Adichie's collection splits its time between America and Nigeria, primarily in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s. As the Nigerian characters encounter white Americans, black Americans, and other Nigerians of different economic classes, they run up against differing ideas about what Nigeria is again and again. As such, many of the stories concern themselves directly with what it means to be Nigerian and the problems that arise when others have very narrow views of what Nigeria, and Africa in general, is supposed to look like.
This tension between a Western idea of Africa and what Africa truly is becomes most apparent in the story "Jumping Monkey Hill." As Ujunwa attends a writer's conference in South Africa led by Edward, a British man, she initially finds him crude and disrespectful of her because she's female. Soon, however, she finds that he also has a very narrow view of what happens in Africa. This is, of course, ironic, as the story implies that Edward was born, raised, and educated in England, not Africa. However, because Edward has a degree in African Studies, he believes himself to be more of an expert on what goes on in Africa than people who were actually born and raised there. Edward tries to tell Ujunwa and her lesbian Senegalese peer at the workshop that their true and autobiographical stories are "agenda writing" rather than representative of what actually goes on in Africa. Though Edward doesn't have lived experience as an African person, he has the power and authority to tell the women that their stories are false, as well as the power to decide what stories are "real" or truly representative of Africa. Because Edward has this power to decide what's real, he insures that the false or oversimplified representations of Africa that he deems real are rewarded and circulated, while suppressing nuanced and true stories that depict different aspects of life in Africa.
In several stories, it's evident that people like Edward have been successful in disseminating these poor representations of Africa: several American characters can't identify where Nigeria is, and others ask rude questions about Nigerian characters' hair or names. The prevalence of Western characters who question how Nigerian characters learned English illustrates the immense power of the stories like the ones Edward wishes to publish. These stories allow the Western characters to feel superior to the Nigerian characters, as all the Western characters know Edward's version of Africa—the continent as a violent and uncivilized place. As a result, many of the male Nigerian characters in particular loudly denounce their culture, adopt American names, and stop speaking their native languages. Even the Nigerian characters in Nigeria seek to separate and distance themselves from this singular story of their country. In "A Private Experience," Chika, a medical student from cosmopolitan Lagos, unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of a violent riot in rural Kano. However, because of her high socioeconomic status and education, she feels as though she shouldn't be affected by the riot or by Nigeria's conflicts at all. Her status as a well-off student allows her to disassociate from the violence and conceptualize the violence as being unique to the poor of Nigeria.
As the collection presents characters of a variety of social classes, genders, religions, and life stages, the reader is offered a vast array of different stories. Though the struggle to define their relationship to their Nigerian roots and to understand what it means to be Nigerian carries through every story, the fact that the collection doesn't come to a single conclusion on the matter suggests that there is no singular story about Nigeria. Rather, the final story, "The Headstrong Historian," suggests that one can begin to define and understand Nigeria when one seeks to tell the many different stories of its people, rather than attempting to distill the idea of Nigeria down to the singular stories of characters like Edward.
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Stories and Representation Quotes in The Thing Around Your Neck
They may have once been benign fraternities, but they had evolved and were now called "cults"; eighteen-year-olds who had mastered the swagger of American rap videos were undergoing secret and strange initiations that sometimes left one or two of them dead on Odim Hill.
"You cannot raise your children well, all of you people who feel important because you work in the university. When your children misbehave, you think they should not be punished. You are lucky, madam, very lucky that they released him."
"We have only spent a week here with our aunty, we have never even been to Kano before," Chika says, and she realizes that what she feels is this: she and her sister should not be affected by the riot. Riots like this were what she read about in newspapers. Riots like this were what happened to other people.
But I am a Western-educated man, a retired mathematics professor of seventy-one, and I am supposed to have armed myself with enough science to laugh indulgently at the ways of my people.
Kamara wondered where the child's mother was. Perhaps Neil had killed her and stuffed her in a trunk; Kamara had spent the past months watching Court TV and had learned how crazy these Americans were.
The next day at breakfast, Isabel used just such a tone when she sat next to Ujunwa and said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had to come from Nigerian royal stock. The first thing that came to Ujunwa's mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of her friends back in London.
Yes, of course. Not all of us can do it. That is the real problem with us in this country, we don't have enough brave people.
She wanted Azuka to learn the ways of these foreigners, since people ruled over others not because they were better people but because they had better guns...
It was Grace who would read about these savages, titillated by their curious and meaningless customs, not connecting them to herself until her teacher, Sister Maureen, told her she could not refer to the call-and-response her grandmother had taught her as poetry because primitive tribes did not have poetry.