What Are The Dangers Of A Single Story?

Sep 20, 2013
Originally published on December 19, 2013 10:25 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Framing The Story.

About Chimamanda Adichie's TEDTalk

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

About Chimamanda Adichie

Inspired by Nigerian history and tragedies all but forgotten by recent generations of westerners, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novels and stories are jewels in the crown of diasporan literature.

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

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So, if first impressions are critical in the way Chip Kidd describes, critical to sketching out a story even before you open it, what happens if that impression is wrong, if the story you believe isn't the whole story?

CHIMAMANDA ADICHIE: Hello.

RAZ: This the novelist Chimamanda Adichie.

ADICHIE: Do you want me to keep talking?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDIO ENGINEER: Yes, please. Yes, please.

ADICHIE: I pledge to Nigeria, my country, to be faithful, loyal, and honest...

RAZ: Chimamanda was born in Nigeria. She's written several short short stories and novels, and I actually talked to her on the day her newest novel "Americanah" came out. What do you do when you first, like, get your book? Like, you see it bound, you know, typeset, in a book form?

ADICHIE: I just like holding it and looking at it, you know, sort of looking at the pages and thinking, it's finally a book.

RAZ: Chimamanda's TED Talk is about, what she calls, the danger of the single story. And it's an idea that's been with her ever since she started writing.

ADICHIE: So I grew up in a small university town in Nigeria, and started reading quite early. And I read a lot of British children's books, which was not unusual. This was the norm for children like me. And so when I started to write, I was writing exactly those stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ADICHIE: 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)

ADICHIE: 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, never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer.

RAZ: I'm assuming you've tried ginger beer since then.

ADICHIE: I have. I was terribly disappointed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ADICHIE: 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.

RAZ: At some point, you realize that storytelling and the stories that you knew, they're not just about these magical or fictional or amazing places, but they actually define the way you think about real things.

ADICHIE: Yeah, I mean, when I was a child - I, you know, loving all those British books, I started to read African literature when, I think, I was maybe 10. It had such a deep impression on me because I finally was reading about people who seemed more familiar.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ADICHIE: 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. 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, and so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help who would often from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight, we got a new houseboy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. 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.

But 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. 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 move 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)

ADICHIE: 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.

RAZ: So the people you met at that time, I mean, they had a single story.

ADICHIE: Initially, I was amused by it, and then I became annoyed by it. Just having to constantly deal with people's surprise, and I think what's dangerous about thinking that it's only one thing is that it just limits one's ability to understand or engage or connect. So my roommates, for example, just didn't know what to do with me because in their imagination, an African was only one thing, and then I turn out not to be that thing. And so they would actually often say to me, you're not really African. I started to think about it quite a bit and I realized, you know what, this is how powerful storytelling can be. So when I came to the U.S., because I had read a lot of American books and I had watched American films and I listened to American music, I didn't really know America really, but at least I did know that there were different Americas. At least I had two examples, I mean, America could either be Bill Cosby, or it could be "Dallas." So at least there were two options, right?

RAZ: Both decent options, in some ways.

ADICHIE: There you go.

RAZ: "Dallas," a little dysfunctional.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ADICHIE: So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I begin to understand my roommates' 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. This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now here's 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 mouths 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.

RAZ: How do you frame your own story, I mean, you or any of us? How do we, sort of, own our own stories?

ADICHIE: I don't know that we do. I suppose one can try. I constantly actually have to remind myself that if I want to understand a place or thing, that it can't be just one thing. You can't know one thing about a person or place and think that, that's it. So I think it's normal, I suppose, maybe human, to make assumptions and to depend on just one single thing.

RAZ: Why do you think we're so drawn to stories?

ADICHIE: Oh, because stories are how we make meaning of our lives. I mean, something happens to me sometimes, and later in recounting it, just in telling the story of what happened to me, there's a kind of meaning that comes. I mean, I think stories are necessary, just as necessary as food and love. It's how we make meaning of our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ADICHIE: 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 have moved to the North and she introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they 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)

RAZ: Novelist Chimamanda Adichie on the TED stage. Her latest novel is called "Americanah." You can hear her entire talk at TED.NPR.org. On the show today, framing the story. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.