6.08.2012

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

I spend a lot of time at TED watching, listening, and learning. On a rare occasion, I stumble across a treasure. In today's episode of Hateya cuts/pastes, I present to you, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my most favorite authors on this entire planet and I'm ever so grateful for the speech she gave about the dangers of a single story. Now that we're moving full steam ahead, literally creating Blasian literature from scratch, we should heed her warnings and learn from her experiences.  --- Hateya

Her official bio at TED states: In Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun has helped inspire new, cross-generational communication about the Biafran war. In this and in her other works, she seeks to instill dignity into the finest details of each character, whether poor, middle class or rich, exposing along the way the deep scars of colonialism in the African landscape.

Adichie's newest book, The Thing Around Your Neck, is a brilliant collection of stories about Nigerians struggling to cope with a corrupted context in their home country, and about the Nigerian immigrant experience.

Adichie builds on the literary tradition of Igbo literary giant Chinua Achebe—and when she found out that Achebe liked Half of a Yellow Sun, she says she cried for a whole day. What he said about her rings true: “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”

Click here to listen and to watch, Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story. A full transcript is provided below the break.  This video has subtitles in 38 languages including Arabic, Chinese (both traditional and simplified), Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Thai, and Vietnamese.

Full transcript:

I'm a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call "the danger of the single story." I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children's books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (Laughter) Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. (Laughter) And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Things changed when I discovered African books. There weren't many of them available, and they weren't quite as easy to find as the foreign books.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn't finish my dinner my mother would say, "Finish your food! Don't you know? People like Fide's family have nothing." So I felt enormous pity for Fide's family.

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn't consciously identify as African. But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in "India, Africa and other countries." (Laughter)

So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate's response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide's family.

This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Locke, who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as "beasts who have no houses," he writes, "They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts."

Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Locke. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are "half devil, half child."

And so I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not "authentically African." Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.

But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. A few years ago, I visited Mexico from the U.S. The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense, and there were debates going on about immigration. And, as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border, that sort of thing.

I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself. So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho -- (Laughter) -- and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers. (Laughter) (Applause) Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation. (Laughter)

But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.

When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to think about how I could invent horrible things my parents had done to me. (Laughter) But the truth is that I had a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.

But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate healthcare. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash because our fire trucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes my parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.

I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
So what if before my Mexican trip I had followed the immigration debate from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if my mother had told us that Fide's family was poor and hardworking? What if we had an African television network that broadcast diverse African stories all over the world? What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls "a balance of stories."

What if my roommate knew about my Nigerian publisher, Mukta Bakaray, a remarkable man who left his job in a bank to follow his dream and start a publishing house? Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians don't read literature. He disagreed. He felt that people who could read, would read, if you made literature affordable and available to them.

Shortly after he published my first novel I went to a TV station in Lagos to do an interview, and a woman who worked there as a messenger came up to me and said, "I really liked your novel. I didn't like the ending. Now you must write a sequel, and this is what will happen ..." (Laughter) And she went on to tell me what to write in the sequel. I was not only charmed, I was very moved. Here was a woman, part of the ordinary masses of Nigerians, who were not supposed to be readers. She had not only read the book, but she had taken ownership of it and felt justified in telling me what to write in the sequel.

Now, what if my roommate knew about my friend Fumi Onda, a fearless woman who hosts a TV show in Lagos, and is determined to tell the stories that we prefer to forget? What if my roommate knew about the heart procedure that was performed in the Lagos hospital last week? What if my roommate knew about contemporary Nigerian music, talented people singing in English and Pidgin, and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo, mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley to their grandfathers. What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer who recently went to court in Nigeria to challenge a ridiculous law that required women to get their husband's consent before renewing their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they really are the best example of Nigerians consuming what they produce? What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business selling hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians who start businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition?

Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure, our failed government, but also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it. I teach writing workshops in Lagos every summer, and it is amazing to me how many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories.

