Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Danger of the Single Story: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on being Middle Class, living in a Colonised Country

The video below is between fifteen and twenty minutes long. I found Ms. Adichie to be quite compelling as a speaker and have now added her to my list of "writers I must read". And I thought after viewing and listening to this, about all the lectures I've heard, including at graduation ceremonies, that were dull as hell--mind-numbingly boring. This one most certainly is not. For those with any hearing impairment, or for the deaf, there is the option below to have subtitles--in either Bulgarian, English, or Italian--appear along the bottom of the screen, as the speech is delivered.

This is the opening of author Chimamanda Adichie's talk:
I'm a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call "the danger of the single story." I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader. And what I read were British and American children's books.

I was also an early writer. And when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. (Laughter) And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (Laughter) 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 because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. (Laughter) And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.

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. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren't many of them available. And they weren't quite as easy to find as the foreign books.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. 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.

Source for what follows is The Washington Post:
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.

In Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun has helped inspire new, cross-generational communication about the Biafran war. In this and in her other works, she seeks to instill dignity into the finest details of each character, whether poor, middle class or rich, exposing along the way the deep scars of colonialism in the African landscape.

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

Adichie builds on the literary tradition of Igbo literary giant Chinua Achebe—and when she found out that Achebe liked Half of a Yellow Sun, she says she cried for a whole day. What he said about her rings true: “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”

"When she turned 10 and read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, about the clash between Igbo tradition and the British colonial way of life, everything changed: ‘I realized that people who looked like me could live in books.’ She has been writing about Africa ever since."

The video and the talk in text form can be found here.



  1. Rejecting the single story is what women have been doing for centuries.
    What amazes me is the resiliance of the single story that men tell, or the ideas people have about countries they have never visited.

    I particulary like Adichie's comment, "Show people as one thing over and over again, and they become that thing."

    I would add, they become that thing in the eyes of the oppressors who show that same story over and over again.

  2. I think of how the white Religious Right, and white conservative to liberal men write single stories about women, using force, coercion, and manipulation, movies, literature, and science to make sure that narrative, that script doesn't ever make women "for" themselves not for men.

    This includes pornographers putting words in women's mouths. This includes pimps training teenage girls how to behave for procurers/purchasers of girls and women. This includes what men tell themselves about the images of women they look at on computers, at pornography sites. Men sit in agreement with the pornographers and pimps, collectively stating: "Yes, these women are here for me. They exist for me. They want to be displayed like this. They are enjoying this, including me looking at them right now."

    Men's and whites' single stories about those they structurally and interpersonally oppress exist in societies in which institutionalised white and heteromale supremacy are dominant ideologies. The ideologies carry the single stories, and back them with power, should some oppressed person seek to break free from that story, and speak her own mind.

    And those women who do speak their own minds are collapsed by single-minded oppressors into another single story: the man-hater, the feminazi, the b*tch. And then they complain like whiney brats when those of us who notice their single stories call them out on it.

    Liberals will hear this speech and think it applies "both ways" as if there were some sort of "lateral" hostility and bigotry going on. There isn't. It's top-down hostility that hurts human bodies. Women's anger generally hurts women. Men's anger generally hurts women. That's not lateral hostility. That's male supremacy at work.

    And that men also hurt men, usually men they oppress, doesn't make male supremacy disappear or become something else. It means it can morph to put down men it sees as woman-like, and women who are seen as too man-like, and white men can believe themselves superior to all other men.

    Women, by and large, continue to take care of men and boys in ways men do not, socially, generally, globally. Whites expect people of color to cater to them or carry bizarre notions about what certain groups of darker skinned people are. Women of color are seen by their oppressors as existing for everyone but themselves.

    I have told more that one Black woman: taking excellent care of yourself is a radical act. But taking care of oneself is difficult when you need work, are ignored, invisibilised, or turned into grotesque things by oppressive people around you. Self-care requires a caring community, and relief from a white man's world that would have women of color be white men's mistresses, mammies, and slaves.

    To the male oppressive holders of "the single story" about white women, about Black women, East, SE, and South Asian women, Latina women, Native women, Arab women, Muslim women, Jewish women, and women who are heterosexual, trans, genderqueer, and lesbian, I say this: take your single story and choke on it.