“Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a wonderful TED talk back in 2009 in which she described the danger of the single story. She told about how, as a young girl, the stories she wrote had characters in them who played in the snow, ate apples, drank ginger beer, and noticed how lovely it was when the sun came out. She wrote stories mimicking all the English stories she had been given to read. Those stories were what she thought stories were.
Later on at university, after she had learned to write stories born of the life of a Nigerian middle-class woman, a professor chastised her for not writing stories that were “authentically” Nigerian because her characters drove in cars and lived in the city.
And so she became deeply suspicious of the “single story.” By that she means that not all people who show up in literature eat apples and play in the snow and not all Nigerians walk here to there in rural areas. The single story is dangerous because it does not allow for any of the complexity that makes human beings human. And it does not allow for their realities to be accessed and understood. And if that reality, at least in part, is oppression, by extension the single story does not allow for acknowledgement that the audience sometimes is an off-stage actor in that story.
As a film maker, I have encountered this kind of thinking over and over again.
Public TV station managers, film school graduates, and festival organizers have said, “No one wants to hear about economic policy. Here’s what you do. Find one migrant or a group of migrants about to cross the desert and follow them through that crossing. Audiences want to see people in a struggle with a clear beginning and a clear end. They want to be moved to tears.”
Or, they say, “You have too many stories going on here. What you need is focus. Find a migrant or a group of migrants . . . .”
Don’t open the movie with the word “atavistic.” No one knows what “atavistic” means. Don’t say “illegal.” That’s rude. Don’t compare the numbers of migrants who have died crossing the Sonora Desert with the numbers of people killed by the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. That’s insensitive. Don’t compare immigration to the Civil Rights Movement. That’s asking for trouble.
“Find a migrant or a group of migrants.” Follow the formula. Its freeze-dried and lasts forever. Add water and it will puff up nicely.
As an advocate, I also have found this kind of thinking over and over again. Just say “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Say it often. Its a simple script. Don’t deviate. Get a group of immigrants (well US citizens is fine because you can’t really tell the difference) together at a rally you organize off-stage. Get photos of them making signs that say, “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Then photograph them (on-stage) holding those signs at the rally.
Don’t say NAFTA. Too complicated. Don’t say prison industrial complex. Too hard to fix. Don’t say militarization of the border. Too far away. Where is Arizona anyway?
Use the formula. Add water.
But the formula–the single story formula–as Adichie said is dangerous. It keeps the storyteller rather than the person whose story is being told in the driver’s seat. It’s frustratingly condescending to and de-humanizing of both audiences and migrants. Its manipulative rather than collaborative. It keeps reality in all its messy complicatedness from getting to the political table. It prohibits rather than advances justice.
I think the people whose stories we tell, the people we say we are advocating for, deserve better.”
© Ellin Jimmerson, October 17, 2013