In the past few years, a Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become a feminist icon for many. The author openly criticizes patriarchal oppression, speaks often about the importance of feminism and equal rights for women, and consequently, she reflects her convictions in her literary works: “Adichie’s works wholly indict the patriarchal oppression of women and also encourage women to assert themselves irrespective of cultural norms and archaic traditions which have denied them their human rights and have largely promoted their subordination” (Azuike 80-81). As Hewett observes, the account of the third generation of Nigerian writers, the one which Adichie belongs to, “is one of triumph over adversity, a story of courageous individuals refusing to be silenced and the greater community supporting them” (74). This paper is thus devoted to the heroines of two short stories from a collection called The Thing Around Your Neck, who refuse to be silenced and find the courage to stand up to the people who oppress them.
The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of twelve short stories taking place either in the United States or Nigeria and the essay focuses on two short stories - “Imitation” and “The Arrangers of Marriage”. The heroines of the aforementioned stories are both Nigerian women living in the United States, struggling with their lives in a unfamiliar surroundings. They are coping with unhappy marriages, do not have a sense of belonging to their new homes and in addition to that, they do not seem to be in charge of their lives. Their roles are intended to be mainly domestic, and their main purpose is to be good housewives and to please their husbands. The aim of this paper is to show how the two heroines become empowered throughout the stories and explain why they refuse to be silenced by their oppressors.
The story “Imitation” revolves around an extramarital affair that eventually helps the main character find her voice and stand up to her husband. The heroine, Nkem, lives in the American suburbs with her children, while her husband lives in Nigeria for the most part of the year, claiming he needs to take care of his business there. The story begins with a phone call to Nkem, who finds out from her friend that her husband, Obiora, has a young mistress in Nigeria and he moved her into their house in Lagos. “This is what happens when you marry a rich man” (Adichie), says her friend on the phone, suggesting Nkem should not complain about it and accept it because that is the norm. Moreover, she should have expected it because this is how rich men operate. Nkem truly acts as if it was her fault that she did not realize it already and keeps quit, “she does not tell Ijemamaka that her fingers feel numb, that she wishes Ijemamaka had not called” (Adichie). However, she suddenly feels very alienated from her husband and from her life in the United States in general. At one point, she picks up a Benin mask that her husband brings her home, she touches it and it feels “cold, heavy, lifeless” (Adichie), implying this is what her life in America feels like and consequently, what her marriage feels like. The narrative suggests that Nkem never had any voice of her own in the marriage. Nkem remembers that she liked when Obiori used to say “we”, it made her feel like she made the decisions for “them” too (Adichie). However, then she remembers that “they” never decided that she would stay home with the children, “it just happened” (Adichie). It was actually Obiora who made the decisions for “them” - he enrolled the children into good schools and Nkem said nothing because she wanted a good future for her children, so she arranged her life accordingly. Later, Obiora decides that he would only visit in the summer and again, Nkem does not raise any objections. After all, she was happy and proud to have moved to the United States because she joined “the coveted league, the Rich Nigerian Men Who Sent Their Wives to America to Have Their Babies league” (Adichie). She wished for her children to attend good schools and that is why it was not her place to complain. As Obiora moved her on the social ladder, she feels obligated to Obiora and accepts his infidelity as a normal thing (Sharobeem, 30). Essentially, Nkem lost her voice at the beginning of their relationship: “He ordered wine that tasted sour on her tongue, telling her, ‘You will come to like it,’ and so she made herself like the wine right away.” (Adichie). Being with Obiora was different to Nkem than with other men, and pleasing him allowed her to escape her poor past: “When he asked if she would marry him, she thought how unnecessary it was, his asking, since she would have been happy simply to be told” (Adichie). In a desperate attempt to escape her past, Nkem’s life and marriage seem like something that is happening to her, not something she controls or something that she is in charge of. As Nkem's frustration with Obiora grows, she decides to cut her hair. Probably because Obiora’s mistress has “short and curly” (Adichie) hair, Nkem decides to cut her hair too despite the fact that Obiora likes her hair long. When he first sees her, he is not pleased: “You should grow it back. Long hair is more graceful on a Big Man’s wife” (Adichie). Nkem realizes that her husband acts differently in Nigeria and in the United States and that he has got double standards for her and his mistress. Moreover, his comment suggests that he sees Nkem as a trophy wife - somebody who makes him more powerful and proves that he is a Big Man. Such a wife should submit to Obiora’s standards, and revolting against those standards was something he did not expect: “‘Why did you cut it? Is it the new fashion trend in America?’ He laughs, taking his shirt off to get in the shower” (Adichie). Obiora's questions imply that the only reason why Nkem would cut her hair is to follow a trend, he does not take into account the possibility of having her own yearnings. In the end, Nkem decides that staying in the United States without her husband is no longer acceptable, and announces to him that they are all moving back to Nigeria. Obiora is surprised, once again proving that he is not used to his wife having opinions. Nkem even wonders if that is what attracted him to her, the fact that she always let him spoke for both of them (Adichie). “‘We can spend holidays here, together,’ she says. She stresses the ‘we’” (Adichie), to claim back her marriage. At this point, Nkem makes a deliberate choice, her priority is to save her marriage. Nkem realizes that she has excused Obiora’s behaviour in the marriage from the beginning, such as when her neighbor asked where Obiora is. She explained to them that he has two homes as if it was nothing to be curious about, although Nkem herself was not content with it: Obiora laughed when she told him how curious the neighbors were about them. He said oyibo people were like that. If you did something in a different way, they would think you were abnormal, as though their way was the only possible way. And although Nkem knew many Nigerian couples who lived together, all year, she said nothing (Adichie). Finally, disclosing the affair to her maid and putting her unhappiness into words, makes Nkem find the courage to question how the marriage works: “‘Can we cram a year’s worth of marriage into two months in the summer and three weeks in December?’ she asks (Adichie), wondering if they can “compress” their marriage (Adichie). In an attempt to assume the control of her marriage again, she decides not to tell her husband she knows about his mistress, instead, she decides to claim back the “we” in their relationship and essentially orders him to move the family back to Lagos.
