The Thing Around Your Neck

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Perspective on Nigerian Post-colonization Homosexuality in the Thing Around Your Neck

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Thing Around Your Neck: Taboo to Who?

In The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie there are two very different short stories touching beautifully on the views of Nigerian post-colonization homosexuality. In one story, “On Monday of Last Week” the reader sees an ongoing and subtle curiosity between characters of the same sex, and in the other story, “The Shivering”, homosexuality is present in a very strong and open matter after the reader experiences a type of reveal of character. While the history and stance on African homosexuality is not written in stone by the author in these stories, the reader must wonder what the purpose of incorporating homosexuality in these stories represent, and how Nigerians have historically changed their views on homosexuality and why.

Before examining the short stories “On Monday of Last Week” and “The Shivering”, one must take a brief look into the history of homosexuality in Nigeria. Very simply put, homosexuality has been present in all countries and in all cultures for centuries. In Nigeria, the colonization of Westerners has greatly affected the social constructs of what is “taboo” and what is not, when it comes to homosexuality. Before the Biafra war and pre-colonization time, it was not uncommon to see Igbo people acknowledge same sex relationships as “tolerant” as opposed to “intolerant”. It was not yet even in mind that a woman having another woman as a companion was “gay”, but more so just “the norm” or even a privilege to their family. Women would marry on the count that they had a sacred and queen-like status, and this would commonly be termed “woman-husband” or “woman-wife”. In other situations, because the woman may have been widowed, a single parent, or not a parent at all, it was not against Nigerian beliefs to have a female-to-female companionship to compensate for a male-to-female marriage or relationship (Igwe 2009).

In an article by Cameroonian journalist, Eric Lembembe, titled “What Traditional African Homosexuality Learned From the West”, he includes an interview done with Patrick Awondo. Awondo has a doctorate in political sociology and medical anthropology from the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. Awondo states, “By demanding rights based on sexual practices, they [Westerners] make homosexuality a political issue. This emergence of a homosexual identity is marked by a social lifestyle and identification with the ‘gay culture’ that developed first in the United States in the late 1960’s and then in Western Europe”…he continues to say “Knowing historical truths lets us avoid unhistorical lies” (Lembembe 2012).

In the story “On Monday of Last Week”, readers see Kamara, a Nigerian immigrant who is babysitting for a boy named Josh in an upper class household. Tracy, Josh’s mother is an artist who secludes herself in the basement, but sometimes has interactions with Kamara. There is an ongoing and subtle curiosity between Kamara and Tracy as she learns more about Josh’s family, and she eventually develops an infatuation with Tracy. When there is finally an intimate interaction between Kamara and Tracy, Tracy says to Kamara while lightly touching her chin, “You have the most beautiful teeth,” and Kamara obsesses over her overwhelming flood of feelings at that moment. Kamara says she, at first, felt like a little girl and then proceeded to feel like bride. Kamara feels extremely aware of her body, Tracy’s eyes, and the space between them being very small (Adichie 87). The subtlety of Kamara’s curiousness is broken at this moment, and Adichie’s words are so graceful and soft, that it does not feel like an abrupt encounter. Although Tracy is very free-flowing and artistic in nature, she does lead Kamara to have a larger curiosity for her than she has for Kamara. Despite the intertwining of boundaries crossed, most moments that are homosexual in nature in this story are from Kamara’s head and fantasies about Tracy, and not necessarily active responses to Tracy’s bold and yet intimate behavior.

In the story “The Shivering”, the reader sees a Nigerian woman named Ukamaka who is sitting in her apartment/dorm in the United States and has learned that there has been a plane crash in Nigeria. She gets an unfamiliar knock at the door with a familiar face of a Nigerian man named Chinedu. Concerned that her ex-boyfriend, Udenna, may have been in the plane crash, she unguarded, lets Chinedu in and he immediately starts to pray about the crash. Chinedu makes Ukamaka feels odd because of his strong religious nature, but she continues to pursue a friendship with him because she still feels like they are connected. After Ukamaka finds that her ex-boyfriend Udenna is fine, she still revels in their relationship and talks about their past and how she felt love for Udenna. Upon hearing this, Chinedu opens up to Ukamaka and tells her that he, too, was once in love, and that perhaps Ukamaka should try and let go of her past with her ex-boyfriend. Not to Ukamaka’s surprise, she learns that Chinedu is gay and his love was a man named Abidemi. From there on, Chinedu is relieved and speaks freely about his relationship with a man and Ukamaka listens intently, with an open heart and mind (Adichie 159).

