Sunday Story Society: ‘Ofodile’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Sunday Story Society is a monthly feature in which I review a (usually recent) short story.  The stories will be available for free online, so if you like, you can read along and talk about the story in the comments.

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Ofodile‘ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was published by the Guardian in their recent series of Christmas ghost stories – though there isn’t necessarily just one ghost, or only one type of haunting.

The scene is a house in Nigeria, where the narrator Chinelo’s younger brother, Ofodile, is kept shut away in his room; the pink pills his mother gives him are just about the only thing that quietens Ofodile’s constant screaming. There is a sense in which Ofodile and his parents are ghosts who haunt each other: the mother and father don’t really know (or at least aren’t interested in) how to look after Ofodile; though he is aged six, his cries are the only way he can respond. Chinelo says: “With Ukalechi [the nanny], Ofodile had screamed and screamed, but with my mother he screamed and slept.” That’s about as much as can be hoped for under the status quo.

As the story begins, new neighbours – a doctor and his wife – come around to introduce themselves. It’s possible to read the woman of this couple as a supernatural entity; even if we don’t, though, the neighbours are a disruptive presence in the narrator’s household, who provide the impetus for the story’s decisive change. We might say that Adichie uses the structure, the movements, of a ghost story to portray this family’s moment of crisis.

Adichie has an eye for telling detail in the story. At the beginning, the attitude of Ofodile’s parents towards him is underlined by points such as “the foam-carpeted floor that caught his falls” (because his mother and father don’t catch him), or his mother’s “movements thick with duty” (but not with care) as she feeds him. At the end, it’s the little details that bring Chinelo closer to her brother: “His mouth was slack but he looked like me, the sparse eyebrows, the nose that flared.”

Chinelo decides that she is going to feed Ofodile now, in the dining room. The small detail of the location is important to her, become a symbol of the change: the boy who haunted his room will finally enter the heart of the home.

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5 thoughts on “Sunday Story Society: ‘Ofodile’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  1. I really liked this story. And I wonder, why do the parents feel the need to keep Ofodile shut away in his room and keep him sedated? Is it because they are ashamed of him, or are they genuinely afraid of him? Has something happened in the past that justifies keeping him locked in his room? And what is that “presence in the room”, that seems to give visitors allergies? All these elements make the story truly sinister.

    I also like the hint to another, political, story: “She had been taking care of him for almost a year, since she lost her job. When the new state was created, she became, overnight, a native of Anambra, a non-indigene who could no longer work in Enugu.” It’s only briefly mentioned, but it made me want to look into this further.

    I have become such a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie this year, and this story again confirms how talented she is.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, An. On those questions you ask, I love the ambiguity of the story: you could read the story as saying that Ofodile is possessed (for example) and so his parents have a valid reason for locking him away; or that they’re just ashamed because he can’t talk (I’m inclined to think the latter, myself).

    I took the “presence in the room” to be Chidinma, Doctor Igwe’s wife. There’s his throwaway (but is it?) line about her being a water spirit; and Chinelo mentions the scent of tangerines, both on the neighbours and in her brother’s room.

    You know, I think this may be the first piece of Adichie’s work that I’ve read in full. (My old book group read Half of a Yellow Sun once, but I ran out of time to finish that and never went back to it.) I should read more by her.

  3. “though there isn’t necessarily just one ghost, or only one type of haunting.”

    And if ever an enterprise demonstrated that, it was the Guardian’s Christmas project – two very ordinary riffs on haunted houses (Shriver and Winterson), and one masterclass in how to do the modern haunted house story properly (Lively – very traditional but exquisitely done). And then there was the Beauman (which I loved immediately), and Adichie’s story.

    What struck me most immediately about this story was how elusive the ghost actually is. Indeed, is there a ghost at all? I wondered, for example, how we might have read this story had it not been presented to us, already packaged, so to speak, as a ghost story. Might we have found ourselves reading the story through a postcolonial lens, or think about it in terms of a different worldview. But the Guardian invites us to read it in terms of a very traditional format, one that I’m not sure it entirely fits; and I mean that in an approving way

    “We might say that Adichie uses the structure, the movements, of a ghost story to portray this family’s moment of crisis.”

    I find myself thinking, though , of the ghost story as a very traditional format into which the doctor and his wife intrude simultaneously as expressions of modernity (the doctor) and something much more fundamental (his wife), and yet modernity can’t or chooses not to see the abuse of the child whereas the wife might represent an expression of a natural law that requires us to take care of the weak and helpless.

    I could go on. Indeed, give me half a chance and I shall. :-)

  4. Hi Maureen:

    I wondered, for example, how we might have read this story had it not been presented to us, already packaged, so to speak, as a ghost story.

    This then raises the question of whether the piece was commissioned and/or written as a ghost story. Either way, though, I think ‘Ofodile’ is enough in dialogue with the idea of the ghost story that it’s likely we would approach it that way anyway.

    But I do agree that the nature of the ghost is elusive. I think the story invites a possible reading that the ‘ghost’ is not supernatural, and I find that intriguing.

    I find myself thinking, though , of the ghost story as a very traditional format into which the doctor and his wife intrude…

    Possibly. But I also think it’s possible to interpret them as the ghosts – which would make them part of the format.

    I could go on.

    If you want to, be my guest. :-)

  5. How can I resist?

    What I was meaning when I talked of the ghost story as a very traditional format was the English ghost story tradition, which has a very distinctive ‘feel’ to it, as evinced by three of the other stories in the set the Guardian published; while Adichie’s story is, as you say, very much in dialogue with the idea, she refreshes it also because her ghosts are modern, different, insofar as they may or may not be ghosts (this might to some extent tie in with Todorov’s theory of the fantastic and the uncanny).

    For my own part, I read them as taking on the ghost role for at least part of the time, the doctor’s wife especially (and that hint of the supernatural persists), but Ofodile is also a ghost in that he is a constant presence though rarely present, the thing that is always not spoken about. The nature of his illness or difference is never made clear so we have no idea what his mother is responding to when she drugs him. So there are ghosts of different kinds at work. I really like the multilayered nature of the ‘haunting’ and how it plays the psychological explanation against the supernatural.

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