The danger of a single story

In her powerful TED Talk in July 2009, acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delves into the concept of the “danger of the single story.” Raised on a Nigerian university campus, Adichie reveals how her early exposure to British and American children’s books shaped her perceptions of literature. Despite living in Nigeria, her stories mimicked foreign narratives, portraying characters who played in the snow and discussed the weather—experiences foreign to her own reality.

Adichie’s transformative moment occurred when she discovered African literature, challenging the notion that books had to feature foreign characters. She credits African writers like Chinua Achebe for expanding her literary horizon, allowing her to write about experiences she recognized, featuring characters with whom she could identify.

The talk also delves into the impact of single stories on societal perceptions. Adichie shares a personal story about her family’s houseboy, Fide, and how a preconceived notion of his poverty blinded her to the richness of his family’s talents. This personal experience serves as a metaphor for the broader issue of reducing entire cultures or continents to a single narrative. 

Adichie highlights the role of power in storytelling, emphasising that the ability to tell a story becomes a form of authority, shaping the way people are perceived. She argues that the single story robs people of their dignity, reinforcing stereotypes and making it difficult for individuals to be recognized for their shared humanity.

Drawing parallels to her own experiences in the United States, Adichie discusses the impact of Western literature on perpetuating a single story of Africa—a narrative often focused on catastrophes and devoid of the complexity and diversity that exist on the continent. She stresses the importance of embracing multiple narratives to foster understanding and respect among diverse cultures.

Adichie urges us to reject the single story, emphasizing that there is never a singular narrative about any place or person. By doing so, she believes we can regain a kind of paradise—a world enriched by the multitude of stories that make up our shared human experience.

At the Malvern Festival of Ideas, we cannot present multiple narratives about a person, place or issue, but what we can do is provide you with stories you can challenge and the space to do so.

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