The direct correlation between religious folks and homosexuality has been a negative one, specifically to Christians. The expectant surprise in Ukamaka’s response in the book is a classic “Western” example of an assumed reaction to a very religious, Nigerian male, coming out as gay. The alleged surprise to the reader is perhaps not only that a Nigerian, religious, male, is gay, but that there is no surprise in Ukamaka’s response. This further implicates the “Westernization” of homosexuality transforming from a norm into an abnormal and “taboo” topic. Adichie wants the reader to understand that homosexuality in African history was never originally taboo or abnormal…that love is complicated and can come in many ways, shapes, and forms through subtlety and traditions. By viewing Ukamaka’s response of lack of surprise and continued inquiry into Chinedu’s life, readers can see that it is only the socio-political agenda that the post-colonial Westerners imposed the idea that homosexuality was no longer a positive experience or an African one. In part, this story widely emphasizes that the reader’s reaction to Ukamaka’s reaction is a direct result of the changes that colonization in Nigeria has brought onto the topic of homosexuality. The Westerners have taken away the idea that homosexuality has been around for centuries in Africa, and that even though it is viewed as a negative attribute, that homosexuality did not exist somehow until the Westerners discovered and condemned it. Readers can not only tell from Ukamaka’s relationship issues with Udenna- that straight relationships and love can be the same as gay ones in “The Shivering”… but we can also tell that homosexuality in Nigeria, has a complicated history that deserves examination by people who see it as “taboo” in the first place.

In light of both stories, one examining a female-to-female sensuality and curiosity, the other examining a Nigerian Christian male opening with his love story for another man, the reader can see in both situations that love comes in all forms and can be subtle, despite the present nature of homosexuality. It can also be described that “love” is not defined by gender, but defined by companionship and compassion for each other.

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The Lasting Impact of Colonialism in Western Perceptions of The Global South: Race and Gender in ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’

January 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck follows Akunna, a young Nigerian immigrant, as she adjusts to life in America. While there she begins a relationship with a white man who is eerily fascinated by African culture, and encounters the multiple skewed perceptions that Americans have of African countries, in particular Nigeria. Akunna and her boyfriend’s strikingly different views of Africa represent the lasting impact of colonialism both in western countries and the Global South, and also reveal the danger of the Single Story perspective. In presenting such radically different characters, Adichie critiques the dominant western perception of Africa and African women and reveals the lasting impacts of settler colonialism on race and gender.

Adichie’s depiction of Akunna and her boyfriend reflect the lasting impacts of settler colonialism on both colonized and colonizer nations. Akunna’s boyfriend is obsessed with Nigerian culture, to the point where it seems as though he’s claiming the Nigerian identity for himself. He “told [Akunna] he had been to Ghana and Uganda and Tanzania, loved the poetry of Okot p’Bitek and the novels of Amos Tutuola” (120). While Akunna initially “wanted to feel disdain… because white people who liked Africa too much… were condescending” (120). While eventually she’s convinced to go out with him, and initially finds him less condescending than other white people she’s encountered in America, she does eventually feel uncomfortable with his infatuation with African culture. This infatuation extends into the boyfriend attempting to claim African culture for himself: when he and Akunna are in the African food store and the cashier “asked him if he was African, like the white Kenyans or South Africans” (123), he’s thrilled because he wants to take on the African identity even though it doesn’t belong to him. He also claims to understand how Akunna feels when she tells him about her father’s car accident, when in fact he has no idea how she feels, because he has not experienced her life nor the context surrounding it. She’s upset by this, “because he thought the world was, or ought to be, full of people like him” (123). He thinks that he and Akunna are the same because of his desire to claim African heritage, but her life is distinctly different from his and he doesn’t recognize their differences. There is a distinct difference between Akunna’s relationship with Nigeria and her boyfriend’s, because Akunna grew up in Nigeria and is intimately familiar with the culture, while her boyfriend, try as he may to appropriate Nigerian culture, is an outsider looking in.

The boyfriend’s desire to claim African culture as his own is a reflection of the lasting impacts of settler colonialism. One of the most significant tenants of settler colonialism is the idea of colonizers coming to view themselves as true residents of the colonized location. Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck and Angie Morrill explore this concept in their essay Decolonizing Feminism, where they explain that “Settler colonialism is a persistent social and political formation in which newcomers/colonizers/settlers come to a place, claim it as their own, and do whatever it takes to disappear the Indigenous peoples that are there” (12). Much like with other forms of colonialism, the effects of settler colonialism continue to affect the colonized. Settler colonialism, however, allows colonizers to claim that they are the true residents of a country, erasing indigenous people from the narrative and preventing them from claiming land that is rightfully theirs. Arvin, Tuck and Morrill explain that in settler colonial states “laws have been constructed to enable white settlers to make claims of indigeneity” (12), a practice immediately made evident in The Thing Around Your Neck: Akunna’s boyfriend is not Nigerian, and embedding himself so deeply in African culture serves only to negate Akunna’s experiences as a Nigerian woman and take away cultural experiences from the people they belong to. In comparing Akunna and her boyfriend’s interactions with Africa, when Akunna was born in Nigeria and has memories of “[her] aunts who hawked dried fish and plantains, cajoling customers to buy and then shouting insults when they didn’t; [her] uncles who drank local gin and crammed their families and lives into single rooms” (117), and her boyfriend only understands Nigeria from the perspective of an outsider examining a foreign culture as something to study, Adichie makes a profound feminist statement about settler colonialism: how the culture of indigenous people, and particularly indigenous women, is stripped away when white people try to claim it for themselves.

