There are always going to be those books – you know the ones – that you keep meaning to read but somehow can never get around to. For me it’s usually the book jacket description. I’ve read the reviews, I’ve seen the award stamp on the book’s cover, I’m impressed by the blurbs, but for some reason the description just isn’t capturing me. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s just that, for whatever reason, I’m not interested in that kind of story on that particular day. I read it and I think, “Yes, one day, but not today.”
Such was the state of my relationship with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie until last Thursday. I was returning The Great Gatsby to my local library (can you believe I’ve only just read that perfect little book?) and naturally I couldn’t leave without picking up three more to replace the one I’d returned. My stack included: Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, Clyde Edgerton’s The Bible Salesman (because I was missing North Carolina) and Tobias Wolff’s Our Stories Begin. I dipped into each one but kept coming back to Adichie’s book of short stories. Before I knew it, I’d read two all the way through and an hour had passed.
As I sit here trying to express with words what’s so incredible about Adichie’s stories, one thought keeps coming back to me: they are valuable stories because they are necessary stories. All twelve of them offer some penetrating observations on, as the book description summarizes so expertly, “the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Nigeria and the West.”
At face value these are immigrant stories, stories of the “other,” but at their core they are stories about change – altered relationships, changed localities, changed minds (sometimes too late) – and that amazingly useful quality humans possess: our ability to adapt to it. We strive for it, we need it, we fear it, we do it as a matter of survival, and when it’s all done, we run our hands over our bodies and are surprised to find so many scars.
They are stories of a wealthy young medical student who escapes a violent riot with the help of a poor Muslim woman, and during the hours of gentleness spent with this strong and faithful “enemy,” finds the strength to face her own fears.
They are stories of the son of a college professor in Nigeria who believes he is above the law until he is forced to spend day in Cell One at the police prison. It’s the last place a person goes before he disappears.
They are stories of an immigrant who has won the “green card lottery” and goes to a life of “big cars and big houses” in America. Instead she discovers loneliness and, finally, love. Her relationship with a young white man from a privileged family promises to loosen the cord that’s tightening around her neck until news from home upsets everything.
The thing I love most about Adichie is her grace-filled storytelling. When I’m reading one of her stories I imagine she is sitting in front of me, her fingers stroking some medallion around her neck while she talks. By the end of the story she’s untying it, and when she’s finished the story she’s handing it to me, saying, “Here, it’s your’s. I let it go. I give it to you.”
Perhaps that’s just the title of the book speaking to me, though the themes of gift-giving and storytelling run through many of the stories. In any case, I will be holding onto these stories for a very long time, cherishing them as the gifts they are.