The power of the story

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

A chunk of my morning, which should have been devoted to working, was totally hijacked by this excellent talk by Nigerian novelist/story-teller  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — and she nails it when she says:

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

In its review of Adichie’s latest, The Thing Around Your Neck, the New York Times says the collection of stories exemplifies the tensions “between fiction and autobiography, the expectations of the observer and the experience of the witness, not to mention the value of certain experiences in the global literary marketplace”.

Many of the stories in this book have been published before, and provide a flavor of Adichie’s writing. A quick list:

  • A Private Experience , where two women, caught up in a communal riot, take refuge in a shop
  • The Headstrong Historian which tells of a woman whose husband was killed by his cousins — or so she believes — and of how she fights to regain the family’s lost inheritance for her son through the latter’s education
  • Cell One in which the son of a professor is caught for a crime and sent to the infamous titular cell of a Nigerian prison

Her own story-telling hero, Chinua Achebe, says this about the young Adichie:

“We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”

And here is Adichie herself, from the talk posted above:

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 structure of the world, and it is “nkali”. It is 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 are 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.

 Where she really drives the point home — and in doing that, underlines the danger of the kind of single PoV narratives we are increasingly subjected to by the media — is when she says:

Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.

Arati Kumar-Rao (blog and Twitter), who alerted me to this talk, also points to this excellent playlist of talks on story-telling, featuring the likes of Isabelle Allende, Andrew Stanton, Elif Shafak, JJ Abrams and Scott McCloud. Enjoy. (And if you’ve come across good talks/articles on story-telling, narrative, etc, share links in comments and I’ll round those off into a follow-up post).

PostScript: In response to this post, friend and Caravan writer Rahul Bhatia: