On Stories

“The Danger of a Single Story” is a TED talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I watched it for the first time last summer as homework at a writing program in Massachusetts. It’s reaaaallllly good. Highly recommend it, because that’s what I’m going to talk about now.

Essentially, Adichie argues that our lives and cultures (and our perception of other lives and cultures) are composed of many overlapping stories. The danger comes when we hear only one story of a place/person/culture, who/which then becomes that one story—e.g., to many Americans, Africa is a place of starving children and poor villagers sitting in the dust, of tribal music and strange languages. Go watch the TED talk. Or at least read the transcript. (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en)

Adichie also wrote an excellent novel, Americanah, following two Nigerians as they grow up; one moves to America (and has many scathing observations on the meaning of Africanness and blackness in the States), the other moves to England, and they eventually return to a changed Nigeria.

During [Ifemelu’s] talks, she said: ‘America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.’ In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.” (307)

Overall, a critical and poignant reflection on race issues and blackness and a heck of a lot of other things. Highly, highly recommend.

I read this book after I’d watched the TED talk a few times. My first thought, now, about the TED talk, is about race.

It’s something that I’ve tried to write about before—what Asian-American stereotyping means to me. I couldn’t get it right. How could I complain about people assuming I eat rice with chopsticks, am super smart, play piano and/or violin, have a tiger mom, etc. when at half those things are true? How could I even complain about these seemingly trivial stereotyping when stereotyping actually leads to life-threatening discrimination and death in other cases (e.g. um, slavery, apartheid, internment of the Japanese Americans in WWII, the shooting at a black church in Charleston exactly 364 days ago, etc. etc.)? Adichie’s insights clarify my predicament; my single story is by far not the only story of Asian-Americanness, and for people to really understand—to really get rid of their stereotyping of Asian-Americanness—they need to know many stories of Asian-Americanness. Like how I know many, MANY stories of white Americans, through children’s literature and young adult fiction and acclaimed classical literature and movies and pictures and walking and talking in the streets and everything in between.

It sounds pretty rosy, but here’s my issue. If you’ve been in World History, for example, the textbooks (obviously) pick and choose the most defining events in places for us to know and memorize, and so Rwanda becomes the place with genocide and Ireland is potato land. I know Belgium as the place with great chocolate and Switzerland as the place with great banks. So basically, knowing the danger of the single story, are people going to learn many stories about every nation and culture so that calling someone “African” can give way to a honest “Ghanian,” “Nigerian,” etc. and anyone, knowing of the history of Maozedong, can understand when I reference my grandma’s starvation? This, at the extreme, is asking everyone to hold the entire history of the world in their head. Including the individual story of each ordinary, non-history-making human in history. So to get the closest to that, I’m guessing it’s the role of writers/artists from different cultures to provide their myriad stories and the role of everyone else to read/partake as much as possible.

My second thought is about different shoes. In the quest for gorging ourselves with stories to become more tolerant and understanding humans, something impractical and immensely helpful is putting ourselves in different people’s shoes.

What I mean is, today I had the privilege of interviewing one of my classmates who saved a man’s life using the Heimlich maneuver two weeks ago. I read news a lot, e.g. Austin-American Statesman, Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed (though I’m on a Buzzfeed strike now. More on that later. I do say “more on that later” a lot, don’t I? I promise I will say more on these things later). I never actually realized how much work goes into a simple article, though, or how nervous I could get leading up to a simple interview. Knowing all the hours I spent preparing the questions, actually doing the interview, getting candid photos, transcribing the recordings word-for-word into Google Docs, actually piecing together the article with a flow that makes sense—I have a new appreciation for the work that goes into reporting that I would never truly feel if I hadn’t reported myself.

Similarly, I read someone’s opinion once that all Americans should have to be a police officer once in their lifetime. They would have a new appreciation for what they do, and how hard it is to act in certain situations, sometimes. Like, imagine having to stop someone for speeding and knowing that they’re exasperated at you, but you have to do your job. I dunno.

So I’m thinking that to be the most open-minded individual you can be, you have to try on as many shoes as you can. These are experienceable, transferable stories. You can’t become a different culture to better understand them (unless you’ve invented that pill that lets you wake up in someone else’s body; please let me try), but you can go swimming at 4am, take a ballet class, shadow a TSA officer, write a short story, paint a landscape, map out a blueprint, learn to code, go to jail, you know, do everything. Do everything you can, and read about what you can’t.

How else do we avoid the danger of a single story? Your thoughts?


Isabella – 6/16/16,

remembering Alexei


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