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Annotated captions of Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story in English

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I'm a storyteller.

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And I would like to tell you a few personal stories

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about what I like to call "the danger of the single story."

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I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria.

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My mother says that I started reading at the age of two,

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although I think four is probably close to the truth.

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So I was an early reader, and what I read

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were British and American children's books.

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I was also an early writer,

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and when I began to write, at about the age of seven,

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stories in pencil with crayon illustrations

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that my poor mother was obligated to read,

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I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading:

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All my characters were white and blue-eyed,

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they played in the snow,

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they ate apples,

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and they talked a lot about the weather,

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how lovely it was

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that the sun had come out.

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(Laughter)

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Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria.

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I had never been outside Nigeria.

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We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes,

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and we never talked about the weather,

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because there was no need to.

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My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer

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because the characters in the British books I read

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drank ginger beer.

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Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was.

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(Laughter)

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And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire

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to taste ginger beer.

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But that is another story.

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What this demonstrates, I think,

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is how impressionable and vulnerable we are

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in the face of a story,

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particularly as children.

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Because all I had read were books

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in which characters were foreign,

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I had become convinced that books

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by their very nature had to have foreigners in them

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and had to be about things with which

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I could not personally identify.

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Things changed when I discovered African books.

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There weren't many of them available, and they weren't

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quite as easy to find as the foreign books.

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But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye

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I went through a mental shift in my perception

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of literature.

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I realized that people like me,

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girls with skin the color of chocolate,

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whose kinky hair could not form ponytails,

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could also exist in literature.

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I started to write about things I recognized.

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Now, I loved those American and British books I read.

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They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me.

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But the unintended consequence

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was that I did not know that people like me

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could exist in literature.

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So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this:

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It saved me from having a single story

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of what books are.

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I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family.

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My father was a professor.

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My mother was an administrator.

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And so we had, as was the norm,

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live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages.

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So the year I turned eight we got a new house boy.

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His name was Fide.

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The only thing my mother told us about him

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was that his family was very poor.

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My mother sent yams and rice,

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and our old clothes, to his family.

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And when I didn't finish my dinner my mother would say,

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"Finish your food! Don't you know? People like Fide's family have nothing."

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So I felt enormous pity for Fide's family.

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Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit,

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and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket

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made of dyed raffia that his brother had made.

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I was startled.

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It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family

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could actually make something.

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All I had heard about them was how poor they were,

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so that it had become impossible for me to see them

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as anything else but poor.

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Their poverty was my single story of them.

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Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria

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to go to university in the United States.

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I was 19.

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My American roommate was shocked by me.

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She asked where I had learned to speak English so well,

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and was confused when I said that Nigeria

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happened to have English as its official language.

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She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music,"

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and was consequently very disappointed

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when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.

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(Laughter)

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She assumed that I did not know how

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to use a stove.

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What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me

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even before she saw me.

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Her default position toward me, as an African,

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was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity.

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My roommate had a single story of Africa:

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a single story of catastrophe.

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In this single story there was no possibility

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of Africans being similar to her in any way,

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no possibility of feelings more complex than pity,

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no possibility of a connection as human equals.

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I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn't

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consciously identify as African.

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But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me.

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Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.

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But I did come to embrace this new identity,

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and in many ways I think of myself now as African.

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Although I still get quite irritable when

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Africa is referred to as a country,

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the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight

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from Lagos two days ago, in which

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there was an announcement on the Virgin flight

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about the charity work in "India, Africa and other countries."

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(Laughter)

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So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African,

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I began to understand my roommate's response to me.

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If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa

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were from popular images,

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I too would think that Africa was a place of

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beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals,

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and incomprehensible people,

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fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS,

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unable to speak for themselves

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and waiting to be saved

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by a kind, white foreigner.

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I would see Africans in the same way that I,

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as a child, had seen Fide's family.

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This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature.

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Now, here is a quote from

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the writing of a London merchant called John Locke,

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who sailed to west Africa in 1561

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and kept a fascinating account of his voyage.

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After referring to the black Africans

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as "beasts who have no houses,"

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he writes, "They are also people without heads,

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having their mouth and eyes in their breasts."

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Now, I've laughed every time I've read this.

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And one must admire the imagination of John Locke.

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But what is important about his writing is that

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it represents the beginning

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of a tradition of telling African stories in the West:

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A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives,

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of difference, of darkness,

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of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet

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Rudyard Kipling,

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are "half devil, half child."

