The Thing Around Your Neck

by

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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The Thing Around Your Neck: Jumping Monkey Hill Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ujunwa thinks it's odd that the African Writers Workshop is being held at Jumping Monkey Hill, a resort outside Cape Town. It's the kind of resort that attracts foreign tourists, with maids and fine teas and cobblestone paths. She'll learn later that the organizer, an elderly British man named Edward Campbell, spent time there when he was a lecturer at the University of Cape Town.
Ujunwa is an extremely perceptive character. She notices outright that Jumping Monkey Hill gives non-African tourists a very specific and curated image of Africa. The fact that Edward chose this resort for the workshop thus brings Edward's own views of Africa into question early on.
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Edward picks Ujunwa up at the airport. He offers pleasantries about Ujunwa's flight and asks if she minds waiting for a Ugandan attendee whose flight is coming soon. Ujunwa thinks his British accent is "posh" and wishes he'd stop asking her about her job. She yawns and tries to look uninterested. She's relieved when the Ugandan approaches them.
Ujunwa dislikes Edward outright because his interest seems misguided. His line of questioning about her job suggests that he has definite ideas about her, but Ujunwa doesn't feel comfortable asking Edward to stop, setting up an uncomfortable power dynamic.
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The Ugandan sits in the front of the car and Ujunwa worries that Edward is driving too fast. At the resort, Ujunwa and the other participants learn that there are no jumping monkeys at Jumping Monkey Hill. Edward introduces the eight participants. Ujunwa studies them and decides the young Senegalese woman is probably her best bet for a friend, and thinks that she doesn't like the Ugandan man. He won the Lipton African Writers' Prize the year before, speaks only to Edward, and the other participants exclude them from their conversations.
The fact that there are no actual monkeys develops the idea that Jumping Monkey Hill is carefully curated to fit the expectations of a clientele that isn't necessarily African. The Lipton Prize is likely modeled after the Caine Prize, a prize created by Europeans to honor English language short stories written by African writers. It's received criticism for rewarding stories that appeal only to a Western audience.
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After the participants eat dinner, Edward addresses them. He mentions the British foundation funding the workshop and lays out the structure: writing the first week, workshopping the participants' short stories the second week, and that the Ugandan will lead the workshops. He introduces his wife, Isabel, and talks about his passion for African literature.
The Ugandan is given the honor of leading the workshops because he's earned the respect of Western organizations already. This defines the value of stories in terms of whether or not the stories appeal to a Western audience—and here, that means Edward himself.
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At breakfast the next day, Isabel asks Ujunwa if she comes from Nigerian royalty. Ujunwa wants to ask if Isabel ever asks such things of people in London, but instead says that she indeed came from royal stock and is actually a princess. Isabel says she can always spot royalty, and asks Ujunwa to support her anti-poaching campaign, adding that the Africans don't even eat the "bush meat."
Ujunwa's true intention goes way over Isabel's head, which shows how fully Isabel buys into her (mis)conceptions about Africa. The way Isabel speaks about her poaching campaign is also extremely Eurocentric, and doesn't take into account local traditions and reasoning.
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Ujunwa calls her mother and relates her conversation with Isabel. Her mother laughs. Ujunwa sits at her laptop and begins to write her story about a young woman named Chioma. Chioma is unemployed and desperately looking for work. She helps in her mother's boutique, has several bad job interviews, and finally asks her father for help. Chioma's father gives her money, makes a few phone calls, and Chioma notices the photograph of the "Yellow Woman" on his desk.
Chioma's father is evidently a very powerful man with money to spare and connections, while it seems that her mother struggles to make ends meet. The photograph on her father's desk suggests that he has a girlfriend, which continues the book’s trend of cheating spouses. It's also important that Chioma is a young, single woman—exactly the kind of woman the reader has been told is likely to date married men.
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At dinner that night, Edward tells all the participants to try the ostrich dish. Ujunwa says that she didn't know people even ate ostrich, and Edward laughs and explains that it's an African staple. Ujunwa drinks two glasses of wine, chats with the Senegalese woman, and doesn't enjoy her orange chicken.
