victims or super heroes. They are humans dealing with situations that come up in their lives just like we all have to. We might not be familiar with some of the circumstances, but we can still identify with the emotions they are experiencing, and they serve as our bridge into their world. It's a world we don't often have a chance to explore, and when an opportunity of this quality comes along it would be a shame to ignore it.