In her TED talk, Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses her skewed view of literature as a child due to reading a limited representation of human stories. Growing up in Nigeria, she read British books, and when she began to write, she told stories of British characters who drank 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.”
As she grew older and discovered African literature, she learned that stories could be about characters that she could relate to and that they could be limitless in the voices they represent if only we would tell them.
“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.”
The “Single Story Danger” lies not only in the world of literature, but also in our everyday lives. We could form a very limited view of another culture if we have only met a few people from that culture. Or worse…only seen representation of that culture in media. And we are all guilty at one time or another of believing a single story about someone.
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
Stories are powerful. They can be framed to fit the teller’s viewpoint, and this can either hurt or empower the subjects of the story. That is why having a diverse range of stories told by as many voices as possible matters.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Even if you genuinely learn about the complexities of another culture, any person that you meet is still an individual who exists within that culture. They may not actually look much like the overall culture or even hold the same values of those around them. In the end, each individual decides what story to tell, and it may or may not look like the stories of those around them.
So when you hear a good story or meet an interesting person, appreciate them. Just don’t make the mistake of believing that their complex story looks anything like the person’s next to them. We all have our own story to tell.