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And so I began to realize that my American roommate

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must have throughout her life

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seen and heard different versions

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of this single story,

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as had a professor,

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who once told me that my novel was not "authentically African."

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Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things

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wrong with the novel,

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that it had failed in a number of places,

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but I had not quite imagined that it had failed

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at achieving something called African authenticity.

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In fact I did not know what

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African authenticity was.

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The professor told me that my characters

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were too much like him,

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an educated and middle-class man.

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My characters drove cars.

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They were not starving.

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Therefore they were not authentically African.

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But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty

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in the question of the single story.

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A few years ago, I visited Mexico from the U.S.

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The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense,

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and there were debates going on about immigration.

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And, as often happens in America,

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immigration became synonymous with Mexicans.

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There were endless stories of Mexicans

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as people who were

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fleecing the healthcare system,

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sneaking across the border,

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being arrested at the border, that sort of thing.

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I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara,

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watching the people going to work,

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rolling up tortillas in the marketplace,

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smoking, laughing.

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I remember first feeling slight surprise.

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And then I was overwhelmed with shame.

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I realized that I had been so immersed

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in the media coverage of Mexicans

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that they had become one thing in my mind,

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the abject immigrant.

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I had bought into the single story of Mexicans

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and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.

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So that is how to create a single story,

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show a people as one thing,

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as only one thing,

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over and over again,

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and that is what they become.

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It is impossible to talk about the single story

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without talking about power.

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There is a word, an Igbo word,

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that I think about whenever I think about

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the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali."

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It's a noun that loosely translates

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to "to be greater than another."

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Like our economic and political worlds,

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stories too are defined

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by the principle of nkali:

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How they are told, who tells them,

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when they're told, how many stories are told,

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are really dependent on power.

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Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person,

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but to make it the definitive story of that person.

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The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes

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that if you want to dispossess a people,

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the simplest way to do it is to tell their story

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and to start with, "secondly."

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Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans,

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and not with the arrival of the British,

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and you have an entirely different story.

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Start the story with

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the failure of the African state,

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and not with the colonial creation of the African state,

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and you have an entirely different story.

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I recently spoke at a university where

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a student told me that it was

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such a shame

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that Nigerian men were physical abusers

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like the father character in my novel.

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I told him that I had just read a novel

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called American Psycho --

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(Laughter)

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-- and that it was such a shame

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that young Americans were serial murderers.

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(Laughter)

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(Applause)

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Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation.

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(Laughter)

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But it would never have occurred to me to think

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that just because I had read a novel

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in which a character was a serial killer

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that he was somehow representative

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of all Americans.

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This is not because I am a better person than that student,

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but because of America's cultural and economic power,

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I had many stories of America.

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I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill.

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I did not have a single story of America.

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When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected

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to have had really unhappy childhoods

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to be successful,

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I began to think about how I could invent

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horrible things my parents had done to me.

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(Laughter)

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But the truth is that I had a very happy childhood,

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full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.

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But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps.

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My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate healthcare.

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One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash

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because our fire trucks did not have water.

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I grew up under repressive military governments

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that devalued education,

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so that sometimes my parents were not paid their salaries.

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And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table,

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then margarine disappeared,

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then bread became too expensive,

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then milk became rationed.

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And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear

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invaded our lives.

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All of these stories make me who I am.

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But to insist on only these negative stories

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is to flatten my experience

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and to overlook the many other stories

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that formed me.

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The single story creates stereotypes,

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and the problem with stereotypes

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is not that they are untrue,

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but that they are incomplete.

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They make one story become the only story.

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Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes:

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There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo

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and depressing ones, such as the fact that

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5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria.

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But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe,

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and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.

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I've always felt that it is impossible

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to engage properly with a place or a person

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without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.

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The consequence of the single story

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is this: It robs people of dignity.

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It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.

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It emphasizes how we are different

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rather than how we are similar.

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So what if before my Mexican trip

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I had followed the immigration debate from both sides,

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the U.S. and the Mexican?

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What if my mother had told us that Fide's family was poor

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and hardworking?

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What if we had an African television network

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that broadcast diverse African stories all over the world?

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What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls

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"a balance of stories."

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What if my roommate knew about my Nigerian publisher,

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Mukta Bakaray,

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a remarkable man who left his job in a bank

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to follow his dream and start a publishing house?