My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust, and we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist and providing books for state schools that don't have anything in their libraries, and also of organizing lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind: "They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained." I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise. Thank you. (Applause)

*****************

Ms. Adichie and other writers of color, especially those of the African diaspora have changed how I perceive the world.

Though my house is also replete with Japanese, I'd appreciate it if one of our male narrators would point me/us in the direction of literature that speaks to, or at least gives us a glimpse into their experiences. -- Hateya

A tip of the iceberg -- my pride is always on display.
I bought her books before I even knew who she was.




17 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this. This was a very inspiring talk, and a reminder that we all need to question our beliefs, every minute of every day.
    It is also very empowering. I'm a student and seeing slightly older, wise and successful WOC encourages me to pursue my dreams. I know, I know, i'm very naive!

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    1. @Si,

      There's nothing wrong with being naive. We all need to start somewhere. The fastest and surest way to disappoint yourself and regret how you live you life is to NEVER pursue those dreams. Take the chance. Believe in yourself. Though you'll probably get a lot of bumps and bruises as you head towards your destination, I believe you'll learn that the journey was worth it.

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  2. When I was a child, I primarily read a set of World Book Encyclopedia. With my father constantly getting married and providing me with an ever increasing number of siblings, there wasn't much money for other books, either for education or for pleasure. As expected, all the stories I ever heard about my people were told orally. At the time, it was enough. If nothing else, I have an excellent memory for stories, which in turn made me a pretty good student.

    As a result, I'm a story junky and I'm constantly seeking stories (fiction and non-fiction) related to my people and other POC. When I was a young girl, I remembered visiting the home of a "white" classmate. Her father had a library with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books and I vowed that when I grew up, I'd have a similar room overflowing with our stories. My library isn't large enough for our experiences.

    If nothing else, having all of these vastly different stories at my fingertips (I generally only download mainstream trash for my Kindle), reaffirms my belief that we're not all the same and that each and every one of our individual stories matter. No one can tell me that my experience or yours is representative of ours.

    Armed with our stories in books, our blogs and the amazing web series's that are exploding everywhere, we POC are on the cusp of realizing our true greatness. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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  3. This is how ignorance begins with a single story. And so many of us are willing to accept what we are told instead of stepping outside our comfort zone to see for ourselves. We are all the same on the inside but on the outside that is where differences end. I believe racism and other things stem from this, the telling of a single story and no one chooses to step outside the box to investigate and experience. Instead we have become comfortable being spoon fed misrepresentations of the truth. When we dare to stop living half alive we begin to seek the truth and see the world in a different light.

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    1. @Sandra,

      It's especially self-destructive when we ourselves start to believe in this single story. With only a couple of rare exceptions, Blasian lit is already riddled with the "the single story." In most cases, we can just change the names and we'll get more of the same. I've heard it said that many writers have never been to Asia and this is why they can't write Asian men differently.

      Lame. Not only do Asian men, both domestic born and raised and international exist, there are other ways to learn about them. There's a variety of literature written by both groups, plus Asian dramas are widely and illegally distributed world-wide. Since most script writers are viewing their worlds through their own lenses without thinking of the larger world, a few clicks of the mouse can help the struggling writer gain some perspective.

      The same is true for the ridiculous single-story Black woman tale. It's almost as if it's easier to mimic the one dimensional portrayals of Black women on television than it is for a female writer to explore her own feelings and experiences as well as the Black women around her.

      What the term I'm seeking to describe them? Oh, now I remember. Laziness.

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  4. Chimamanda Adichie is an excellent writer and I'm so pleased that her work, and this talk, has touched and resounded with so many people.

    And I recognise some of the books that make up part of your collection Hateya. I just bought a copy of Tina McElroy's "The Hand I Fan With", I'd love to read "Imaro", and Uwem Akpan was a teacher in the secondary school I graduated from.

