Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

Chimamanda Adichie is a novelist who, in this talk, describes her journey through discovering herself through her own eyes and the eyes of others perpetuated by the media.  She describes having an understanding that she was not what was ideal, not a little white, blonde girl with piggy tails and a smile.  This understanding was perpetuated by the British literature that she read, which exposed her to exotic worlds, yet made her think that someone like her could not exist in literature.  Adichie discusses the reality that people accept “single stories” about most people, places, and things.  To understand one thing about a country or a person in no way means that you now have a complete knowledge of it or them.  In fact there is really no way to ever have a complete understanding unless you conform to believing in a “single story.”  A truly enriching way to exist is to constantly be interpreting and reinterpreting your surroundings, to explore new ideas and materials, even stories, with an understanding that it is not certain, not definitive.  A storyteller must be extremely careful in the choosing of how to portray an idea, place, or person, approaching it with the understanding that how it is represented is impactful, so focus on the positive, on the ever-changing, on the version not perpetuated by pop culture and the media.

Megan Saks

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5 Responses to Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

  1. Lena Jo Beckenstein says:

    This makes me think a lot about Joss Whedon’s response to people who were inspired by the main queer storyline on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. After talking about how he didn’t consider either the potential backlash or inspiration that a queer storyline would incur, he said, “We’re very conscious of our responsibility, but you can’t make stories based on it, because stories are by their nature irresponsible.” I disagree and side with Chimamanda Adichie, who talks about the danger of single stories. She very aptly points out the ways in which stories are not consequence-free, particularly stories aimed at young people. Telling stories is not a value-neutral act; it requires intentionality, because even if it lacks intentionality, people will gain values and ideas from the stories that they hear, which is scary if the folks telling the stories aren’t aware of what they’re portraying. While I recognize the instinct to just tell the stories that seem to make most sense for the characters, particularly in long-form storytelling like television, I think that Adichie’s description of muddled world views shows us how important it is not to succumb to these instincts. She shows us that storytellers have to be conscious of and responsible for the stories that that they choose to tell, even if the stories themselves are irresponsible.

    (link to quote: http://www.salon.com/2003/05/20/whedon/)

  2. Rachel Siegel says:

    This talk by Chimamanda Adichie is incredibly illuminating on the way that our society perceives other cultures. The talk of a single story representing only one aspect of a society is overwhelming. We as American people are extremely susceptible to this “single story” point of view of other cultures, being that we are in a place of power within our media and literature. Adichie describes reading the novel, American Psycho, and despite the fact that it is an example of American culture showing an American person as a serial killer, she does not perceive all Americans to be serial killers. American Psycho is an example of a single story, but because of our level of power, we have all been exposed to far more than one story of American people. “Because of America’s cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America… I did not have a single story of America”. This however does not hold true when it comes to perceptions of other cultures. Examples that Adichie gives of single stories being told are that of Mexican people becoming synonymous with the word “immigration”, and African culture being seen as merely poor and dangerous. Her examples show how a single story attributes to these cultures being seen as places that held people without strength.

    “To insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

    In order to tell stories about a culture, Adichie makes it clear that you must make sure that you have an objective view of the entire culture, not a single story to perpetuate stereotype.

    -Rachel Siegel

  3. This Ted talk really impressed upon me the way a single story can actually form a persons perspective on something, someone, a place, a culture or a person. As someone who aspires to be a storyteller, I believe that this will be a very important concept to keep in mind when both telling and making stories. When you listen to a story you are looking threw a point of view. I believe a good story will be able to take multiple points of view. When you are totally convinced it is one way suddenly the story twists and you see the reason why that character did something and you have understanding. It is important to tell stories form all angles and perspectives and if not to make sure your story does not have any negative connotations to a culture or a person.

  4. Megan Howard says:

    It would be nice if every time we heard a story we got to hear it from at least 3 different points of view. I find myself constantly forgetting that there are not just one or two sides to things but hundreds and thousands of sides. Every single person who lives in a neighborhood has a specific way they think of it and experience it, but we hear one and somehow the human mind jumps to a generalization. I think perhaps this is some sort of learned behavior. Often I wonder what our pets would say about their people or the tree in the front yard has to say about all the traffic. Some of these sides can’t even be conveyed through words and others require more creative methods. It would be fun to do a class activity where we have people talk about the same 1 minute event, each from their own point of view.

  5. Ian L-S says:

    I think that with this TED talk, Adichie gets at the important issue of people not only being too quick to take what they hear to be truth, but also limiting the realm of what they think is possible to that which they have explicitly heard or been exposed to. The problem of the single story is not that it only imparts a single point of view, but that we allow ourselves to make broader assumptions and generalizations based on the single story. We are too quick to reflexively assume a story’s universal representation of its subject. This is a reflex that I find often myself giving way to, or about to give way to. A personal awareness of this reflex in ourselves is something that I think we all should attempt to cultivate so that we may be able to better catch ourselves when we run the risk of too narrowly defining (or misrepresenting) other people, places, and, things.

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