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Halfway From Home

Adichie’s stories are comfortable hybrids

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan |
June 7, 2009 2:46:06 pm

Adichie’s stories are comfortable hybrids
In 1956,Horace Miner published an anthropology paper about the exotic customs and medicine men of the Nacirema,a tribe that fetishises a mouth-rite that “consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth,along with certain magical powders,and then moving the bundle in a highly formalised series of gestures”.

Of course,Nacirema is just American spelt backwards and scrutinised with a neutral-seeming,estranging eye. And in some ways,Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new collection of short stories does exactly that.
In ‘Since Last Monday’,a fresh-off-the-boat Nigerian nanny is amused by the anxious regulations of “healthy parenting” like “we don’t do high-fructose corn syrup,bleached flour or trans-fat”. A young wife is coached by her bumptious husband in ‘The Arrangers of Marriages’— “Americans say busy,not engaged”,“Americans don’t drink their tea with milk and sugar”— even as she observes the vulgarity of food courts and the bleak particulars of Flatbush Avenue,where she has been pitched.

Though her stories span Nigeria and America,they are not neat parables about how the nation’s shadow falls on the condition of exile. In one story,a woman seeking political asylum and torn by her four-year-old son’s killing,walks out of an uncomprehending American embassy,because “the new life” she wants to build is in her ancestral hometown where she would plant ixora flowers and tend her son’s memory.

Adichie’s characters are pulled along multiple identifications. One of the most artful stories is ‘Ghosts’,where an elderly professor runs into an old colleague,long supposed dead in the Biafran conflict. In the course of a brief conversation,she layers an entire history of personal tragedy and compromise,ageing and loneliness.

Adichie sets up a tidy trajectory and then unexpectedly veers away,opening up a small revelation. Only ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ about a writing workshop in Africa,felt somewhat tinny and unsuccessfully meta,for all its skilful telling. “This is agenda writing,it isn’t a real story of real people”,rails the stick figure of Patronising White Africanist about the narrator’s short story. Ironically enough,this is the one story where the resolution is a little too pat while her other stories,in their piling up of specific detail,intimately reflect politics.

Female complicity and chemistry figure prominently in her stories,between grandmothers and granddaughters,between housemaids and employers,between neighbours. In ‘A Private Experience’,a privileged Igbo Christian girl and a Hausa Muslim woman huddle together in a store,seeking refuge from religious riots. In ‘Since Last Monday’,Kamara is seized by an absurd,torrential love for another woman. All stories (except one) in this collection are about female characters,easy in their skin and spikily intelligent,steerers of their destiny.

Adichie has proven her dazzling talent with novels of generous amplitude (Half of An Orange Sun,The Purple Hibiscus). Here,she executes something else,in diverse,unclassifiable stories. Some images of Nigeria recur — the feathery Igbo accents,the dry and dusty harmattan season,the sharp colour of palm oil. Like Alice Munro’s Canadian corner of the world or John Updike’s East coast suburbia,Adichie can see the universe,and the universal,in her dizzying range of characters and situations.

The collection feels like looking through different windows — somewhere you wish you could go on looking for a while longer. Whether it is a grand generational saga of colonisation like ‘The Headstrong Historian’ or the moving college episode of ‘The Shivering’,Adichie is impressive in her versatility and control. ‘The Shivering’ is one of those stories that make her so difficult to slot and file away — it is a story of a privileged graduate student at Princeton who strikes up a friendship with a poor,gay Nigerian. She is like the walking wounded after a relationship unravels,he is dealing with his own neuroses,and the ups and downs of their companionship make for a funny,utterly natural story.

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