Grace Paley vs. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge

thing aroundIt might be interesting to do a more in-depth study comparing Grace Paley and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.  It would be really fun to get the two of them on one of those BBC Radio Four book shows.  A Good Read, my favorite, where the host and two guests each talk about three books which they’ve all read.  I think Paley and Adichie would have interesting things to say to each other.

Which doesn’t mean that the two stories I read for today really connect all that much.

“The Thing Around Your Neck,” the title story from Adiche’s collection of short stories, is a second person account of one woman’s arrival in the United States.  Adichie’s characters face much more serious hardship than Paley’s do.  This may be a by product of coming to the immigrant experience via Africa instead of Europe, but the result is much a much heavier reading experience. Adiche is not someone a reader goes to for a light-hearted touch.   Her charater’s experience is one of lonely struggle.  That said, it is still one with moments of wonder.  Take this passage when the narrator describes what she really wants to put in the letters she writes to her mother:

“You wanted to write about the surprising openness of people in America, how eagerly they told you about their mother fighting cancer, about their sister-in-law’spreemie, the kinds of things that one should hide or should reveal only to teh family members who wished them well.  You wanted to write about the way people left so much food on their plates and crumpled a few dollar bills down, as though it was an offering, expiation for the wasted food. You wanted to write about the child who started to cry and pulled at her blond hair and push the menus off the table and instead of the parents making her shut up, they leaded with her, a child of perhaps five years old, and then they all got up and left. You wanted to write about the rich people who wore shabby clothes and tattered sneakers, who looked like the night watchmen in front of the large compounds in Lagos. you wanted to write that rich  American s were thin and poor Americans were fat and that they did not have a big house and car; you still were not sure about the guns, though, because they might have them inside their pockets.

While “The Thing Around Your Neck” is a good story once you get past the use of second person which would be illegal in any sensible society, I found it to be a warm-up for Adichie’s new novel Americanah.  From this story it’s easy to see why she would choose to pursue this experience in a longer form.  There is much to be said about it, much of it news to me.

Grace Paley’s short story “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” occupies a space on the spectrum far away from “The Thing Around Your Neck.”  Paley’s characters are often immigrants to America, sometimes immigrants in another sense of the word, but her touch is much lighter than Adichie’s.

In “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” the main character is a middle aged woman fast approaching her last chance to have a child.  She spends her days caring for the boys in the group home she runs and her evenings taking care of her aging father who lives in a nearby care facility.  In between the two she shares a cab with a hippie poet/songwriter who lives in a commune.  You can see Paley’s lighter touch in the main characters initial response to the much younger cab-driver:

Nowadays! she said. What does that mean? I guess you think you’re kind of brand-new.  You’re not so brand-new.  The telephone was brand-new.  The airplane was brand-new.  You’ve been seen on earth before.

The two eventually end up spending the night together, something the main character would not ordinarily do.  She soon finds that she is far removed from the poet/songwriter/cab-driver’s world when he describes one of the bands he writes lyrics for,The Lepers:

Cool!  You know them? No? Well, you may have known them under their old name.  They used to be called The Split Atom. But they became too popular and their thing is anonymity. That’s what they’re known for. They’ll probably change their name after the summer festivals. They might move to the country and call themselves Winter Moss.

There’s a sense of humor in Paley’s work, all of the stories I’ve read so far, that is absent from Adichie’s, but I’m going to argue that the two are linked by their immigrant characters.  While Paley’s main character here is not new to the country, she is new to middle age which makes her foray into the hippie sub-culture of the late 1960’s a kind of immigrant experience.  While she stayed herself America became a new place around her,  much as it did for her father who is now in his old age.

Without moving at all, both have become strangers in a strange land just as Adichie’s main character has done with her move across the Atlantic ocean.  Does an entire ocean separate youth from middle age from old age?

Maybe, but it’s the kind of ocean one can see across well enough to know that what the youth of today believe is new about themselves is essentially the same thing we all though was new about ourselves way back in the day.

I find that after reading these two stories I am beginning to warm up to Adichie’s short fiction much more than I’d thought possible.  Even her used of the second person didn’t put me off in “The Thing Around You Neck” though she should be careful about building up bad karma through its use.  (There’s a reason why the second person is never used in the Bible.  Just sayin’.)  However, Grace Paley has been the true discovery.  Where has Ms. Paley been hiding all my life.  Grace Paley is one of the most under-rated writers of the 20th century.

My thanks to the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.

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6 Comments

  1. Jenny says:

    I saw this subject line and gasped because I was afraid that it meant that Grace Paley and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie were in a fight. I’m very glad it’s not that. (Also, Grace Paley is deceased, I realize now.)

    1. I would have put my money on Paley. 😉 I think she’s the tougher of the two.

  2. Candiss says:

    I really like how you managed to connect the two stories, James.

    Regarding Adiche’s use of the 2nd person: I just finished reading “Please Look After Mom” by Shin Kyung-sook – a Korean-to-English translation. Most of the book (If I remember correctly, it’s all the chapters/sections but one.) is in 2nd person. So I’m rather in a 2nd person mindset right now. It didn’t strike me as at all unusual while reading your quote until I got to the end of your post and saw your comments about 2nd person. I suppose that I’m acclimated to it, at least until the effect wears off.

  3. While it can work in short doses, I think it’s the literary equivalent of the dark side. Writer’s should avoid it. I guess it just smacks of literary trickery when simple writing should do the job. I find it the go to “style” for people who don’t really have much “style.” So whenever I find it, my hackles rise.

  4. Jay says:

    I liked the rather oxymoronic “their thing is anonymity, that’s what they’re KNOWN for.” Ha! You’ve convinced me that I need to add Paley to my reading list. I’m happy to hear that DMI has led to her “discovery” for you. I have several new favorite authors that I also wouldn’t have met without doing this challenge the past few years.

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