By Juliet Ebirim
Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke on the topic ‘The danger of a single story’ in a memorable TED Talk she gave in 2009. The talk still remains very relevant today. She talked about the dangers of hearing only a single story. By sharing several personal stories of her own childhood, Adichie stressed that a single story is never complete and how people in other countries and continents have a single story of Nigeria and Africa in general. Read on…
I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “The danger of the single story”. I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to the 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’.
She was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. 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.
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. 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 just read a novel called “Ámerican Psycho” and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.
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’m a better person than that student, but because of America’s culture and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gasitskill.
I did not have a single story of America. 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 emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.