Tom and I watch very little television...at least not what's offered by regular broadcasting. Instead, we subscribe to Netflix streaming which allows us to pick and choose our programming sans commercials. Last night we wanted something brief and so chose an 18-minute TEDTalk titled "The Danger of a Single Story" presented by the storyteller and author, Chimamanda Adichie. It's the first talk in a compilation called "On Life's Lessons & Confessions"
Adichie, referring to herself as a "chocolate skinned" Eastern Nigerian, opens by telling how as a very young reader (around age two to four) all she read were British and American children's books. This gave her an extremely one-sided view of storytelling, a "single story," where all characters were white with blue eyes and where the main topic of conversation was the weather. Not until she discovered the few books written by African authors did she realize that people like her, with her life experiences, could also be literary characters.
Adichie tells how as a young girl her professor parents had hired a helper for their home. The single word used to describe this worker was "poor." His name was invoked often to remind her of her privilege: if she didn't finish a meal, she was reminded that the helper's poor family had nothing...and on and on. She created in her mind a "single story" around this man and his life and pitied him.
When her family went one day to visit their helper's village, Adichie was shown a beautiful basket that had been made by the helper's brother. She was startled. She explained,
It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so it had become impossible for me to see them as anything but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.
She reflected upon this experience when, years later at the age of 19, her college roommate had a "single-storied" reaction to Adichie upon arriving at her university in America:
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" 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.
A single story. Think about the single stories we tell of other people...of ourselves. How many people who develop eating disorders, and the people who love them, begin to tell a single story of their own lives. They are often labeled "anorexic" or "bulimic," not only by others but by themselves as well. Adichie is so very correct. There is real danger in telling, or in believing, a single story about any one or any place. She insists that,
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But Stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
Adichie ended her talk by enlightening us on what is to be "regained" by rejecting the single story:
The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her southern relatives who had moved to the north. She introduced them to a book about the southern life they had left behind, "They sat around reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained."
I would like to end with this thought, that when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
Let us be careful the stories we tell. Let us not limit ourselves to a single story but to a colorful tapestry of stories that includes the complexity of our entire humanity.
[Originally posted on the Gürze Books Eating Disorders Blogs]