By Nnorom Azuonye
In the past month or so I have noted several references to Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. I have received e-mails from admirers of the Orange Prize for Women’s Writing winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointing me to a video of the Nigerian writer talking about her riveting ‘new’ idea. Facebook friends have posted the video on my wall. Others have twitted it, and some have referenced it in responding to book reviews elsewhere. One e-mailer suggested that I MUST get in touch with Chimamanda Adichie to get the text of her presentation and publish it in Sentinel Literary Quarterly because, in his opinion, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ was “so illuminating that it would change the West’s view of Africa forever.” Intrigued, I dropped everything I was doing and went over to Ted.com to see the video for myself.
Chimamanda Adichie began talking. She was smooth, confident, great to look at, really charming. She talked about this thing she liked ‘to call a single story’. I watched with a mind willing to be educated, though, and wrongly I must add, I had preconceptions of what a single story might be; including one story wonders; those poor writers who only ever find their muses just once, create one mighty story by which their writing lives would be defined and never manage to kiss that level of genius again.
Then Adichie eased us into examples of a Single Story, including; Her roommate at University in America who was surprised that she could speak English at all, the girl who requested a sample of her tribal music only to be thrown back when Adichie produced a Mariah Carey cassette. There was also the insensitive branding by Adichie’s mother of their houseboy Ferdie’s family as poor. So horrific was the branding of Ferdie’s family by Adichie’s Administrator mother, wife of a University Professor, that when Adichie visited Ferdie’s village home, she was shocked that one of Ferdie’s relatives could actually ‘make something’ – a basket. Furthermore, she spoke of her shame in buying into the story that established a correlation between being a Mexican and illegal immigration into the United States of America, and there was another example of an in-flight announcement that referred to Africa as a country. She went on and on and on with one example after another of this thing she called a Single Story that I suddenly stopped the playback and asked myself; is Chimamanda’s theory of a Single Story a rechristening of Stereotyping, of Branding, of Methodising, of Pigeonholing, of Typecasting, etc? It appeared so. For the benefit of the doubt, I resumed playback to give the lady a chance to let out a fart so to say, to drop something wholesomely new that would define a Single Story for our generation and the generations of our children and our children’s children. She never did.
The jaundice in The Danger of a Single Story is that Ms Adichie was in fact perpetuating stereotypes. Anyone who does not know better who watches that presentation would conclude that all Westerners refer to Africa as a country. We know this is not true. There is a lot of it going on, but it is not standard by any stretch of the imagination. Never mind that Africans, especially Nigerians are guilty of insinuating that Africa is a country. Many times in the United Kingdom, you ask a Nigerian where he comes from. Afraid of admitting to being a Nigerian and being consigned to the heap of criminals – the now almost standard classification of Nigerians – he would say he comes from Africa. He would only admit the Nigerian connection if the person asking knows Africa is a continent and questions further, ‘what part of Africa do you come from?’ Interestingly, some would respond to this more specific question with a neither here nor there answer; ‘my Dad originally comes from Lagos, and my mother is from Benin.’ If pushed further, he will say, ‘Make it Lagos. I come from Lagos.’
In further perpetuation of the stereotype or let us use Adichie’s label of The Single Story, she presents American university fresh-persons as a bunch of ignorant people that do not know anything beyond cheerleading and chewing gum. When a writer of Adichie’s stature presents these types of fictions, her impressionable young readers in Africa would conclude that the experience she recounts is the norm. Adichie all at once creates another single story in the story of Ferdie. Anyone who reads that would conclude that in all Nigerian middle-class families where there are houseboys, that employers of such houseboys would constantly be telling their children that the houseboys come from poor families thereby creating a ‘you are better than them’ belief in their children. While there are people in Nigeria who do that, it is not the norm. There are so many families that I know that a visitor would never be able to tell a houseboy apart from the children of the household.
The Danger of a Single Story is also being touted as an insight into how Adichie found her authentic African voice. Adichie spoke about how in the beginning of her writing life she created white characters with blue eyes and wrote about snow, because these were the kind of characters she encountered in the books she read and therefore she bought into the single story that people like her could not possibly be characters in a book. I am sorry but this is absolutely objectionable. Chimamanda Adichie was born in 1977. By the time of her birth, there were already a wealth of Nigerian fiction with people like her who did not have blonde hair and blue eyes. I am talking about books by Nigerian writers such as Amos Tutuola; ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’(1954). Chinua Achebe; ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1958), ‘No Longer at Ease’ (1960). Buchi Emecheta; ‘The Bride Price’ (1976). Flora Nwapa; ‘Efuru’ (1966). John Munonye; ‘The Only Son’ (1966), ‘A Wreath for the Maidens’ (1973), and Cyprian Ekwensi; ‘Jagua Nana’ (1961) and ‘Burning Grass’ (1961) just to mention a few. So it was not that the Mills and Boon novels she read were the single story of what novels should be or how characters should be created, the truth is that she ignored the other side of the story – the authentic African stories and characters which were in abundance and aligned herself with Anglo-American models. The truth is that many of these novels were standard text in literature courses from late primary schools into Secondary education in Nigeria. In Elementary Five, we read Ekwensi’s An African Night’s Entertainment which I encountered again a few years later at Government College Umuahia. I therefore believe that it was not that Adichie was presented with a single story – the Western model. She rather chose to embrace that at the expense of our own stories which had been brilliantly told by our literary forbears. Many forget that she began writing as Amanda N. Adichie, only reclaiming the powerful Chimamanda and rejecting the West-pleasing and possibly meaningless Amanda.
There are two sides to every story is an old line that any right-thinking person knows. Everybody knows that there are intrinsic dangers to human interaction and behaviours in every situation where only one side of a story is presented. The dynamics of new thinking in African literary development must dare to engage with the meaningful and the productive. The drive must venture into the new and the illuminating. There is no benefit in forcing pan-Africanism by reinventing or reimagining stereotypes and glossing them over with celebrity. I agree that grabbing just one side of a story can be damaging to the individual and society. It can also rob someone of knowledge and appreciation of self. There has never been a time when there were no other sides to a story, but as thinking, choosing individuals, we almost always choose the single story that justifies us to our own selves and sells us the most to our target markets.