The Thing Around Your Neck is arranged as a series of short stories. In the first story, "Cell One," the Cell One narrator tells the story of her brother's time in prison. Nnamabia is a handsome and charming teenager who steals and pawns his mother's jewelry when he's 17. Three years later, the Nsukka university campus where the siblings’ Mother and Father teach is embroiled in cult wars. The cults began as fraternities, but soon became exceptionally violent. Nnamabia is arrested after three boys are shot on campus. When Mother, Father, and the narrator visit him in jail, he seems to enjoy dramatizing what he's going through in jail. Mother maintains that Nnamabia is innocent. Nnamabia is in jail for several weeks and his defenses begin to break down, particularly as he's threatened with transfer to the dangerous Cell One. Eventually, an innocent old man joins his cell. Nnamabia watches the police taunt the old man for being poor and sick. Finally, on the day that the superintendent calls for Nnamabia's release, Nnamabia stands up for the old man. He's transferred to Cell One and then another prison, where he's beaten. When his parents and the narrator come to get him, he doesn't dramatize his retelling of what happened.
In "Imitation," Nkem studies the Benin mask on her mantel and listens to her friend say that Nkem's husband, Obiora, has a girlfriend in Lagos, Nigeria. (Nkem is living in Philadelphia.) When Nkem first came to America, Obiora stayed in Philadelphia for a few months, but soon returned to Nigeria. Nkem had two children and now Obiora only visits once per year. Nkem goes upstairs and cuts her hair short. She thinks about how her relationship with Obiora began. Later, Nkem watches her housegirl Amaechi makes dinner. Nkem brings up Obiora's girlfriend, and Amaechi says all men "are like that" and counsels Nkem that it's best to not know things like that. Nkem calls Nigeria later, and the houseboy won't tell her if anyone is at home. The next week Obiora visits. Obiora asks Nkem to shower with him, and she agrees. In the shower, she says she'd like to move back to Lagos.
In "A Private Experience," Chika hides from the violence of a riot in an abandoned shop with a Hausa Muslim woman. Chika fears that her sister Nnedi is lost in the riot, and the woman tells Chika about her eldest daughter, who also went missing in the fray. Chika says that she's a medical student, and the woman asks Chika to examine her burning nipples, which are cracked and dry from nursing her baby. Chika and the woman spend the night in the store and part ways in the morning, each telling the other to greet their loved ones. Chika knows that she won't find Nnedi.
In "Ghosts," Professor James Nwoye runs into Ikenna Okaro on the Nsukka campus. He had previously believed that Ikenna died when the Nigerian army invaded Nsukka in 1967. Ikenna explains that he moved to Sweden and organized pro-Biafra rallies all over Europe. When Ikenna asks about Ebere, James' wife, James explains that Ebere has been dead for three years but that she "visits." James explains to the reader that Ebere's ghost visits regularly and massages lotion into his skin. James invites Ikenna to come to his house, but Ikenna refuses. When James gets home, he waits for his daughter to call and for Ebere to visit later that night.
In "On Monday of Last Week," Kamara comes to Philadelphia after five years apart from her husband Tobechi. Upon her arrival in America, Kamara becomes depressed and extremely disillusioned with Tobechi, who has adopted a troubling American accent. Kamara takes a job as a nanny for Josh, a seven-year-old biracial boy. Josh's father, Neil, worries constantly about trans fats and high fructose corn syrup in his son's diet, and pushes Josh to be as successful as possible. When Kamara meets Tracy, Josh's African-American artist mother, Tracy asks Kamara to model for her. Kamara begins to come out of her depression and experience attraction to Tracy. She learns after a week, though, that Tracy habitually asks women to model for her, and Tracy's request didn't come from sexual attraction.
In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” Ujunwa, a young Nigerian writer, attends a writers' workshop at the Jumping Monkey Hill resort. From the outset she doesn't like Edward, the British organizer of the workshop. He stares at Ujunwa's body and makes suggestive comments to her. Ujunwa writes a story about a woman who gets a job at a bank. Her job is to bring in new clients, which she soon learns means using sexual means to bring in the clients. As the writers at the workshop begin the process of reading and critiquing each others' stories, Edward says that many of them aren't representations of the "real Africa," including the Senegalese woman's true story about coming out to her parents. When Ujunwa reads her own story, Edward deems it implausible. Ujunwa says that every word of it is true; it happened to her.
