By Grace Kingsbury, VI Form
HER(short)story: Silenced Women in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Stories
Chimamanda Adichie’s book of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, follows African men and women and attempts to explain the ties between the genders. The short story “Jumping Monkey Hill” describes the conflict that a Nigerian writer, Ujunwa, faces during a writing retreat in Cape Town. The head of the writing retreat, Edward, repeatedly ogles her body and makes sexual comments to Ujunwa such as “I’d rather like you to lay down for me” (Adichie 106). The story “The Thing Around Your Neck” depicts a woman who receives a visa to live in American with her uncle. Her uncle sexually assaults her during her stay with him, so she runs away for a fresh start in Connecticut. Besides the obvious gender and race similarities between these two main characters, both women are sexually harassed in their stories. Adichie’s normalization of sexual harassment in “Jumping Monkey Hill” and “The Thing Around Your Neck” reflects the existing culture of silencing women through the unresponsive and accepting women, the bystanders, and Adichie’s cursory acknowledgment of the events.
By creating characters that do not respond to sexual harassment, Adichie demonstrates how women minimize their assault to ignore it more easily. Ujunwa in “Jumping Monkey Hill” “laugh[s]” in response to Edward’s comment “because it was funny and witty… when [one] really thought about it” (Adichie 106). She convinces herself that it is funny to diminish the pain that his comment causes her. In “The Thing Around Your Neck,” the woman “lock[s] [herself] in the bathroom closet, and the next morning” she runs away from home, in response to her uncle’s assault (Adichie 116). This represents the woman physically running away from confrontation with her uncle by putting as much distance between her and the event as possible and refusing to stand up for herself. In both of these instances, the women avoid the conflict of sexual harassment by opting to ignore the problem. By ignoring sexual harassment and sexual assault, the women facilitate further offense because they give their abusers room to repeat their actions.
Adichie’s bystanders also contribute to the disregard for the sexual assault of these women because they do not intervene with the pattern of abuse. In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” other writers at the retreat notice the pattern of inappropriate behavior on the part of Edward, but they enable his harassment by declining to step in. Ujunwa “[feels] betrayed by this” because she considers them to be her friends and expects them to stand up for her (Adichie 109). In “The Thing Around Your Neck” the woman “wonders what [her uncle will] tell his wife, why [she] had left,” but she knows her aunt will not search for her or reach out. The neglect that the woman encounters from someone she considers to be family reflects apathy worn by the general population regarding sexual harassment. The lack of intervention on the part of the bystanders allows the cycle of abuse to continue.
Adichie’s character’s inaction leads these protagonists to accept what has happened to them, which further hinders them from seeking retribution. Ujunwa, although she feels “a self-loathing burst open in the bottom of her stomach,” refuses to challenge Edward for his actions. She attempts to move on by staying at the retreat and finishing her story, despite the discomfort Edward’s presence causes her. The woman in “The Thing Around Your Neck” does not acknowledge her sexual assault throughout her entire story. She settles in “Connecticut, in another little town” and restarts her life in America. She never tells anyone: her aunt, her boyfriend, nor the authorities, about the assault and she does not even comment to the reader about how the event has impacted her. The urge to quietly move on that both women experience normalizes sexual assault because, by carrying on with regular life, they act as if nothing important has happened. This pattern creates a culture of disregarding the reality that sexual assault has a significant impact on people’s lives; people stop listening to women’s stories. In addition, by not pursuing repercussions for their aggressors, Adichie’s characters enable them to continue with their behavior.
Adichie’s writing mirrors the indifference women are faced with when they speak out about sexual assault. In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” Adichie uses less than a paragraph to discuss Ujunwa’s sexual assault. Although she continues to mention how Edward’s actions affected Ujunwa’s feelings, Adichie brushed over the impactful event in a manner that minimizes it. Furthermore, in “The Thing Around Your Neck,” Adichie describes the uncle’s actions in a single sentence. Adiche leaves no room for the woman to feel the impact of the event, and she succinctly wraps the assault into a box that seems easy to move on from. The belittling of sexual assault in The Thing Around Your Neck emulates the public’s attitude towards sexual assault. Adichie’s brief explanation of the events represents the minimal media coverage that sexual assault receives, and the downplayed events show the nonchalance the public often feels about the victims of sexual assault.
Through the unresponsive and accepting characters and cursory acknowledgment of the events, Adichie normalizes sexual harassment and reflects the existing culture of silencing women. Her characters’ quiet inaction and acceptance allow their abusers to carry on, free of punishment, while the survivors are left unsupported to deal with the aftermath. Men in powerful positions often are not brought to justice for their wrongdoings, and the women that they impact are forced to move on. This pattern of silencing women and enabling abusers reflects real-world issues. Recently, Alabama proposed a near-total abortion ban that permits no exceptions in cases of rape or incest. In fact, under this bill, women who abort the child of their rapist will likely spend more time in prison than their rapist, given a conviction, which in and of itself is unlikely. The average sentence for convicted rapists is nine years in prison, and the time spent in prison is even less: five years. Additionally, the Alabama law proposes that women who abort should be sentenced to prison for up to 99 years for manslaughter. This enormous disparity in punishment exemplifies how men are not punished for their actions and effectively discourages women from speaking up against their abusers.
Grace Kingsbury is a VI form boarding student from New York City.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. The Thing Around Your Neck. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2009.
“Facts and Statistics.” Central MN Sexual Assault Center, 20 May 2016, cmsac.org/facts-and-statistics/.
Wagner, Meg. “What Happens next with Alabama’s near-Total Abortion Ban: Live Updates.” CNN, Cable News Network, 16 May 2019, http://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/alabama-abortion-bill/index.html.