Characters and Italics: Adichie’s method of characterization
In the many short stories contained in The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adichie portray various characters of many nationalities and identities. For example, a few characters adapt to the West when they arrive in America. Also, many Caucasians find themselves disconnected from the various African cultures. In particular, the short stories of Jumping Monkey Hill and The Arrangers of Marriage come to mind when reflecting on these ideas. Adichie uses italics to portray traditional Igbo words, conflicting with Western uses of italics, mostly for proper nouns. In the mix of all of this, italicized words that do not fit in either category usually represents when a character realizes a divide between a group and themselves. In both Jumping Monkey Hill and The Arrangers of Marriage, Adichie uses italic font to portray divides between groups.
Looking first at Igbo words, both short stories portray Igbo words with italics to visualize the oppression of African culture. In The Arrangers of Marriage, husband and wife Ofidile and Chinaza are having a detached conversation with one another. Ofidile encourages Chinaza to abandon her Nigerian roots, including the occasional Igbo words she uses. In response to something Ofidile tells Chinaza, she responds, “Ezi okwu?’ I said, hastily added, ‘Really?” (Adichie 177). The quote provided gives a clear example of Chinaza’s oppression under Ofidile. Chinaza’s method to relocate to America was marriage to Ofidile, an American citizen. Because of this marriage, which was arranged by her family, Chinaza had no other option but to follow Ofidile’s ridiculous requests. She, unwillingly, capitulated to the Americans by being submissive about her culture, caving into the process of Americanization. She doesn’t accept her mistake of using an Igbo word to Ofidile. Instead, she attempts to correct it, by hastily adding an English word right after her comment, to mimic American culture. Sympathizing with this, the other short story, Jumping Monkey Hill, Igbo words are also used to convey African oppression. The main character of the short story, Ujunwa, writes freelance after a disastrous first day of a writing workshop. Ujunwa writes, “The Yellow Woman had tied him up with medicine, and she knew a good babalawo who could untie them.” Under given context that the character Ujunwa writes this statement, her acknowledgment of oppression clarifies. Previously in the story, Ujunwa never said or wrote any native Igbo words, as she never had found a need to proclaim her Nigerian heritage to others. After the workshop with Edward, an ignorant British man pretending to be tolerant, Ujunwa finds herself aggravated by his attempts to act empowering. Ujunwa realizes Edward’s intent to oppress all the various African cultures by simplifying it down to one. Obviously, once Ujunwa noticed Edward’s intentions, she would not take such thoughtlessness sitting down. After this realization, she starts to use Igbo words in italics in her writing. From these examples, both Ujunwa and Chinaza found themselves diverting to their roots once said roots were threatened. To simplify, when italics are used for Igbo words, it represents a character’s oppression.
Another use of italics in both Jumping Monkey Hill and The Arrangers of Marriage includes the usage of plural nouns in italic font to represent Western influence. Providing an example, in Jumping Monkey Hill, the main character, Ujunwa, starts the story writing. Before arriving to Edward’s writing workshop, which only results in Ujunwa’s fury and protest, she writes about a character that “buys The Guardian and scours the employment section.” (Adichie 100). Ujunwa sympathizes with Westerners by writing a scenario in which the West can understand. In her later stories, especially in the previous paragraph, her disgust with how the whites treated the various African cultures culminated into a story that Igbo Africans could understand. A situation was presented which not many people would read Ujunwa’s writing would know, as well as the use of an Igbo word, which even fewer would understand, except for the niche audience Ujunwa would want. However, in this story, any character, even Edward, could comprehend the story Ujunwa told. Ujunwa was influenced by the West; to make things as simplified as possible so everyone could understand it. When Ujunwa realized the West wanted to turn her into a thoughtless robot, she revolted, and wrote stories unique to her. Continuing, in The Arrangers of Marriage, Ofidile, immersed with American culture, wants Chinaza to change her ways in order to fit more into society. A major point of controversy between Ofidile and Chinaza is the food Chinaza prepares while in the kitchen. When Ofidile returns from work one day, he awards Chinaza with a “Good Housekeeping All-American Cookbook, thick as a Bible.” (Adichie 179). Ofidile already established that he didn’t want his apartment to smell foreign, as all he wants is to conform and blend into American society. By giving up all of what makes Chinaza unique from the West, she would blend in just as Ofidile did. Ofidile was a Nigerian, same as Chinaza, until he moved to the United States to contribute as a doctor. He gave up everything: his personality, his culture, his friends, and his home, in order to absorb himself into American culture. In exchange for individuality, he became bland. Ofidile is a person any reader can picture, but nobody can sympathize with. Both quotes prove how Western influence can impact characters in The Thing Around Your Neck.
For the final example, words in italics are used when characters notice a divide between separate groups of people. The most notable examples both come from Jumping Monkey Hill, where Ujunwa sits in a bar after Edward’s workshop, with the other workshops populating the seats. After feeling alienated by the others due to not garnering any sympathy for Edward’s perverted actions against Ujunwa, she notes that the group “Teased the Tanzanian about his interest in jewelry - perhaps he was gay too?” (Adichie 113). Ujunwa’s targeted comment on the Tanzanian isn’t necessarily out of spite, but more out of pity. In a situation that Ujunwa thought she would garner sympathy, the group awarded her with none. One of the Africans at the workshop told Ujunwa that she was a lesbian, so the advances that Edward made on her, and subsequently Ujunwa, didn’t matter to her. All the while, the group teased the Tanzanian about being different from the rest. Ujunwa notice a parallel situation to how the group treated her. Instead of garnering support, both the Tanzanian and Ujunwa grew more isolated. And, as they grew more isolated, they found themselves as the only ones to fix their situation. At the end of the story, Edward condemns an insightful writer by telling them it isn’t about real people. Ujunwa snaps by acting: “(As if) something shrank… Of course one had to admire the writing itself, which was quite mah-ve-lous. (Edward) was watching her, and it was the victory in his eyes that made her stand up and start to laugh.”(Adichie 116). Ujunwa, altering seeing the hypocrisy of not only Edward, but the group itself, snapped. She walked out of the workshop, as everyone stared and glared. Ujunwa knew she was in the right. Not only about the story, not only about Edward, but about the clear divide between actual people and the puppets in the workshop. Ujunwa realized these people weren’t being made to express themselves as individuals. Instead, they only gave control to Edward, and, subsequently, the West. Ujunwa would allow herself to become an emotionless puppet under Edward’s control unless she left. In the end, Ujunwa realized the divide between herself and everyone else, and walked out once she registered how deep the divide was.
To summarize, Adichie uses italics in many ways throughout her stories in The Thing Around Your Neck to signal divides between two characters. With the use of Igbo words, Chinaza maintains her independence from Ofidile and his attempts to Westernize her. When plural nouns are italicized, Ujunwa and Chinaza are subject to Western culture and its influence. And, finally, when words are italicized, it signals a great ravine between two separate groups of people. Adichie uses italics in many stories other than Jumping Monkey Hill and The Arrangers of Marriage, and many more examples of the points made can be proven and found in two other short stories. All the characters in these stories: Ujunwa, Chinaza, Edward, Ofidile, and even the workshop attendees, would all would be a lot less colorful if not for the optimization of italics.