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Moving Beyond a Single-Story Paradigm

By Sarah Lillo
Moving Beyond a Single-Story Paradigm

I am a huge fan of the contemporary Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s writing and ideas. I consistently show her TEDTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story” to my classes; in it Ms. Adichie describes how easy it is for us to reduce people’s experiences to fixed narratives.
For instance, in her talk, Ms. Adichie observes that some Americans know only of Africa’s animals, poverty, and wars as described by predominantly Western voices. Ms. Adichie approaches the topic with humility, and recognizes her own vulnerability to such single stories. She admits that it is very easy to let common narratives define groups with which we might be less familiar. Yet there is so much more to understand about the nuances of individuals’ lives, so many more stories that need to be told and heard.
Ms. Adichie’s views have resonated with me, as I have selected texts to read on my global reading challenge. Take my exposure to African literature for example.
When I set out to read a text from every country in the world, I had a fairly minimal exposure to texts either set on the continent or written by African authors. Sure, I knew Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold… and the boys, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and half a dozen Egyptian texts, including pieces by Naguib Mahfouz. I had even read a few texts by Wole Soyinka (Nigerian), Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenyan), and J. M. Coetzee (South African). Yet there were so many pieces, voices, and stories yet to be discovered.
Throughout my challenge, I have intentionally sought out diverse perspectives and stories. I have been introduced to dozens of powerful contemporary Sub-Saharan African voices through Africa 39. I have read political pieces, such as Fardol’s Southern Sudan and its Fight for Freedom. I have read pieces that touch on universal themes, such as Laye’s coming of age memoir, The Dark Child (French Guinea) and Tadjo’s exploration of love in As the Crow Flies (Côte d’Ivoire).
I have cried at Forna’s poignant Memory of Love (Sierra Leone). I have laughed at Fuller’s quirky humor in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Zimbabwe) and marveled at the innovation and accomplishments of the young Kamkwamba as described in his memoir, co-written with Mealer, called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Malawi).
I have gotten lost in the magical realism of Couto’s Under the Frangipangi (Mozambique). I have been rattled by the depictions of conflict in non-fiction pieces such as Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Gone (Sierra Leone) and Kidder’s text, The Strength in What Remains (Burundi).
Meanwhile, I have been inspired by creative peace efforts described in Gbowee’s memoir, Mighty be our Powers (Liberia). I have been confronted by the horrors of human trafficking through Nazer’s memoir, Slave, My True Story (Sudan).
At the same time, I have enjoyed light-hearted stories of daily life through novels such as Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali (Rwanda) or the graphic novel series by Abouet and Oubrerie, Aya (Côte d’Ivoire). I have been charmed by Seid’s bedtime stories in Told by Starlight in Chad (translated by Hoenig). I have been gutted by Ousmane Sembene’s account of the West African railroad strike in God’s Bits of Wood.
I have been reminded of the power of faith, even in the midst of pain, by Wheatley’s poems (Gambia). In short, each novel, play, poem, graphic novel, memoir, or non-fiction text has contributed to the kaleidoscope of represented human experiences.
Each text has moved me further and further from the snare of a single story and towards a more nuanced understanding of the vast range of perspectives on the diverse African continent.
In a challenge in which I am trying to “tick off” countries on my reading tour, it can get easy to tokenize experiences.
Ms. Adichie’s words remind me that each text offers a single snapshot. In order to get a more rounded view though, I must continue to seek new narratives and must be especially careful not to let individual stories define groups. I should also be cognizant of the power of western publishing preferences, and deliberately seek views that may lack mainstream promotion.
Do you have titles to recommend? Looking for other text ideas from around the world? Join the Facebook group “World Literary Travelers”. Let us move away from the single-story trap together.

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02/09/2015 - Amber
Inspiring article! I want to read all of the books you listed. What a terrific task to set for yourself.



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