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Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians don't read literature.

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He disagreed. He felt

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that people who could read, would read,

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if you made literature affordable and available to them.

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Shortly after he published my first novel

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I went to a TV station in Lagos to do an interview,

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and a woman who worked there as a messenger came up to me and said,

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"I really liked your novel. I didn't like the ending.

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Now you must write a sequel, and this is what will happen ..."

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(Laughter)

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And she went on to tell me what to write in the sequel.

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I was not only charmed, I was very moved.

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Here was a woman, part of the ordinary masses of Nigerians,

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who were not supposed to be readers.

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She had not only read the book, but she had taken ownership of it

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and felt justified in telling me

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what to write in the sequel.

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Now, what if my roommate knew about my friend Fumi Onda,

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a fearless woman who hosts a TV show in Lagos,

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and is determined to tell the stories that we prefer to forget?

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What if my roommate knew about the heart procedure

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that was performed in the Lagos hospital last week?

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What if my roommate knew about contemporary Nigerian music,

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talented people singing in English and Pidgin,

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and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo,

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mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela

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to Bob Marley to their grandfathers.

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What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer

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15:58

who recently went to court in Nigeria

tedtalks 15:58
16:00

to challenge a ridiculous law

tedtalks 16:00
16:03

that required women to get their husband's consent

tedtalks 16:03
16:06

before renewing their passports?

tedtalks 16:06
16:09

What if my roommate knew about Nollywood,

tedtalks 16:09
16:13

full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds,

tedtalks 16:13
16:15

films so popular

tedtalks 16:15
16:17

that they really are the best example

tedtalks 16:17
16:20

of Nigerians consuming what they produce?

tedtalks 16:20
16:23

What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully ambitious hair braider,

tedtalks 16:23
16:27

who has just started her own business selling hair extensions?

tedtalks 16:27
16:29

Or about the millions of other Nigerians

tedtalks 16:29
16:31

who start businesses and sometimes fail,

tedtalks 16:31
16:35

but continue to nurse ambition?

tedtalks 16:35
16:37

Every time I am home I am confronted with

tedtalks 16:37
16:40

the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians:

tedtalks 16:40
16:43

our failed infrastructure, our failed government,

tedtalks 16:43
16:46

but also by the incredible resilience of people who

tedtalks 16:46
16:49

thrive despite the government,

tedtalks 16:49
16:51

rather than because of it.

tedtalks 16:51
16:54

I teach writing workshops in Lagos every summer,

tedtalks 16:54
16:57

and it is amazing to me how many people apply,

tedtalks 16:57
17:00

how many people are eager to write,

tedtalks 17:00
17:02

to tell stories.

tedtalks 17:02
17:05

My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit

tedtalks 17:05
17:07

called Farafina Trust,

tedtalks 17:07
17:10

and we have big dreams of building libraries

tedtalks 17:10
17:12

and refurbishing libraries that already exist

tedtalks 17:12
17:15

and providing books for state schools

tedtalks 17:15
17:17

that don't have anything in their libraries,

tedtalks 17:17
17:19

and also of organizing lots and lots of workshops,

tedtalks 17:19
17:21

in reading and writing,

tedtalks 17:21
17:24

for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories.

tedtalks 17:24
17:26

Stories matter.

tedtalks 17:26
17:28

Many stories matter.

tedtalks 17:28
17:32

Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,

tedtalks 17:32
17:36

but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.

tedtalks 17:36
17:39

Stories can break the dignity of a people,

tedtalks 17:39
17:44

but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

tedtalks 17:44
17:46

The American writer Alice Walker wrote this

tedtalks 17:46
17:48

about her Southern relatives

tedtalks 17:48
17:50

who had moved to the North.

tedtalks 17:50
17:52

She introduced them to a book about

tedtalks 17:52
17:55

the Southern life that they had left behind:

tedtalks 17:55
17:59

"They sat around, reading the book themselves,

tedtalks 17:59
18:05

listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained."

tedtalks 18:05
18:08

I would like to end with this thought:

tedtalks 18:08
18:11

That when we reject the single story,

tedtalks 18:11
18:14

when we realize that there is never a single story

tedtalks 18:14
18:16

about any place,

tedtalks 18:16
18:18

we regain a kind of paradise.

tedtalks 18:18
18:20

Thank you.

tedtalks 18:20
18:28

(Applause)