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  • 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.

  • So 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.

  • (Laughter)

  • 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.

  • My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer

  • because the characters in the British books I read

  • drank ginger beer.

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

  • (Laughter)

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

  • to taste ginger beer.

  • But that is another story.

  • 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

  • and had to be about things with which

  • I could not personally identify.

  • Things changed when I discovered African books.

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

  • quite as easy to find as the foreign books.

  • But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye

  • 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.

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

  • My father was a professor.

  • My mother was an administrator.

  • And so we had, as was the norm,

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

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

  • His name was Fide.

  • The only thing my mother told us about him

  • was that his family was very poor.

  • My mother sent yams and rice,

  • and our old clothes, to his family.

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

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

  • So I felt enormous pity for Fide's family.

  • Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit,

  • and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket

  • made of dyed raffia that his brother had made.

  • I was startled.

  • It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family

  • could actually make something.

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

  • so that it had become impossible for me to see them

  • as anything else but poor.

  • Their poverty was my single story of them.

  • 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 disappointed

  • when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.

  • (Laughter)

  • She assumed that I did not know how

  • to use a stove.

  • 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:

  • a single story of catastrophe.

  • In this single story there was no possibility

  • of Africans being similar to her in any way,

  • no possibility of feelings more complex than pity,

  • no possibility of a connection as human equals.

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

  • consciously identify as African.

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

  • Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.

  • But I did come to embrace this new identity,

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

  • Although I still get quite irritable when

  • Africa is referred to as a country,

  • the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight

  • from Lagos two days ago, in which

  • there was an announcement on the Virgin flight

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

  • (Laughter)

  • 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.

  • I would see Africans in the same way that I,

  • as a child, had seen Fide's family.

  • 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."

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

  • And one must admire the imagination of John Locke.

  • But what is important about his writing is that

  • it represents the beginning

  • of a tradition of telling African stories in the West:

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

  • of difference, of darkness,

  • of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet

  • Rudyard Kipling,

  • are "half devil, half child."

  • And so I began to realize that my American roommate

  • must have throughout her life

  • seen and heard different versions

  • of this single story,

  • as had a professor,

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

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

  • wrong with the novel,

  • that it had failed in a number of places,

  • but I had not quite imagined that it had failed

  • at achieving something called African authenticity.

  • In fact I did not know what

  • African authenticity was.

  • The professor told me that my characters

  • were too much like him,

  • an educated and middle-class man.

  • My characters drove cars.

  • They were not starving.

  • Therefore they were not authentically African.

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

  • in the question of the single story.

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

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

  • and there were debates going on about immigration.

  • And, as often happens in America,

  • immigration became synonymous with Mexicans.

  • There were endless stories of Mexicans

  • as people who were

  • fleecing the healthcare system,

  • sneaking across the border,

  • being arrested at the border, that sort of thing.

  • I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara,

  • watching the people going to work,

  • rolling up tortillas in the marketplace,

  • smoking, laughing.

  • I remember first feeling slight surprise.

  • And then I was overwhelmed with shame.

  • I realized that I had been so immersed

  • in the media coverage of Mexicans

  • that they had become one thing in my mind,

  • the abject immigrant.

  • I had bought into the single story of Mexicans

  • and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.

  • So that is how to create a single story,

  • show a people as one thing,

  • as only one thing,

  • over and over again,

  • and that is what they become.

  • It is impossible to talk about the single story

  • without talking about power.

  • There is a word, an Igbo word,

  • that I think about whenever I think about

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

  • It's a noun that loosely translates

  • to "to be greater than another."

  • Like our economic and political worlds,

  • stories too are defined

  • by the principle of nkali:

  • How they are told, who tells them,

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

  • are really dependent on power.

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

  • but to make it the definitive story of that person.

  • The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes

  • that if you want to dispossess a people,

  • the simplest way to do it is to tell their story

  • and to start with, "secondly."

  • Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans,

  • and not with the arrival of the British,

  • and you have an 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.

  • I recently spoke at a university where

  • a student told me that it was

  • such a shame

  • that Nigerian men were physical abusers

  • like the father character in my novel.

  • I told him that I had just read a novel

  • called American Psycho --

  • (Laughter)

  • -- and that it was such a shame

  • that young Americans were serial murderers.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

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

  • (Laughter)

  • But it would never have occurred to me to think

  • that just because I had read a novel

  • in which a character was a serial killer

  • that he was somehow representative

  • of all Americans.

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

  • but because of America's cultural and economic power,

  • I had many stories of America.

  • I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill.