I purchased a copy of “The Thing Around Your Neck” at my university’s bookshop yesterday. I perused through it when I got home. I skipped a couple of stories like “Cell One,” therein, which I had already read in The New Yorker and other literary journals, on the internet. I stopped at “The American Embassy,” the eighth story in Adichie’s collection (I had seen this particular story listed in Adichie’s bibliography and been curious about it somewhat).
However, every Nigerian knows, or has read stories about, what happens in American Embassies, here in Nigeria. So, in a way, I tried to predict what Adichie’s story would be about―perhaps the disappointment of a distraught Nigerian who’s on the verge of absconding from Nigeria, or possibly a student being refused a visa, despite the fact that he’s been awarded admission into an American institution, that sort of thing―but the plot and resulting denouement of Adichie’s interesting narrative was a far cry from my intuitive assumptions.
“The American Embassy” commences with a lady standing on a queue outside the American Embassy in Lagos. She seems to be there but is not there, in the sense that she’s apathetic about what is going around her, until she’s nudged off her reverie (which isn’t pleasant) by a man behind her, who afterwards makes attempt to talk to her, even though she’s in no mood for a chitchat.
As the story progresses, what’s on her mind is brought to the fore―”two days ago, she had buried her child in a grave near a vegetable patch in their ancestral hometown of Umunnachi.” The government, at the time, in the story, is that of the despotic Abacha, and her husband is a pro-democracy activist, who has recently written a story in The New Nigeria (fictitious, for the sake of those who do not realise this) to criticise the government for its misdeeds. He’s being hunted because of this, but is able to abscond, his wife, the main character, aiding this escape.
Gunmen, sent by the powers that be, subsequently storm the residence of the main character through the back door. Fortunately her husband has escaped, but unfortunately Ugonna, their son who screams out of fear, amid the horror, is shot dead in cold blood.
Consequently, the main character seeks an asylum visa to the United States, where her husband also intends to seek an asylum visa in the near future. But the visa interviewer she encounters is unable to grant her this request because she doesn’t have enough “evidence” to substantiate the claim that government agents are responsible for her predicament. She drifts in thought for a while, during the interview, and then exits as the visa interviewer calls out “Ma’am?” behind her.
The beauty of this piece lies in its ingenious use of foreshadowing and flashback, which I think Adichie uses deftly in most of her fiction, not only in this work (read “Birdsong” published in The New Yorker and some weekend issue of the Nigerian Sun Newspaper). Adichie is able to take the reader two days back, to subtly portray what happened, and still tie the relevance of the flashback to actions taking place in real time. There’s no distortion of the main narrative whatsoever, which is rife in bad fiction, as she goes about this.
Descriptions are vividly picturesque. One can easily imagine the scenario. And her descriptions do not flaunt themselves by being over-superfluous with detail. Nor do they drag on, so that it becomes an uphill task to connect the dots, or depressingly slow down the pace of the narrative. And, perhaps more importantly, some of her descriptions are allegorical. For instance, “there’s a soldier flogging a bespectacled man” at the beginning of the story, before anything is said about the kind of government at the time, which in my opinion presents what the story’s major theme―the horrors of a military dictatorship―and is not merely there to pad up the story.
Nevertheless what struck me most was the way the story ended. It’s not all the time one finishes a story and wishes there could be more. Yet this is exactly how I felt when I got to the end. Needless to say I was riveted all through the read.
The thought of the main character walking through the exit, the visa interviewer calling out “Ma’am?” surprised me a great deal. I found myself wishing Nigerians could have such courage, rather than subject themselves to the mercy of a freckled individual, even when they’ve been truthful, yet haven’t been believed. Perhaps it’s time for some people to walk away from the humiliation accorded them at American embassies.
Adichie, of truth, did justice to this story. I once saw a comment that read, “Chimamanda can never go wrong.” Of course this cannot be entirely true. But I’m convinced that some people are born writers. Adichie is certainly one of the select-few with such esoteric gift.