Adichie makes the irony of the European Edward explaining African food to an African person very apparent here. Given the cultivated nature of Jumping Monkey Hill, the ostrich dish raises the question of whether ostrich is truly an African staple, or if it's what Europeans would like to think is an African staple.
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All the participants gather under the gazebo and good-naturedly poke fun at different African stereotypes. They discuss African literature and the racism they experience at the hands of Europeans. The Senegalese woman says she's writing her own story about coming out to her parents as lesbian, and other participants talk about their (mostly absent) fathers. When Ujunwa realizes it's her turn to talk about her father, she says her father bought her books as a child and read all her early work. The Kenyan asks Ujunwa if she's writing about her father. When Ujunwa says she isn't and she doesn't believe in fiction as therapy, the Tanzanian says that all fiction is therapy.
This good-natured bonding experience works to make it very clear to the reader that not all Africans or African countries are the same. Though this seems obvious, Edward has already demonstrated to the participants that he has very particular ideas about what Africa and being African means, and these ideas don't necessarily allow for nuance. Ujunwa had a dedicated and supportive father, an anomaly for the majority of the collection's female characters.
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The next day, Ujunwa continues writing Chioma's story. Chioma gets a call from Merchant Trust Bank. She knows people who work there; they all drive nice cars and live in apartments. The manager tells Chioma that if she can bring in a certain amount of money during her trial period, she'll be offered a permanent position. Two weeks later, Chioma goes with a woman named Yinka to bring in a new account. They visit an alhaji (a rich older Muslim man), who asks Yinka to sit on his lap and explain the particulars of a high-interest savings account. Chioma thinks that Yinka reminds her of the "Yellow Woman."
The cars that Merchant Trust Bank employees drive are indicative of their relatively high status, and therefore show that the job is a good one. However, the realities of the job tell a different story. The bank is using its female employees for their bodies instead of for any other skills, which continues the book's project of demonstrating how women are often held in low regard. It’s also notable that Chioma wasn't informed that this would be required of her; she had no say in the matter.
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According to Chioma's mother, the Yellow Woman had been seeing Chioma's father for a year. One day, the Yellow Woman came into Chioma's mother's boutique to look at shoes, and Chioma's mother accused her of being a husband snatcher and chased her out of the shop. Chioma's father left after this, and Chioma's mother declined to chase after him. The boutique began to slide downhill without the help of Chioma's father. Chioma thinks about this as she watches Yinka talk with the alhaji.
Even in fiction within fiction, the prevalence of cheating spouses remains high. Further, this series of events reinforces the idea that cheating is expected and should be put up with. When Chioma's mother refuses to chase after her husband, she asserts her independence and prioritizes her own happiness over the outward appearance her marriage.
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Over the course of the workshop, Ujunwa tries not to notice that Edward never looks at her face; instead he concentrates on the rest of her body. One day when Edward is handing out copies of someone's story to talk about, he makes a suggestive comment at her. The Ugandan laughs, and Ujunwa tries to laugh along, telling herself that Edward's comment was actually funny.
Even though Edward's behavior is wholly inappropriate and not at all funny, the power dynamic between him and Ujunwa makes it very difficult for her to see the point in calling him out on his behavior. By laughing, the Ugandan becomes complicit in Edward's harassment of Ujunwa.
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Ujunwa reads the Zimbabwean's story and the participants talk about it the next day. Edward deems the story passé, and Ujunwa wonders how he can think that when the story itself is so very true. The next day, they workshop the Senegalese's story. Edward says that homosexual stories aren't reflective of Africa. Ujunwa asks "which Africa?" Edward explains that he's trying to find the "real Africa" and not impose Western ideas on African values. The Senegalese is distraught, and Edward suggests that she had too much wine.
The question of "which Africa?" is one that the collection as a whole seeks to answer. Edward has a very specific view of what Africa is, and he's not open to hearing the stories of those who don't fit his very specific mold. Further, suggesting that the Senegalese is upset because she's had too much to drink allows Edward to maintain his power and suggest that she has no real right to be upset.
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As Ujunwa heads back to her cabin, the Kenyan, the Zimbabwean, and the white South African woman invite her to go to the bar with them. At the bar, they talk about how the white guests at Jumping Monkey Hill look at the black participants with suspicion. Ujunwa feels angry at the way that Edward leers at her, and she bursts out that Edward is always looking at her. The others voice their agreement that it's in poor taste, and Ujunwa feels betrayed that they noticed and said nothing.
