September 22: “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Say hey, Story366! I’m getting pretty excited because as soon as I finish this post, I get drive across town and pick up Laura Hendrix Ezell at the airport, as she’s in town for a reading at MSU tomorrow. I have been rereading her excellent book A Record of Our Debts all this week, and am oh so glad that we snagged this collection out of the 2015 Moon City Short Fiction Award entries. I hadn’t read Laura’s book since very early this year, and had never read it in anything but online manuscript form. To actually hold a finished copy in my hands and enjoy it has been a wonder, adding to the experience of the book. Charli Barnes’ amazing design and cover art really make the project complete, a wonderful book on the whole. Too bad for Laura that she was stuck in Atlanta for a few hours as they fixed her plane—inducing all kinds of confidence in her flying machine, I’m sure—but hopefully, she had a good book. Or can sleep in airports. More on Laura tomorrow, as that’s when she’s visiting all my classes and doing her reading and signing. I’m stoked.

For today’s post, I read a couple of stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s collection The Thing Around Your Neck, out from Knopf. Adichie is a Nigerian writer who’s had a lot of success, notably in the United States, as all three of her novels have won awards of some kind or another, including the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Half of a Yellow Sun. Despite her stories appearing in some notable magazines and anthologies, I hadn’t read anything by her before. So I started with the title story, “The Thing Around Your Neck,” which I enjoyed a great deal and thought I’d be writing about when I’d finished (plus, it’s a great second-person story, which I’m always on the lookout for for my classes). Then I read the last story in the book, “The Headstrong Historian,” and changed my mine: I had my story.

“The Headstrong Historian” is about Nwamgba, a woman living in southern Nigeria around the start of the twentieth century. She resides in a small village and as a child, falls in love with the sweet Obierika. When it’s time for families to make matches of their children, Nwamgba wants Obierika, and the feeling’s mutual, but Obierika has a history of miscarriages in his family and many of Nwamgba’s family members are concerned, wanting her to pick a better prospect. Love wins out, however, and Nwamgba’s father allows the union.

Sadly, the curse on Obierika’s family persists and Nwamgba has a string of miscarriages, devastating to the couple. As polygamy is legal in their village, friends and relatives suggest that Obierika take another wife—implying this is all Nwamgba’s fault—and even Nwamgba is starting to believe it’s a good idea. Lo and behold, before this happens, Nwamgba gets pregnant again and gives birth to what will be the couple’s only child, Anikwenwa.

Sadly, “The Headstrong Historian” becomes a story of survival, as Obierika dies rather young—everyone (especially Nwamgba) suspects he was poisoned by his cousins, who were set to inherit his lands and titles—and Nwamgba has to figure out how to fend for herself and son. She fends off the pesky cousins, manages to survive, all with a persistent slavery looming from white invaders and other African villages. Nwamgba stays strong, makes the right decisions, and this widow in a patriarchal stronghold does a pretty good job of making her way.

Eventually, to avoid the worst for her son (slavery), Nwamgba sends Anikwenwa off with some white Christian missionaries, where he’ll learn the word of Christ and become a teacher (i.e., converter) for his village. In some ways, it’s the right idea, but in others, it drives Anikwenwa away from his Nigerian heritage. Before long, he’s baptized as “Michael” and is trying to convince the people he grew up with that there is one but god, who has a son, but no wife, etcetera, etcetera. Nwamgba is torn, as she’s happy that her only child is safe, but at the same time, his culture being stripped from him isn’t what she wanted, either.

“The Headstrong Historian” moves through Nwamgba’s entire life, covering a couple of generations of her family. Anikwenwa marries and has a child of his own (though only after several miscarriages), forcing Nwamgba to watch her granddaughter grow up inundated with Christian values. I’ll stop there, in terms of the plot, but “The Headstrong Historian” is one of the more powerful and moving stories I’ve read for Story366 this year, as the ending—reached not by Nwamgba, but by her progeny—is as touching and as endearing as any ending I’ve come across; I just about cried when I finished. It’s really wonderful.

I’m so glad to have discovered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for this project, yet another Story366 victory, finding an author I wouldn’t have otherwise. Adichie is special, too, with strong, meaningful stories, tales that exposed me to a part of the world, and people, I’ve never read about before. On top of everything else, I learned something today.

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