Chimamanda Adichie has been called “the twenty-first century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” a term only half correct. Yes, like Achebe, Adichie is an astonishing Ibo writer who grew up in eastern Nigeria, but unlike her literary parent, Adichie has veered off into territory that is often remarkably different from Achebe’s. Moreover, her worldview has been indelibly shaped by her gender—an interesting fact, especially, because feminists have often been critical of the elder Nigerian writer’s work. Adichie has benefited from the timing of her initial work, coinciding with a near-vacuum in Nigerian and African writing.
This enervation in African literature during the past decade has not been because writers have suddenly stopped writing. Rather, so many factors during the past ten or twenty years have strangled the efforts of young writers from the continent to find a reading audience: economics (books cost too much for the average African to afford); issues of language and national political crises; and, sadly, a reading culture that has never been particularly robust but in recent years has been in steady decline.
Remarkably, in this environment, Adichie emerged as a strong voice, worthy of our attention. It didn’t hurt that she grew up at the University of Nsukka, where her father was a professor and where her mother also worked. She was raised in the same highly charged intellectual atmosphere that had resulted in the secession of the Ibos from Nigeria, in 1967, and the formation of Biafra shortly before her birth. Nor did it hurt that as she established her own voice she had became much more of a cosmopolite than Achebe had been during his early years as a writer. After her BA at Nsukka, Adichie pursued higher education in the United States, including an MFA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University (2001).
Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003) demonstrated remarkable craft and deservedly earned her her earliest readers, particularly in the United States. Half a Yellow Sun (2006) was a quantum leap novelistically beyond the first novel, an ambitious saga set during the time of the Biafran war. Along the way and even before the publication of her first novel she published a remarkable number of short stories, mostly in American journals and magazines. Several of the most dazzling of these stories have now been collected in her third book, The Thing Around Your Neck, the title of one of the stories.
One of the most original of these stories (“The Headstrong Historian,” originally published in The New Yorker) reveals why so many of her readers believe that Adichie is Achebe reborn. Because it begins in Iboland, close to the time frame of Things Fall Apart, we even think we are encountering Achebe as we begin reading the story. In addition, Adichie can’t help alluding to Achebe’s novel several times, including the famous last line of Achebe’s masterpiece. But then, once Adichie has got us hooked, she steps into her own shoes and takes the reader on a trip that I doubt that even Achebe (for all his brilliance) would have ever imagined.
What a delicious surprise. It’s almost as if we observe Adichie discovering her own self half-way through the story. She hasn’t eliminated her literary father but she has discovered her own territory. The story was first published in 2008 and it certainly demarcates her work: Achebe and post-Achebe. It’s also a turning point in her career since it heralds not only her own voice but her genuine craft as a writer of prose narratives. She’s now totally independent of her mentors; there’s no telling where she’ll go next.
That said, it can also be asserted that some of the stories in The Thing around Your Neck are fairly conventional. But enough are to make this collection one of the finest ever written by an African writer. I was particularly taken with “Cell One,” which also appeared in The New Yorker in 2007, and “The Arrangers of Marriage,” published in The Iowa Review in 2003.
Rather than describing these stories, I will add that Adichie’s territory has now become the United States almost as much as Nigeria. Many of the stories concern Nigerians living in America and, consequently, are filled with perceptive observations about our culture—especially through the eyes of Nigerians still not certain what the United States has to offer them. This shift—critiquing America through African eyes—is a healthy move, something to be welcomed. Adichie can be witty, but she is never sarcastic. One observation made by a newly-arrived Nigerian woman, who has been forced into a thankless arranged marriage, will suffice. Told in the second person (a novel feature itself), the narrator observes that “rich Americans were thin and poor Americans were fat….”
Will all the attention given to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (including a MacArthur Foundation award) go to her head? Let’s hope not. She seems far too sure of her talent for that to happen.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.