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← The danger of a single story

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.

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Showing Revision 8 created 12/13/2016 by Brian Greene.

  1. I'm a storyteller.

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

  10. and when I began to write,
    at about the age of seven,
  11. stories in pencil
    with crayon illustrations
  12. that my poor mother was obligated to read,
  13. I wrote exactly the kinds
    of stories I was reading:
  14. All my characters were
    white and blue-eyed,
  15. they played in the snow,
  16. they ate apples,
  17. (Laughter)

  18. and they talked a lot about the weather,

  19. how lovely it was
    that the sun had come out.
  20. (Laughter)

  21. Now, this despite the fact
    that I lived in Nigeria.

  22. I had never been outside Nigeria.
  23. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes,
  24. and we never talked about the weather,
  25. because there was no need to.
  26. My characters also drank
    a lot of ginger beer,

  27. because the characters
    in the British books I read
  28. drank ginger beer.
  29. Never mind that I had no idea
    what ginger beer was.
  30. (Laughter)

  31. And for many years afterwards,

  32. I would have a desperate desire
    to taste ginger beer.
  33. But that is another story.
  34. What this demonstrates, I think,

  35. is how impressionable
    and vulnerable we are
  36. in the face of a story,
  37. particularly as children.
  38. Because all I had read were books
    in which characters were foreign,
  39. I had become convinced that books
  40. by their very nature
    had to have foreigners in them
  41. and had to be about things with which
    I could not personally identify.
  42. Now, things changed
    when I discovered African books.
  43. There weren't many of them available,
  44. and they weren't quite as easy to find
    as the foreign books.
  45. But because of writers like
    Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye,

  46. I went through a mental shift
    in my perception of literature.
  47. I realized that people like me,
  48. girls with skin the color of chocolate,
  49. whose kinky hair could not form ponytails,
  50. could also exist in literature.
  51. I started to write
    about things I recognized.
  52. Now, I loved those
    American and British books I read.

  53. They stirred my imagination.
    They opened up new worlds for me.
  54. But the unintended consequence
  55. was that I did not know
    that people like me
  56. could exist in literature.
  57. So what the discovery of African writers
    did for me was this:
  58. It saved me from having a single story
    of what books are.
  59. I come from a conventional,
    middle-class Nigerian family.

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

  72. and his mother showed us
    a beautifully patterned basket
  73. made of dyed raffia
    that his brother had made.
  74. I was startled.
  75. It had not occurred to me
    that anybody in his family
  76. could actually make something.
  77. All I had heard about them
    was how poor they were,
  78. so that it had become impossible for me
    to see them as anything else but poor.
  79. Their poverty was my single story of them.
  80. Years later, I thought about this
    when I left Nigeria

  81. to go to university in the United States.
  82. I was 19.
  83. My American roommate was shocked by me.
  84. She asked where I had learned
    to speak English so well,
  85. and was confused when I said that Nigeria
  86. happened to have English
    as its official language.
  87. She asked if she could listen
    to what she called my "tribal music,"
  88. and was consequently very disappointed
  89. when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.
  90. (Laughter)

  91. She assumed that I did not know
    how to use a stove.

  92. What struck me was this:

  93. She had felt sorry for me
    even before she saw me.
  94. Her default position
    toward me, as an African,
  95. was a kind of patronizing,
    well-meaning pity.
  96. My roommate had a single story of Africa:
  97. a single story of catastrophe.
  98. In this single story,
  99. there was no possibility of Africans
    being similar to her in any way,
  100. no possibility of feelings
    more complex than pity,
  101. no possibility of a connection
    as human equals.
  102. I must say that before I went to the U.S.,

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

  114. So, after I had spent some years
    in the U.S. as an African,

  115. I began to understand
    my roommate's response to me.
  116. If I had not grown up in Nigeria,
  117. and if all I knew about Africa
    were from popular images,
  118. I too would think that Africa
    was a place of beautiful landscapes,
  119. beautiful animals,
  120. and incomprehensible people,
  121. fighting senseless wars,
    dying of poverty and AIDS,
  122. unable to speak for themselves
  123. and waiting to be saved
    by a kind, white foreigner.
  124. I would see Africans
    in the same way that I,
  125. as a child, had seen Fide's family.
  126. This single story of Africa ultimately
    comes, I think, from Western literature.

  127. Now, here is a quote from the writing
    of a London merchant called John Lok,
  128. who sailed to west Africa in 1561
  129. and kept a fascinating
    account of his voyage.
  130. After referring to the black Africans
    as "beasts who have no houses,"
  131. he writes, "They are also
    people without heads,
  132. having their mouth and eyes
    in their breasts."
  133. Now, I've laughed
    every time I've read this.