Like so many other women in the collection, Ujunwa has felt throughout the workshop that she has no choice but to keep silent in order to keep the peace and stay safe. The other participants confirm that Jumping Monkey Hill is carefully curated to make white tourists feel comfortable. This mirrors the kind of stories Edward is looking for: those that appeal to a white, presumably European or American, audience.
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Ujunwa tries to call her mother later that night, but the call won't go through. The Tanzanian reads his story the next day. It's about the killings in the Congo, and Edward exclaims that it is urgent, relevant, and will be the selected story from the workshop. Ujunwa feels sick.
Edward's praise indicates that he wants to view Africa as an inherently violent and tragic place. He seeks stories that are sensational and exciting, not ones about normal (and non-violent) day-to-day life in Africa.
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Ujunwa returns to her cabin and sits down to finish Chioma's story. As Chioma sits and watches Yinka on the alhaji's lap, she thinks of being in a play. She thinks about her father's early support for her writing, but his later pivot to suggesting she study something practical. The alhaji gets Chioma's attention and asks her to be his personal contact for his new account. When the alhaji offers the women gifts, Chioma walks out of his house, gets in a taxi, and returns to the bank to clear out her desk.
By situating this experience in terms of a play, Chioma suggests that women act the way they do in order to receive praise for their performance. It suggests that women don't necessarily want to behave in this way, but they must in order to achieve success. Chioma breaks this cycle by leaving the alhaji's house and her job, just as her mother did.
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Ujunwa wakes the next morning, nervous about having to read her story out loud later. At breakfast, Edward makes suggestive remarks to the Senegalese. Later, Ujunwa asks the Senegalese how she handled Edward's remarks, and she shrugs and says she's a happy lesbian and didn't need to say anything. Ujunwa raises her voice and asks why they always say nothing. The participants begin to interrogate the waiters about the style of food, and they discuss Edward's rude and distinctly European habits.
Ujunwa is upset by the colonial power structure that gives Edward permission to treat the female participants as objects, insist that European food be served, and demand that the participants observe European customs. The food in particular shows how far removed the resort is from the rest of Africa; the food described thus far is distinctly Western, and the "African" food served is highly stereotypical.
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The South African says that Edward means no harm, and Ujunwa attacks his attitude, saying that that kind of attitude is what allowed Europeans to take African land in the first place. The South African tells Ujunwa that she's angry about more than Edward. Several of the participants go to a souvenir shop, where the Tanzanian says that Edward can get the writers connected with agents and antagonizing him isn't the right course.
Edward is performing cultural violence by devaluing the writers' true stories as passé. Because of the power he has as a Western man, he has the power to decide which stories are “true,” and, as the Tanzanian points out, which writers get published, which makes calling him out especially risky.
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Ujunwa buys a faux ivory necklace and wears it to dinner. Isabel compliments the faux ivory, and Ujunwa tells Isabel that the necklace is real. Ujunwa reads her story, and the Ugandan deems it strong. The South African compliments the realistic portrayal of women's lives in Nigeria, but Edward says that the story can't possibly be real since the most powerful Nigerian cabinet minister is female. The Kenyan says the ending isn't plausible, and Edward says the entire thing isn't plausible; it's "agenda writing."
Notice that Edward doesn't even listen to the workshop leader that he himself appointed. He knows and is willing to demonstrate that he has more sway than the Ugandan does, and most ironically, suggests that he knows more about the state of gender equality in Nigeria than an actual Nigerian woman does.
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Angry, Ujunwa stands up, crying and laughing, and says the only thing she left out was that after she left the alhaji's house, she insisted the driver take her home. She leaves the table and goes to her cabin to call her mother. She wonders if the ending she's currently experiencing would be considered plausible.
Despite Ujunwa's insistence that she wasn't writing about her father, the story was entirely true. Ujunwa's closing thought shows how European misconceptions color even absolute truth, and cause the people who experience these truths to question the believability of their own stories. This also fits into the book’s overarching theme of perceiving one’s real, lived experience in terms of a story or a performance.
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