23 Feminist

 Finding Our Voices Under Patriarchal Suppression: A Feminist Reading of “The Thing Around Your Neck”

Alize Portue

Chimamanda Adichie’s short story “The Thing Around Your Neck” is a thorough study of female isolation, told from the perspective of an immigrant woman in the United States. Published as part of a collection that bears the same name, “The Thing Around Your Neck” explores the consequences of women’s invisibility in a world dominated by men. Through a feminist critical lens, we can understand the main character’s struggles with love and independence as representative of the larger fight against voicelessness and violent erasure that women face every day.

Adichie’s story focuses on Akunna, a Nigerian immigrant who wins a visa lottery and moves to America to live with her uncle. This opportunity was initially met with enthusiasm; her family told her to expect great things for herself in America and encouraged her to send home gifts like “handbags and shoes and perfumes and clothes” (Adichie 1). In this way, Akunna’s family sees her as an extension of their collective voice, a representative of them, and as a means to increase their status in the world. This pressure is often placed on women who get the chance to leave home and seek to better themselves. As a woman, Akunna is responsible for taking care of her family, and so every individual opportunity is seen as an opportunity for the whole.

Once in America, Akunna’s uncle enrolls her in school and helps her apply for a job. In this way, he takes responsibility for her and gives her a voice of her own. At school, she is subject to constant degrading questions about her home in Africa, her language, and in particular, her hair. This is a kind of micro-aggression often directed at Black women in the United States, where unsolicited comments, questions, and even touches reveal a depth of ignorance and racist thinking about Black women being “other”. Still, she feels at home with her uncle, whose wife calls her nwanne (sister) and their children call her Aunty. Akunna is comforted by these distinctions because family roles give her a measure of understanding about her place in an unfamiliar world. But this brief feeling of home is shattered when Akunna’s uncle sexually assaults her in the basement where she sleeps.

This is a story so common that it might border on the uninteresting if not for the fact that it so often goes untold. There is a distinct power imbalance between a young vulnerable woman and the man who puts a roof over her head. Adichie captures this perfectly in one line: “After you pushed him away, he sat on your bed- it was his house, after all” (2). He violates her without fear, or shame because he knows he is in control of the situation. After all, what would she do without him? This arrogance is expressed when he tells her that if she lets him have sex with her, he will continue to help her. That “Smart women did it all the time” (Adichie 2), and she can’t expect to make it in America without a man’s help.

Sexual violence against women has long been the predominant method of keeping power in male hands. This is because sexual assault and rape have more than just physical consequences- there are staggering psychological ones as well. When Akunna’s uncle molests her, he takes everything from her. Home, family, safety: these were things given to her by a man, and through sexual violence he takes them away. But he also takes something essential to her very personhood: her voice.

She cannot speak about what happened to her because there is no one there to hear it, and the power of the patriarchy is such that it prevents women from easily taking their voices back, by acknowledging or telling their stories. This reflects the nature of Adichie’s position as well. Women’s voices are often written over and dismissed, especially when telling woman-centric stories. An article about the next generation of Nigerian writers addresses the root of this issue: “That women writers have been excluded from the canon; that women have faced gender specific-obstacles – economic, cultural, psychological – making it difficult or impossible to write; or, finally, that a combination of both has excluded and silenced women” (Hewett 5).

But sexual violence has a way of further silencing already marginalized voices. Valerie Palmer-Mehta contends that “In an environment animated by suspicion, cultural stereotypes, and victim blaming, it is not surprising that some survivors find coming to voice an arduous, confusing experience” (4). Akunna is tied up in ropes that are not of her own making; she cannot speak, and even if she could find that voice she knows how unlikely it is that she would be believed. Rather than confronting her uncle, or telling her aunt or the police, Akunna runs away. She obtains a waitressing job in Connecticut, again by the “benevolence” of a man, although he pays her under the table and a dollar less than the other waitresses. This allows her to pay rent for a tiny apartment and to send half her wages home every month, but not to attend college.

