Chimamanda Adichie’s story is my story.
I long to accomplish what she already has. I look forward to a day when I too could stand before the world to say that I am not a single story.
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. 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.
I was an early reader and writer. My parents were missionaries, closely working with foreign people living in a missionary base in our province. We called it the ”little America” and it had a library full of Children’s books where my brothers and I would hang out all day. I grew up reading Berenstain Bears, Curious George and Dr. Seuss. My first drawn comic characters had yellow hair, blue eyes and a talking pet. My first attempt on novel writing was in 5th grade, a story patterned on Danielle Steel’s The Gift.
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. Now, things changed when I discovered African books… 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.
Learning about Filipino legends and folktales opened my world of literature. Only after reading stories like Alamat ng Pinya and Kwento ni Pagong did I start naming my characters Pipoy instead of Peter or Rosa instead of Rose. But what really changed me were the very few traditional epics and metrical romances (Epiko, awit at korido). There I saw that ethnic people like me could exist in literature.
I started to paint the stories my father told me about life in the mountains with people that had brown skin, black hair and broken accent. The mental shift of my perception gave birth to my theater play Balangao.
Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. 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 dissapointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. 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.
So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner.
This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Locke, who sailed to west Africa in 1561, and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as “beasts who have no houses,” he writes, “They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts.”
When I went to the city for college, I was often placed in hot seat when people learned I was an Igorot. They would ask me, ”why are you white?” ”Why is your hair long and straight?” ”Why do you speak straight English?”
I do not blame them for the default position they had of us. Indeed, we had been painted in books as dark, curly haired with red-charred teeth. The name given us is even a misnomer term invented by the ruthless Spaniards in mockery against the Northern Luzon tribes, which they failed to subjugate or conquer in their insatiable lust and greed for colonialism. The word ‘Igorot’ means a savage, head-hunting and backward tribe of Luzon.
My schoolmates had a single story of me.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.
When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to think about how I could invent horrible things my parents had done to me. But the truth is that I had a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.
But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate healthcare. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash because our firetrucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes my parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives.
All of these stories make me who I am. But 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. They make one story become the only story.
There was a day in my Creative Writing class when everybody was sharing about how sad and desolate their childhood memories were. I tried to create a story of abuse and abandonment but the plot was too faulty. In reality, I had a very happy childhood.
My parents sent me to private school where I wore pretty clothes and danced ballet. My classmates taught me how to speak Tagalog without the hard mountain accent. During the weekends my parents would bring us to the ”little America” base where we played with kids from all over the world. I made castles in sand boxes, threw tea parties inside the play house and played roller hockey with the boys.
Summers were my favorite. As soon as classes end, my whole family would pack up and head up to the mountains where I’d spend days hiking on foot, riding carabaos, drowning in rivers, eating insects and running away from pigs. At a very young age I rode planes and choppers flying into our tribe, an experience not every kid could have.
It was also during those summers that I get to experience first hand the poverty and injustice of life in the mountains. A mother’s multiple miscarriage, a whole family’s death through illness, an uncle’s murder, a cousin’s rape, a nephew’s starvation and spiritual wars with animism. I could not count the many tragedies that happened (and is still happening) in our tribe.
Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes. There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo. And depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe. And it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure, our failed government. But also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it.
I teach writing workshops in Lagos every summer. And it is amazing to me how many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories.
I recently went home to the Philippines and I spent my whole summer with fellow tribal kids. The younger ones told me stories of how classmates would tease them with Igorot agsisinnurot! It amazes me how demeaning chants are passed on from one generation to the next.
The older ones had stories about how they try hard to blend in with today’s college lifestyle. But their monthly allowances, dependent on their parents’ harvest, could not keep up with the demands of a tip-top society. The working ones had stories of being rejected in jobs because they can’t pronounce ”th” the American way or how they are stuck in labor jobs because the higher vacancies are reserved for graduates of exclusive universities.
Despite such frustrations, I am moved by their resilience. They graduate top honors in their classes. They spend vacations not sunbathing in the beach but in community work and voluntary medical operations. They pursue jobs in the cities, impressing employers with their strive for excellence and genuine humility. I am fueled by the little victories they add to their own stories.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to 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. 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. Thank you.
Yesterday, an Arabic guy in the elevator asked me, ”Are you Korean?” I shook my head and said I was Filipino. He laughed saying, ”You don’t look Filipino. Your English is not like Filipino.” I wonder what version of the single story of Filipinos did he hear.
God gave me a childhood filled with books and pens. He allowed me to live between two worlds – tribal vs elite, Filipino vs Westerners, Asia vs Middle East, Christian vs Muslim. All of these for a reason.
A story is written as we live each day of our lives. There is a purpose for all these chronicles. I discovered mine years ago. It is to be the voice of the unheard. What is yours?
My story is not a single story and I’m sure so is yours.
For the full text of her talk go HERE. Click on Interactive transcript.