Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of one voice dominating storytelling of a people. Her talk focuses on the single story of Africa told by Europeans and Americans and her experiences as an Africa writer in pushing back against this tradition. She also speaks more broadly to the prevalence of "single stories" perpetuated today about all groups of people by many other people, not Americans against Africans. As a child she believed a narrative of poor uneducated Nigerians until she went to their village and saw how they lived. After living in America, she believed the single story of Mexicans told in anti-immigration debates: poor uneducated people all clamoring to illegally get to the US. When she went to Mexico and actually saw Mexicans doing normal things, she realized she believed the narrative.
It makes me consider what we believe about people we do not personally know, people near and far from here. Geographic distance does not correlate with unfamiliarity. People who live five, fifty, or five thousand miles from East Lansing can all be foreigners to us, and us foreigners to them. We need not travel far to encounter different ways of life, to see people much but not quite like us.
I wanted to excerpt some parts of her talk, but ended up copying down a lot. In her words:
As the creator of a single story:
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 is 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.
As the subject of a single story:
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 listed to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. 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.
On representations of America:
I 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. And now, 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.
On the dangers of a single story:
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.