“The Arrangers of Marriage” involves a young Igbo woman from a lower-class family, whose relatives arrange a marriage with a doctor in the United States. Similarly to Nkem, the marriage promises a better future for her, so she leaves for America without questions. Accordingly, she feels that it is not her place to complain or voice her opinions about things she is not happy with, such as the size of the house in America, the equipment and furniture. At the beginning of the story, Chinaza describes how she imagined her new home, based on popular culture: “I had imagined a smooth driveway snaking between cucumber-colored lawns, a door leading into a hallway, walls with sedate paintings. A house of those of the white newlyweds as in the American films that NTA showed on Saturday nights” (Adichie). Instead, she got an old and smelly room. Patrycja Kozieł argues that Chinaza blames her relatives for the situation, however, as she notes, she does not protest openly (32). As Denkyi-Manieson explains: “In the African society, marriage and childbirth are never an individual’s decision, rather, that of the community. Against her wish, the woman will have to forgo all of her dreams and fulfill those of society” (60). Therefore, Chinaza feels an obligation to act according to her relatives' wishes. Her aunt and uncle feel that finding Chinaza a doctor in America is like winning a lottery and Chinaza needs to express her gratitude whether she actually feels it or not: I had thanked them both for everything — finding me a husband, taking me into their home, buying me a new pair of shoes every two years. It was the only way to avoid being called ungrateful. I did not remind them that I wanted to take the JAMB exam again and try for the university, that while going to secondary school I had sold more bread in Aunty Ada’s bakery than all the other bakeries in Enugu sold, that the furniture and floors in the house shone because of me (Adichie). Her husband, Ofodile, expected Chinaza to submit to him as a kind of trophy wife, similarly to Obiora in “Imitation”. When Chinaza asks why he married her, Ofodile explains: “I wanted a Nigerian wife and my mother said you were a good girl, quiet” (Adichie), suggesting he wished for somebody who will not question his authority and who will do as he pleases. Moreover, Ofodile saw her as an object that he will benefit from: “‘I was happy when I saw your picture,’ he said, smacking his lips. ‘You were light-skinned. I had to think about my children’s looks. Light-skinned blacks fare better in America'” (Adichie). Ofodile does not even say “our children”, he refers to “his children”, implying that Chinaza only serves as something that will give the children light skin. Chinaza feels alienated from her husband straight from the beginning: “They did not warn you about things like this when they arranged your marriage. No mention of offensive snoring, no mention of houses that turned out to be furniture-challenged flats” (Adichie). However, as the marriage was a good deed from her relatives, Chinaza accepts the marriage as it is because it would be ungrateful to complain. Ofodile takes over Chinaza’s life by stripping her of her own name and assigning her an English name, Agatha. While he thinks he is helping her to assimilate faster, Chinaza feels like she is being denied her own identity. This motif appears often in Adichie’s work as “her Nigerian characters feel the need to try and erase their Nigerian identity in order to fit into American society” (Murphy, 97). Ofodile insists on eating only American food and constantly instructs Chinaza to use American English and to avoid Nigerian English and the vernacular (Murphy, 98). Although Chinaza struggles with accepting this new identity that has been assigned to her, she finds it difficult to stand up to her husband. As Nkem finds comfort and courage in her maid, Chinaza becomes friends with one of the neighbors. Nia is not only a friend to her when she needs one, but she also opens her eyes about her potential future when she explains she does not have to stay with her husband in the United States: “‘You can wait until you get your papers and then leave,’ Nia said. ‘You can apply for benefits while you get your shit together, and then you’ll get a job and find a place and support yourself and start afresh. This is the U.S. of fucking A., for God’s sake’” (Adichie). The story ends with Chinaza going back to her husband, and although the story has an open ending, one can argue that she is determined to leave Ofodile after her papers arrive: “Nia came and stood beside me, by the window. She was right, I could not leave yet. I went back across the hall the next evening“ (Adichie), meaning that when the time is right, Chinaza will leave her husband.
While in “Imitation”, Nkem finds her voice because she wants to save her marriage, in “The Arrangers of Marriage”, Chinaza finds her voice because she does not want to give up her cultural heritage. Both heroines are not happy with their lives and while they decide to deal with the situation differently, they have to take deliberate actions to change it, which is something they are not used to. This essay shows that both women decide to refuse archaic traditions and norms in order to take control of their own lives - Nkem refuses to accept her husband's infidelity and decides to prevent it by moving back to Lagos, where he conducts business, and Chinaza decides to leave her husband despite her relatives' wishes. With respect to their upbringing and traditions, the essay also demonstrates that they represent courageous women who can stand up for themselves.