    I too am curious about literature from other parts of the world that could give us a glimpse into other experiences. There is so much to learn from out there.

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    1. @EccentricYoruba

      Though I cringe at the thought of her book being turned into a Hollywood production, I'm terribly happy and proud that she's getting the recognition she deserves. Didn't she look so gorgeous giving her speech?

      I remembered you telling me that Uwem Akpan was one of the teachers in your secondary school. I believe I purchased his book after you told me this. You know me, I'm very much a learn and click girl. ;)

      I grew up with Tina McElroy Ansa. To this day, I still re-read her stories and I still find myself laughing or feeling other strong emotions in the same place. "Imaro" was fantastic and set in an alternate Africa. There's a Pygmy character who completely steals the story. I love it that Saunders didn't forget that a hero is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with.

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    2. I recall a friend of mine claimed to have heard or watched an interview where Chimamanda Adichie said she included the white USAmerican character in the hopes of getting the book turned into a movie. I'm not sure that I believe my friend now after hearding Adichie speak. Have you seen her talk on "what Europe tells herself about colonialism"?

      Ha! I'm picking up learning and clicking from you :D I already adore Tina McElroy Ansa, even though the copy I bought was old and battered, it's worth it. I will have to check out "Imaro".

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    3. I like your new name! I believe your friend might be confused about the casting for the movie. Thandie Newton, who is bi-racial and British, was cast and people are raising all sorts of hell. Hollywood is NOT going to fund a movie using an unknown (to them) Nigerian actress. Nope. Not in this lifetime.

      Though I haven't heard that talk, I want to. Please point me in the right direction.

      Be careful with learning and clicking because it's a costly endeavor. I spend money on books at a stupid rate. I've had to ban myself from doing any of that until the end of July. ;) I'm desperate to have the final book in the "Imaro" series.

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  5. So true. It's been a while since I read a book, I used to be a book worm and a tales lover when I was a kid/teenager, I would have loved it to come across African books at that time. Now I only read books now and then, once in a while. I'll check out these novels, sounds interesting.

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    1. Myra, it was tough for me to come across these books when I was younger, too, and even today it's best to snap them up quick or they might disappear forever. Perhaps your passion for books and reading will return soon.

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    2. Yeah, I hope my passion will return too. As for the African books it's fascinating that Adichie's have been translated in so many languages, but I assume that most African books are not that much accessible, hence why we need to cope them quickly while they'er still in stock/available, you're right.

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  6. I went to a job interveiw....a JOB INTERVIEW...and we had to watch this talk and then discuss it. Ironically, I have seen it before and felt I had an "advantage".

    ( still didnt get the job...gotta remember there is no "advantage" when you look like me)

    Powerful and universal. "Half of a Yellow Sun" seems to be a personal narrative on immigration and national corruption, would supplemetn my study of class structure and power well.


    @eccentricyoruba
    when you closed down your tumblr account, I searched for days- It could not be true! The one with all the pretty pictures and inclusive stories, kept me up all night until the sun shown.
    Will it still rest in peace, or come alive one glorious day?

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    1. Hello asada,

      My tumblr account is still open! I just changed identities :D. I wasn't sure how to change my name on here...but basically, I'm now cosmicyoruba because I feel that describes my current situation in life better than "eccentricyoruba".

      Oh, I'm glad you found my tumblr account useful. But you're right on spot wrt pretty pictures, that is why I joined tumblr in the first place. Ahaha, here's a link to my updated tumblr account, http://cosmicyoruba.tumblr.com/ Enjoy!

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    2. @Asada,

      I'm sorry you didn't get that particular job. Knowledge though is always power, so your time will come.

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  7. I can relate to a lot of what she's saying, and for the rest of it, she is spot-on. Great speech. Thanks for posting.

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    1. @Amaya,

      We've all been guilty of walking this path before. While learning about the Ainu, I've come to realize that there's a huge difference between "facts" and "truth."

      Delete

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