Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Thing Around Your Neck

Many years ago, seated atop a lush green mountain as part of an office picnic, my friend Carlos had said to me “Books are a good reason to continue living”. Now, Carlos was a singular individual. Without having left the confines of his country any time during his lifetime he had traveled the world through books. With such affluent finesse he would speak of the different tribes in the Middle East and the grass root issues that hounded them under the arid sun. He would educate us about the peculiar customs of the Japanese and the internal struggles they have faced in leaping onto the future without letting the string of their past slip from their hands. He would narrate for hours the complexities in religion and the human need to create different variations of a supreme being. It made for fascinating sessions. And even as someone who considered himself a pretty avid reader I would often wonder at the depth with which the words Carlos was seeing had penetrated his untraveled feet and made their way silently to his nomadic heart taking him to places he was yet to visit.

Reading Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck” rekindled that feeling in me. Of having never set foot in Africa’s generous landscape but of having had the good fortune of partaken in her many hues. It has been quite a while since I have read a collection of short stories (perhaps the last one being Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth” many years ago) so I began the book hoping that each story would be sculpted with a closure that wouldn’t make me yearn for more. Alas, that is what did not happen. Right from the first story “Cell One”, a story of young Nigeria rebelling against the system desperately wanting to handcuff itself to freedoms of expression, the sense of wanting more had settled in thick. As the stories tumbled forth – “Imitation”, “A Private Experience”, “Ghosts”, “On Monday Last Week”…  - the itch to follow these characters further down the road, just a little bit more, to see which way they would go, what they would do, what they would say…intensified. It is this art of stitching a fine layer of humanity – under the guise of men, women and children who eat kola nuts, enjoy jollof rice, climb avocado trees, indulge in palm wine, revere their ancestors and understand the prejudice the world hands them mercilessly– that makes Adichie a most relevant voice of Western Africa.

Right from the days of reading her “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Purple Hibiscus” I have found a bizarre sense of longing to that region. I often wonder if one of my ancestors was from there since a unique blot of melancholy and nostalgia engulfs me when those lands open up their wares with care and kindness. In the long shadows of the sun that somehow seems bigger and brighter, in the breeze laced with the fragrance of a thousand different flowers, in the smell of earth peppered strongly with herbs and spices of a dozen kind, the want of digging my fingers deep into that soil and letting it fall gracefully back down like a majestic waterfall grows stronger.

Perhaps this is Adichie’s genius. Perhaps it is because she is able to capture so much with so few words that makes her writing so addictive. Hidden behind those words, perhaps, is the knowledge that if she has to make the continent’s thick and misguided cobwebs come apart, if her vision is to fling open the windows of misconceptions to let the big bright sunshine flush out the birds of lies…then her weapons are to be simple. This is what she does best. Emboldens her characters to come loose from word cocoons and through action and dialog bring to life a heritage, a civilization, a story that is as grand as the planet itself. Be it in the struggles of the Nigerian caught between two cultures, struggling to escape his reality, be it in the silences filling up a widow’s life haunted by traditions of her tribe, be it in the mute observations of a girl awaiting the spring of adulthood yet unable to escape the loud crimes of life around her … Adichie injects such power into the narratives that the reader has no choice but to surrender.

“The Thing Around Your Neck” is such a collection of short stories. Stories that showcase a wide array of characters caught in turbulent times yet unwilling to negotiate with their inner self. People from various walks of life constantly crisscrossing across the haphazard labyrinth of political, personal and historical decisions in constant need for a validation to their existence. People caught up between fast changing times unable to stand steady against the ravage storms of religion blowing from outside their lands. And in the end, when the storms are done blowing and people are done mourning, the land of Africa will remain just as strong and grounded as it has always been. It is through their inner and outer struggles both as a continent (so unique in every aspect yet cursed to be painted with the same African brush) and as a collection of traditions, that we get to see perspectives that would have elluded us if narrated by a foreign voice. Someone who goes deeper than writing of Igbos and Hausas. Someone who digs each word out like a hidden flower to create a garden of such unique learning. And for this constant realization I cannot wait to read her latest work “Americanah”.

My mind floats back to Carlos and that picnic. That day I had little to say in response to his prophetic words but today I would certainly join him in celebrating the power of words and writers who, like djinns with a magic carpet, transport you to worlds that may seem alien but might just have been the source of your roots.


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