  134. And one must admire
    the imagination of John Lok.
  135. But what is important about his writing
  136. is that it represents the beginning
  137. of a tradition of telling
    African stories in the West:
  138. A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa
    as a place of negatives,
  139. of difference, of darkness,
  140. of people who, in the words
    of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling,
  141. are "half devil, half child."
  142. And so, I began to realize
    that my American roommate

  143. must have throughout her life
  144. seen and heard different versions
    of this single story,
  145. as had a professor,
  146. who once told me that my novel
    was not "authentically African."
  147. Now, I was quite willing to contend
  148. that there were a number of things
    wrong with the novel,
  149. that it had failed in a number of places,
  150. but I had not quite imagined
    that it had failed
  151. at achieving something
    called African authenticity.
  152. In fact, I did not know
    what African authenticity was.
  153. The professor told me that my characters
    were too much like him,
  154. an educated and middle-class man.
  155. My characters drove cars.
  156. They were not starving.
  157. Therefore they were not
    authentically African.
  158. But I must quickly add
    that I too am just as guilty

  159. in the question of the single story.
  160. A few years ago,
    I visited Mexico from the U.S.
  161. The political climate in the U.S.
    at the time was tense,
  162. and there were debates going on
    about immigration.
  163. And, as often happens in America,
  164. immigration became
    synonymous with Mexicans.
  165. There were endless stories of Mexicans
  166. as people who were
    fleecing the healthcare system,
  167. sneaking across the border,
  168. being arrested at the border,
    that sort of thing.
  169. I remember walking around
    on my first day in Guadalajara,

  170. watching the people going to work,
  171. rolling up tortillas in the marketplace,
  172. smoking, laughing.
  173. I remember first feeling slight surprise.
  174. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame.
  175. I realized that I had been so immersed
    in the media coverage of Mexicans
  176. that they had become one thing in my mind,
  177. the abject immigrant.
  178. I had bought into
    the single story of Mexicans
  179. and I could not have
    been more ashamed of myself.
  180. So that is how to create a single story,

  181. show a people as one thing,
  182. as only one thing,
  183. over and over again,
  184. and that is what they become.
  185. It is impossible to talk
    about the single story

  186. without talking about power.
  187. There is a word, an Igbo word,
  188. that I think about whenever I think about
    the power structures of the world,
  189. and it is "nkali."
  190. It's a noun that loosely translates
    to "to be greater than another."
  191. Like our economic and political worlds,
  192. stories too are defined
    by the principle of nkali:
  193. How they are told, who tells them,
  194. when they're told,
    how many stories are told,
  195. are really dependent on power.
  196. Power is the ability not just to tell
    the story of another person,

  197. but to make it the definitive
    story of that person.
  198. The Palestinian poet
    Mourid Barghouti writes
  199. that if you want to dispossess a people,
  200. the simplest way to do it
    is to tell their story
  201. and to start with, "secondly."
  202. Start the story with the arrows
    of the Native Americans,
  203. and not with the arrival of the British,
  204. and you have an entirely different story.
  205. Start the story with
    the failure of the African state,
  206. and not with the colonial
    creation of the African state,
  207. and you have an entirely different story.
  208. I recently spoke at a university

  209. where a student told me
    that it was such a shame
  210. that Nigerian men were physical abusers
  211. like the father character in my novel.
  212. I told him that I had just read a novel
    called "American Psycho" --
  213. (Laughter)

  214. -- and that it was such a shame

  215. that young Americans
    were serial murderers.
  216. (Laughter)

  217. (Applause)

  218. Now, obviously I said this
    in a fit of mild irritation.

  219. (Laughter)

  220. But it would never have
    occurred to me to think

  221. that just because I had read a novel
    in which a character was a serial killer
  222. that he was somehow
    representative of all Americans.
  223. This is not because I am
    a better person than that student,
  224. but because of America's cultural
    and economic power,
  225. I had many stories of America.
  226. I had read Tyler and Updike
    and Steinbeck and Gaitskill.
  227. I did not have a single story of America.
  228. When I learned, some years ago,

  229. that writers were expected
    to have had really unhappy childhoods
  230. to be successful,
  231. I began to think about how I could invent
    horrible things my parents had done to me.
  232. (Laughter)

  233. But the truth is that I had
    a very happy childhood,

  234. full of laughter and love,
    in a very close-knit family.
  235. But I also had grandfathers
    who died in refugee camps.

  236. My cousin Polle died because
    he could not get adequate healthcare.
  237. One of my closest friends,
    Okoloma, died in a plane crash
  238. because our fire trucks
    did not have water.
  239. I grew up under repressive
    military governments
  240. that devalued education,
  241. so that sometimes, my parents
    were not paid their salaries.
  242. And so, as a child, I saw jam
    disappear from the breakfast table,
  243. then margarine disappeared,
  244. then bread became too expensive,
  245. then milk became rationed.
  246. And most of all, a kind
    of normalized political fear
  247. invaded our lives.
  248. All of these stories make me who I am.

