The thing about being an opinionated commentator is that sometimes you have to say with confidence that you were not all that right. Better still, that you've changed your mind, a bit.
Among my many friends, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has something of a pom-pom carrying, cheerleading squad. And well, until recently I was an adamant non-cheerer. I had read her first offering, Purple Hibiscus years ago and (I feel I need to take a deep breath as I say this) I wasn't wowed. It seems there was an inverse reaction among those that I knew. To be fair, Chimamanda is an intelligently charming, witty and entertaining public speaker as her Ted Talks prove. But that, to my mind, does not make a novelist that I love. That is until I belatedly came across her The Things Around our Neck (2009) collection of short stories and gobbled them up in a day or so all the while begging myself to slow down and savour the tales so that they might last longer.
I am sure I won't add anything new to what praise has been offered her before me but, each of her dozen neat accounts is lovingly drawn. I so hungrily read them that I wonder if I shouldn't reread her first novel and perhaps Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah after that.
I'm stuck by the confidence with which she presents her numerous and often Igbo heroines: Chika and the nameless Hausa mother who share A Private Experience; pitiable but proud Chinaza who only a few months into American life has the mettle to decide a different life for herself, even if it means swallowing her pride and living with her new husband until she gets her papers. Even as seventy-one year old James Nwoye, I wholly believe Chimamanda and I am pulled into a story that reminds me in too many painful ways of my octogenarian, former civil servant father. Her stories take us from the colonising days of Catholic missions in Onicha to the contemporary agonies of the wives of rich Nigerian businessmen who leave them abroad while they start affairs with young women with texturised hair.
On a wider note I applaud her putting into practice what Achebe calls in his 1988 essay, "Spelling Our Proper Name." (You can find it among a slim and powerful collection of autobiographical essays called The Education of a British-Protected Child. She trusts her observations as an Igbo woman and as a writer, she continues in that rich literary tradition that spotlights a particular African perspective written in English. I don't mean to take the focus away from Chimamanda but that Achebe is an enormous influence, she herself readily admits.
So in the end, I am grateful to Chimamanda twice over - can you hear my pom-poms jiggling furiously? - for this collection of stories. First, for providing the beautiful words that let me addictively gorge on humble pie. And then, because with this collection and my love of it, I am back encamp with my friends, even if it means I am at the bottom of the cheer-leading pyramid.