The danger of the single story



A big theme in my thread on storytelling, and a premise of my forthcoming book, is that certain stories are universal and timeless–or, as Carl Jung might say, archetypal.

But as with everything, there is a way to misunderstand that insight. Yes, there are elements that are common to Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, to the Grimm stories and to Heidi–elements such as a hero who goes on a quest and meets a wise old man and so forth….

But that does not mean that one single story can summarize a life, a person, a place or a country. The opposite is the case. There must be an infinite number of stories, even if they all have something in common.

The attractive Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great TED talk (below) about exactly this.¬†As a girl in Nigeria she read and loved British and American books and stories and began to write stories herself at the age of 7. But her stories were about … white, blue-eyed girls who played in the snow and ate apples and talked about the weather and whether it might turn nice. Even though she had never left Nigeria!

She eventually realized

how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.

Stories had overpowered her own perception of the world. She assumed that stories could not be about brown people eating mangoes in the sun but had to be about white people eating apples in the rain.

Emancipation occurred when she realized that

people like me … could also exist in literature

But that was only the beginning. She understood that many people have only one single story about Africa (= catastrophe), and that she did not fit into that story. She realized that she herself had only one story about Mexico (= illegal immigrants) which proved woefully inadequate. She realized that some people, such as her American college roommate, had only a single story about her, Adichie from Nigeria (= exotic tribal woman), and that she herself simultaneously had only one single story about her own family servant (= pitiful poor boy), which also proved incomplete. She understood that

power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,

and that

the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete… It robs people of their dignity.

So consider this a refinement of my views on storytelling. We must be open to many, many, many stories even as we see the common, universal humanity that runs through all of them. Now take 18 minutes and watch:

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