Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck.

A collection of stories

Stories I may never fully understand. I will never fully understand.

I am not Nigerian. But Grace is.

"The Headstrong Historian" explores identity, more specifically cultural, racial, and familial identity. And I'd like to comment on that, in a letter to my other self.


Dear Grace,

I know you. I pity you.

You are at a point in your life where you follow instruction and are happy to do so. You know that you have a fondness for chemistry, and so you have plans to pursue a path in chemistry for your future. You know that you are quite adept when it comes to education when it comes to chemistry. You know that if you are good at something, you should do it more.

You live such a wonderful life, it's true. You have a home, and you have faith. Your opportunities are endless, Grace, what with your home, your faith. You have a family, too, who determines that home and that faith. What that home looks like. What that faith looks like.

All of that which you know has come from school. Your education, of course, has come from classwork and homework and teachers with small minds and big authority. Your discipline has come from your classwork, your work ethic - from your laughter and the pain that followed in your cheeks, a pain you would associate with both smiling and with your father. You know that children enjoy gossip, and mocking instructors when they are not looking. You know that the purest form of pride can only come from knowledge, and that knowledge can be found in scripture, in study, and in class. You know that you are an intelligent girl and that your intelligence is a defining aspect of your character. You know, and pride yourself in knowing, that you are the youngest child, and still you are the smartest. That, I know, is who you are.

I know that you visit your grandmother. Her hands are very beautiful, as are the pots that line her home. Both are dried and hardened with age. She shares stories with you that you find difficult to fathom, but the light in her eyes affirms every word she speaks as truth. She tells you stories of your father, and you can tell that she is disappointed in him. The way her voice falls also tells you she is disappointed in herself. She doesn't like to talk about the missionaries.

You pride yourself on being able to identify elements of your history class with the political and religious systems she describes and the colonialism that she undoubtedly witnessed. Your teachers, however, do not hold your ability to do so in high regards.

Your grandmother has told you about your grandfather, about his family, and his family's family. She described what you recognized as a cultural denouncement of infertility, and you smiled as she told you that she didn't care that the God Ani probably misfortuned Obierika's family. You also smiled when she told you that Obierika refused to take another wife. Your father would like that. She described him with loving and warm words. Your father doesn't use those words when he speaks of your mother.

I know you. You hope your brother speaks of his wife that way when he marries.

And when you go home after your visits with your grandmother, you find that it takes more and more energy to move your feet. You think about what you have learned about human physiology, but it makes no sense to you. You can find no explanation for the added weight in your legs, the inability to contract and extend at the knee as you leave. But you observe it, and you don't question it, because while your mind doesn't understand it, your heart does.

And when your father tells you that Nwamgba speaks nonsense, and you tell him of the call- and -response poetry that you are considering as an area of study, he chastises you and accuses you of being sacrilegious. He tells you that you are a Christian, that you are good at chemistry, that you are going to study chemistry because you are good at chemistry and you know you are good at chemistry. So you do your homework, and hum your grandmother's songs as you do so.

When you go to school, I know you find yourself stifling your opinions to avoid punishment from the instructor, choosing to hum your grandmother's songs instead. When the boys raise their hands to give the wrong answer to a question - and you know it will be the wrong answer - you don't raise your hand. Your mother teaches you the responsibilities of a good wife, a good mother, and a good Christian. You blindly follow her arbitrary words, humming your grandmother's songs as you do so.

And I know that lately, you have found yourself visiting your grandmother more often. She is getting older, you know, and more feeble. And you have discovered that the weight in your legs has dropped from your heart - that the source of such heaviness is thoughts of losing your grandmother's stories.

That same pressure on your heart reappears when you hear your instructors talk of the savage Nigerian Culture during discussions of colonialism. You no longer recognize that culture in your grandmother's stories. It's not culture.

I know you, Grace. I know that you will grow to loathe that name, that you will lose interest in chemistry because chemistry doesn't alleviate the pressure on your heart or the weight in your legs. I know that you-you will sit with your grandmother before she dies and hold her calloused hands as you say goodbye. I know that you will come to love the name Afamefuna because it reminds you of those hands and those eyes and the poetry and the loving words that describe your grandfather.

I know that you will pursue a degree in history because that will alleviate the pressure on your heart. Because you want to write about your grandmother and publish it at University.

I know you, Grace. I won't pity you much longer.

I'll see you soon,