Adichie also explores the idea of colonized women being seen as less than other women. When Akunna and her boyfriend are out to dinner and the waiter “assumed [she] could not possibly be his girlfriend” (124), she’s upset by the assumption that as an African woman, her boyfriend would never date her, but he doesn’t understand why she’s upset. Adichie’s critique of western perceptions of Africa is made clear through her characters: she condemns both the perception of African women as inferior to other women, and criticizes the people who refuse to see that that prejudice exists. The discrimination Akunna faces reveals the lasting impact of heteropaternalism, which Arvin, Tuck and Morrill explore in depth. They explain that the “management of Indigenous peoples’ gender roles and sexuality was also key in remaking Indigenous peoples into settler state citizens” (15), which is evident with Akunna: as white colonizers constructed ideas of womanhood that included only white women, reducing African women to something inferior and other, mainstream western society adopted that same view, allowing them to view African women as something other than women. Adichie does feminist work by drawing attention to the continued negative perception of African women, but she also criticizes it by depicting that white Americans don’t realize what they’re doing. Akunna feels the effects of racism and sexism profoundly, but the boyfriend doesn’t recognize this prejudice, a distinction that solidifies the difference between colonizer and colonized.

Adichie explores how differing experiences with prejudice can shape a person’s experience with a culture and their perception of the world. Akunna’s experiences as an African woman, who has experienced an intersection of racism and sexism as a result of her identity, allow her to recognize prejudice and be affected by it. When she arrives in America, she finds herself subject to ridiculous and ignorant questions from many white people: “They asked where you learned to speak English and if you had real houses back in Africa and if you’d seen a car before you came to America” (117). That prejudice extends to issues of gender as well, when she tells white Americans the meaning of her name and they respond “Father’s Wealth? You mean, like your father will actually sell you to a husband” (120.) Her boyfriend, as a white man living in the United States, has had no direct experience with gender or race-based prejudice, and while he may attempt to entrench himself in African culture, doing so is impossible when he is neither African nor a woman. Adichie critiques people who attempt to take on identities that don’t belong to them by showing how they can never truly understand the experiences of those identities; she displays how the experience of African women is a unique one, that can only be understood by African women.

The Thing Around Your Neck explores the dangers of a singular perspective in regards to colonized countries. Akunna criticizes how her boyfriend “wanted to visit Lagos, to see how real people lived, like in the shantytowns” (120). His view that the only “real people” in Africa are ones who leave in extreme poverties is indicative of a global belief that people in the Global South are inherently poor and lesser than people in western countries. While the boyfriend views the people of Nigeria as living in unspeakable poverty, he’s still infatuated with Nigerian culture, gaining knowledge and objects like trophies. Akunna even remarks that she “felt grateful that [his parents] did not examine you like an exotic trophy, an ivory tusk” (126). The boyfriend’s view of Nigeria, as both a land of poverty and a place from which to collect trophies, is a reflection of Adichie’s “The Danger of A Single Story” talk, where she discusses the repercussions of holding only one view of a place or group of people. She explains that “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (13:11-13:23). The fact that the boyfriend sees Africans as poor, and views Akunna as one of his trophies, speaks of a single story perspective: the fact that he is not Nigerian and was not raised in Nigeria allows him to have deeply misconstrued views of the nation. His perception of Akunna as something to be owned is a reflection of the belief that African women are not really women continues to show the lasting impacts of settler colonialism; that he can view her as a trophy, a prize to be won, rather than a legitimate person. While Akunna has real, human memories of Nigeria, both ones of poverty and ones of family, her boyfriend does not, and that allows him to establish a single-story viewpoint of Nigeria. Through his opinions, Adichie depicts the dangers that a single-story can present, through negative perceptions of people based on their race and gender.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck addresses the complexities of race and gender for African women living in a (supposedly) postcolonial society. She discusses the lasting effects of colonialism on the way that westerners perceive Africans, and how westerners attempt to take on the identities of the cultures they have colonized. In creating radically different characters through Akunna and her boyfriend, she explores the implications of prejudice and stereotypes, and both critiques the settler colonialism that has put both in place and champions for the reclamation of African women’s identities.

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