I periodically listen to this talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a former classmate of mine, called “The Danger of a Single Story.” (You can watch it here.)
This evening, this quote is sticking with me. It comes after she tells the single story she had of the houseboy her family hired, who she was only told came from a very poor family:
… 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 dissapointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey…
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.
And, while I’m at it, one of my other favorite bits:
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.
And this one reminds me of the suggestion someone put forward, reported by Linda Raftree on the Africa Gathering London conference, that “African newspapers should use photos of drunk, vomiting Brits to illustrate stories about parliament“:
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,” and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.
The upshot, according to Chimamanda: “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.”