I waited for this essay – Adichie’s response to the sudden death of her father during lockdown in 2020. When it finally arrived, I read it and I read it again and again and I wished I had read it sooner, that it had always existed, a hand held out when I needed it. (What could be closer to grief than wishing things to be other than they are?)
Love and death are the places where family and resilience intersect most keenly. “Never has come to stay,” Adichie says. “Never feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.”
For anyone who has lost a beloved, there are sentences here that you can reach for when those around you are saying the wrong thing or, worse, silent. Here are the right things, beautifully, permanently, said.
Published by 4th Estate, 2021
This is a story I like to use when I’m teaching. It’s so funny and acutely observed. It’s about a writing workshop, but beyond that it’s about the power plays that go on between men and women. We follow Chioma, a young Nigerian woman, as she arrives in South Africa to take part in a residential workshop for African writers run by the pompous but well-connected Edward. The other participants are referred to throughout by their countries: “the Tanzanian”, “the Ugandan”, “the Zimbabwean woman”, “the Kenyan”, “the Senegalese woman” and so on. Chioma’s judgements are mercilessly sharp. She thinks she might like the Zimbabwean woman “but only the way she liked alcohol—in small amounts”, and Edward looks “as though God, having created him, had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face”. The account of the workshop is intercut with the story that Chioma writes while she’s there, a story full of pain and rage, about a young woman whose father has left the family to live with his mistress. The mother’s business begins to suffer without her husband’s contacts and the girl is unable to find a job so in the end she is forced to swallow her pride and go to her father for help, but the job he gets her involves sitting on the laps of rich businessmen to get them to keep their bank accounts with her employers. Meanwhile, in the workshop, Edward preaches to them about what’s African and what isn’t and ogles Chioma’s breasts until she finds the courage to put him in his place. It’s a story for the #MeToo generation, which seems like a good place to end.
First published in Granta 95, Loved Ones, October 2006. Collected in The Thing Around your Neck, HarperCollins 2009. Read it here
Of all of Adichie’s short stories this is the one I have read the most, perhaps because it is a story that is focuses on queer desire or perhaps because of its gut-punch of an ending that is entirely unforgettable and remains potent, despite, or because of, multiple readings. As in Americana, Adichie explores the nuances of race and racism that must be navigated as a black woman in patriarchal white America. Kamara, a Nigerian woman waits for a Green card while working as a nanny for an American family. The white father is the main care-giver, while the child’s black mother, a painter, appears only fleetingly to undo everything Kamara thinks she understands. Adichie’s skill is in creating fully embodied people in a sentence or two and then setting each of their lives off down a path to crash and swirl into one another. I can think of no better story that shows this careful crafting: that encompasses motherhood and race and immigration and longing and child-care and labour and artistry in one single heart-breaking story.
First published in Granta 98: The Deep End, July 2007, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Thing Around Your Neck, Fourth Estate, 2009
“Worse comes to worse my people come first” – Dilated Peoples
Read it online here