In "The Thing Around Your Neck, Akunna wins the "American visa lottery" and travels to live with her uncle in America. When her uncle tries to abuse her sexually, Akunna takes a bus to a small town in Connecticut and gets a job in a restaurant. A white boy begins visiting and tries to talk to Akunna about Africa. They soon begin a relationship, but the boy is rich and condescending. He doesn't understand why Akunna is upset that he doesn't correct waiters who assume that she's not his girlfriend. Akunna finally writes home and learns that her father has died. She flies home alone.
In "The American Embassy," the embassy narrator stands in line to get an asylum visa. The man behind her tries to engage her in conversation, but the narrator can only think of her son, Ugonna, who was killed the day before. After the narrator's husband, a reporter, published an article that angered the head of state, he'd received a call that he was going to be arrested and killed. The narrator smuggled her husband out of the country, but three men came looking for him and shot Ugonna. The woman and the man behind her are let into the embassy for their interviews. As she sits, the narrator thinks that she'd rather stay in Nigeria and plant flowers on Ugonna's grave than use his death to get a visa. She leaves the embassy.
“The Shivering” takes place in Princeton, New Jersey. Ukamaka refreshes web pages, checking Nigerian news sources for news of a plane crash in Nigeria. She worries that her ex-boyfriend, Udenna, was on the plane. Chinedu, another Nigerian man from her building, knocks on her door and asks to pray with her for Nigeria. Ukamaka learns that Udenna wasn't on the flight. Over the next several weeks, Chinedu and Ukamaka become friends and Ukamaka talks at length about her relationship with Udenna. They shop together and she drives him to his Pentecostal church on Sundays before attending her own Catholic church. They argue one day when Chinedu shares that he dated a controlling man and Ukamaka says that Chinedu's partner sounds like Udenna. The next Sunday Chinedu admits that he's not a student; he's hiding from the government to avoid a deportation notice, as his visa expired three years ago. Chinedu accompanies Ukamaka to Mass.
In “The Arrangers of Marriage,” Chinaza arrives in New York with her new husband, Ofodile. Her aunt and uncle arranged the marriage and thought it was a good thing: Ofodile is a doctor. Chinaza is immediately disillusioned, as Ofodile's "house" is a sparsely furnished apartment. Ofodile shows her around New York and corrects her every time she uses an Igbo or British English word instead of its American counterpart. He tells her that in America, he goes by “Dave Bell” instead of his Nigerian name. He fills out her application for a social security card with the name “Agatha Bell,” and buys Chinaza an American cookbook so she can learn to cook American food. Chinaza later meets Nia, a young woman who lives in the apartment building. Chinaza thinks that Nia looks like a prostitute, but she likes listening to Nia talk. One night, Ofodile admits that he married an American woman to get his green card and the woman is refusing to divorce him. Chinaza goes to Nia's apartment, where Nia admits that she slept with Ofodile two years ago. She encourages Chinaza to stick with Ofodile until her papers come through, and Chinaza goes back to her husband the next night.
In “Tomorrow is Too Far,” the tomorrow narrator returns to Nigeria for the first time in 18 years. She remembers her childhood summers in Nigeria when her Grandmama only praised the narrator's brother, Nonso, and ignored the narrator and her cousin, Dozie. Dozie was the "wrong grandson" and the narrator was female. One day Nonso fell out of the avocado tree and died. Three months after Nonso's funeral, the narrator told her mother that Grandmama played a trick on Nonso and he fell out of the tree. The narrator then explains what really happened: the narrator felt that something had to happen to Nonso so that the narrator could get some of her mother's love. She tricked Nonso into climbing the tree, and yelled that a poisonous snake was near him when he reached the top. He died instantly. The narrator's mother never gave the narrator the love she hoped for after Nonso's death, however. In the present, the narrator asks Dozie what he wanted that summer, and he says he only cared about what the narrator wanted.
In "The Headstrong Historian," Nwambga marries Obierika and has one son, Anikwenwa, after several miscarriages. Following Obierika's murder by his two cousins, Nwambga decides to put Anikwenwa in a Catholic mission school so he can learn English and take his father's cousins to court. Anikwenwa hates school at first, but soon becomes very devout. He becomes a teacher and refuses to eat his mother's food, though he does win Nwambga's land case for her. He marries a woman named Mgbeke, who cries often and doesn't stand up for herself. They have two children and Nwambga sees that their second child, Grace, possesses the soul of Obierika. Though Grace attends Catholic school and receives a Western education, she remains fascinated by her grandmother's culture. She returns from school to sit with her grandmother on her deathbed. Later, as she matures, Grace begins to question her own education. She attends college, writes books about Nigerian history, and divorces her husband because he doesn't think her interests in the native peoples of Nigeria are worthy. In her old age, Grace changes her name to Afemefuna, the name given to her by Nwambga.