  249. But to insist on only
    these negative stories
  250. is to flatten my experience
  251. and to overlook the many other
    stories that formed me.
  252. The single story creates stereotypes,
  253. and the problem with stereotypes
    is not that they are untrue,
  254. but that they are incomplete.
  255. They make one story become the only story.
  256. Of course, Africa is a continent
    full of catastrophes:

  257. There are immense ones,
    such as the horrific rapes in Congo
  258. and depressing ones,
  259. such as the fact that 5,000 people apply
    for one job vacancy in Nigeria.
  260. But there are other stories
    that are not about catastrophe,
  261. and it is very important, it is just
    as important, to talk about them.
  262. I've always felt that it is impossible

  263. to engage properly
    with a place or a person
  264. without engaging with all of the stories
    of that place and that person.
  265. The consequence
    of the single story is this:
  266. It robs people of dignity.
  267. It makes our recognition
    of our equal humanity difficult.
  268. It emphasizes how we are different
    rather than how we are similar.
  269. So what if before my Mexican trip,

  270. I had followed the immigration
    debate from both sides,
  271. the U.S. and the Mexican?
  272. What if my mother had told us
    that Fide's family was poor
  273. and hardworking?
  274. What if we had an African
    television network
  275. that broadcast diverse
    African stories all over the world?
  276. What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe
    calls "a balance of stories."
  277. What if my roommate knew
    about my Nigerian publisher,

  278. Muhtar Bakare,
  279. a remarkable man who left
    his job in a bank
  280. to follow his dream
    and start a publishing house?
  281. Now, the conventional wisdom
    was that Nigerians don't read literature.
  282. He disagreed.
  283. He felt that people
    who could read, would read,
  284. if you made literature affordable
    and available to them.
  285. Shortly after he published my first novel,

  286. I went to a TV station
    in Lagos to do an interview,
  287. and a woman who worked there
    as a messenger came up to me and said,
  288. "I really liked your novel.
    I didn't like the ending.
  289. Now, you must write a sequel,
    and this is what will happen ..."
  290. (Laughter)

  291. And she went on to tell me
    what to write in the sequel.

  292. I was not only charmed, I was very moved.
  293. Here was a woman, part of the ordinary
    masses of Nigerians,
  294. who were not supposed to be readers.
  295. She had not only read the book,
  296. but she had taken ownership of it
  297. and felt justified in telling me
    what to write in the sequel.
  298. Now, what if my roommate knew
    about my friend Funmi Iyanda,

  299. a fearless woman who hosts
    a TV show in Lagos,
  300. and is determined to tell the stories
    that we prefer to forget?
  301. What if my roommate knew
    about the heart procedure
  302. that was performed in the Lagos
    hospital last week?
  303. What if my roommate knew
    about contemporary Nigerian music,
  304. talented people singing
    in English and Pidgin,
  305. and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo,
  306. mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela
  307. to Bob Marley to their grandfathers.
  308. What if my roommate knew
    about the female lawyer

  309. who recently went to court in Nigeria
    to challenge a ridiculous law
  310. that required women to get
    their husband's consent
  311. before renewing their passports?
  312. What if my roommate knew about Nollywood,
  313. full of innovative people making
    films despite great technical odds,
  314. films so popular
  315. that they really are the best example
    of Nigerians consuming what they produce?
  316. What if my roommate knew about
    my wonderfully ambitious hair braider,
  317. who has just started her own business
    selling hair extensions?
  318. Or about the millions of other Nigerians
    who start businesses and sometimes fail,
  319. but continue to nurse ambition?
  320. Every time I am home I am confronted

  321. with the usual sources of irritation
    for most Nigerians:
  322. our failed infrastructure,
    our failed government,
  323. but also by the incredible resilience
  324. of people who thrive
    despite the government,
  325. rather than because of it.
  326. I teach writing workshops
    in Lagos every summer,
  327. and it is amazing to me
    how many people apply,
  328. how many people are eager to write,
  329. to tell stories.
  330. My Nigerian publisher and I
    have just started a non-profit

  331. called Farafina Trust,
  332. and we have big dreams
    of building libraries
  333. and refurbishing libraries
    that already exist
  334. and providing books for state schools
  335. that don't have anything
    in their libraries,
  336. and also of organizing lots
    and lots of workshops,
  337. in reading and writing,
  338. for all the people who are eager
    to tell our many stories.
  339. Stories matter.

  340. Many stories matter.
  341. Stories have been used
    to dispossess and to malign,
  342. but stories can also be used
    to empower and to humanize.
  343. Stories can break the dignity of a people,
  344. but stories can also repair
    that broken dignity.
  345. The American writer
    Alice Walker wrote this

  346. about her Southern relatives
    who had moved to the North.
  347. She introduced them to a book about
  348. the Southern life
    that they had left behind.
  349. "They sat around,
    reading the book themselves,
  350. listening to me read the book,
    and a kind of paradise was regained."
  351. I would like to end with this thought:

  352. That when we reject the single story,
  353. when we realize that
    there is never a single story
  354. about any place,
  355. we regain a kind of paradise.
  356. Thank you.

  357. (Applause)