Monday, May 02, 2011

Reflections: The Thing Around Your Neck

I started reading Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus a couple of years back, but given my mental state then, I couldn’t stand the distressing nature of the story and abandoned it half-way. But I did like Adichie’s writing that I sought another book of hers - something that didn’t have to do with wars, and I was left with this book of short-stories. I quite liked the book, but back then, I hadn’t yet stumbled into the phase of recording my thoughts on every book I read, so I just shelved my thoughts. However, I was reminded of the book when recently, I came across this TED video of Adichie’s talk.

Just a short while ago, I had written about my curiosity to know about the person behind the pen/words. Quite surprisingly, Adichie’s voice and speech were exactly as I had imagined. I was impressed by her confidence and measured words, which made clear she was of substance. Her speech was on the dangers of stereotyping and narrowing one’s perspectives because of the kinds of stories the media (books, television, movies, Internet) chooses to concentrate and perpetuate. All through her talk, I was reminded of the many different insightful stories she had written in this book. So, although this post is about two years late, better late then never, I told myself.

People in developed countries have certain common images and impressions about developing countries - poverty, unrest, illiteracy, disease, violence, and corruption. They are not wrong. It is indeed true that cows languish on Indian roads, and every street corner is likely to have a crude little temple teeming with superstitious people. But to latch onto just these, and assume that the country is made of cows and superstitions, is gross ignorance. To eradicate people’s stereotypes, their ignorance, misunderstanding and oversimplification of Africa, Adichie presents twelve different stories of Nigerians.

Through a host of well-defined and different characters, Adichie shows that there are Nigerians who are well-educated, well-read and refined, who own good cars, travel abroad, are distinguished authors, journalists, university professors, and doctors. She also writes about those who are riddled with poverty and struggle to make a living as shunned immigrants in the US; those who stray from education due to the ravaging influence of war, violence and communal disputes; those beguiled women who find themselves as dependent wives to their partly Americanized, over-bearing, chauvinistic husbands; those ambitious immigrants who succumb to the illusion of milk and honey; those young girls who grow to hate their own brothers because of the excessive favoritism they receive; those well-meaning elders who cloister themselves with misguided notions of culture, and end up oppressing and subjugating women.

Every story is honest, and speaks volumes. The stories on immigration, the conflicts between cultures, the dilemma of  going back home, the violence, communal riots, and deep-seated belief in complex values, go across borders and ring true to anyone from a developing country. I could relate to almost every story, but my most favorite was The American Embassy. It says a lot when you get moved to tears by a single short-story. I thought it captured Africa (or rather Nigeria), and the relationship between the US and developing nations, in a nutshell.

Although some stories might seem a little abrupt and incomplete, what impressed me most was the simplicity of Adichie’s words, and the vivid, and perfect characterization that the stories achieve despite the parsimony of words. I can never do that, and I commend authors who can powerfully capture the insights, and the million and one hues of the characters and the story through simple, honest words.

Digested Thoughts: I enjoyed reading this book of short-stories. The stories are simple, honest, and powerful. They truthfully speak the unheard stories of Nigerians. Adichie’s simple and solemn writing does not try to dim any rough edge. 


Leena said...

Hi, I haven't read this book review quite yet, but I wanted to thank you for your kind words. :) Will see some of these book reviews later when I have a bit more of time, as it seems like you really put quite a bit of thought into it! - Leena

Karthik said...

Nice ! I've been wanting to read Chinua Achebe for a while, but didn't know about Ngozi Adichi..Will add this to my list:-)

Neeraja said...

You're most welcome Leena. Thank you for dropping by!

Karthik, I think you'll like her style of writing :)