Akunna slowly begins to fade into the background of the world, of her own life. She wants to write home and tell her family about the oddities of the American people, of their waste, and their strange openness. But because she cannot afford to send the gifts she promised, she feels like she shouldn’t write at all. The isolation, imposed on her by her uncle and her boss, renders Akunna voiceless: “Nobody knew where you were, because you told no one. Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway, and when you bumped into the wall, it left bruises on your arms. (…) At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep” (Adichie 3).

When a white customer asks Akunna what African country she is from, she fears the same kind of ignorant responses she’s come to expect from performative allyship. But the man, unnamed in the whole story, is educated about Nigeria and many other foreign countries. His clear interest in Akunna makes her uncomfortable in a way she has a hard time putting words to. She is distrustful of men, but she is also unsure of herself. It is because of that innate lack of confidence, in both him and herself, that Akunna “said no the following four days to going out with him, because you were uncomfortable with the way he looked at your face, that intense, consuming way he looked at your face that made you say goodbye to him but also made you reluctant to walk away” (Adichie 4). When he continues to push, showing up at her work daily, she eventually concedes, thus beginning their unequal relationship.

Unequal, because there are so many complex power imbalances between a poor immigrant woman and a wealthy white man. And because Akunna, desperate not to fade into total invisibility, needs the man to validate her existence. Although his interest in her is more than a little self-serving, he is good for Akunna because his status as a privileged man allows him to lend her the voice that she’s been missing. But while he can lend this privilege to her, she cannot ever truly possess it. This is clear to her as their relationship develops. She sees it in the way the waiter at their favorite restaurant assumes they couldn’t be a couple, despite them being obviously intimate. When Akunna brings this up to him, she can tell the man doesn’t really care or understand; to him, it’s the natural state of the world. He loves Akunna, yes, but it’s something special about him that is the cause. He makes her special by loving her, and therefore the privilege of his interest can only be a loan.

If only borrowed, that power is still potent. Even as they continue to clash over racial and class differences, Akunna finds herself loving the man, and finds that “The thing that wrapped itself around your neck, that nearly choked you before you fell asleep, started to loosen, to let go” (Adichie 6). To be loved and seen, to have someone to keep you from turning invisible, women have put up with more, and worse. And though it started as his power, his voice, Akunna seems to find pieces of herself in the way she responds to their conflict.

She is silently smug when the man pretends to be African to show off to a store owner, but later pukes up the traditional African dinner she cooked for them. When he buys her presents, she refuses them, astounded by his wastefulness. And when he buys them anyway she only saves them to send to her family. With these small rebellions, Akunna begins to build her own voice. A voice that is influenced by her family’s collective one, and in rejection of the one the man lent to her, but that is still fundamentally something her own. When she finally writes to her family, finding her voice is strong enough to cross all the miles and months between them, Akunna learns that her father has died. The man tries to comfort her and offers to buy her a plane ticket home, insisting on going with her. But this is the final straw for Akunna: he will not, cannot take this from her, this private grief and life that belongs only to her. In rejecting his final attempt to speak for her, and what she sees as his desire to pervert something that belongs to her, Akunna uses her individual voice for the first time.

In “The Thing Around Your Neck”, Chimamanda Adichie writes masterfully about the struggle of women finding their voices under patriarchal suppression. Akunna’s fight with sexual assault, loneliness, and the sacrifice of her identity in the search for love rings true for women from all backgrounds. Through a feminist lens, we can see this story as representative of how the world sets up women like Akunna for failure, creating an environment where they are subject to men’s whims and mercies. And just like Akunna, it is through radical rejection of these structures that women can begin to find their own voices and to tell their own stories.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Thing Around Your Neck.” Prospect Magazine – Britain’s Leading Monthly Current Affairs Magazine, www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/culture/books-and-literature/fiction/59001/the-thing-around-your-neck. Accessed 9 Dec. 2023.

Hewett, Heather. “Coming of Age: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the Voice of the Third Generation.” English in Africa, vol. 32, no. 1, May 2005, pp. 73–97. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=ns149246&db=a9h&AN=19862710&site=ehost-live.

Palmer-Mehta, Valerie. “The Subversive Power of Survivor Rhetoric: An Innovative Archive of Survivor Discourse in New York Magazine.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 41, no. 2, May 2018, pp. 159–82. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/07491409.2018.1471764.

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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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