Monday, November 1, 2010

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

Part One
  • 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. 
      • And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. 
    • 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. 
      • 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.
  • Now, I loved those American and British books I read. 
    • They stirred my imagination. 
    • They opened up new worlds for me. 
    • But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. 
    • So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: 
      • It saved me from having a single story of what books are.

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