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
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.
(Laughter) 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. Now, 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
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 is 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 listed to
what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very
dissapointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She
assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
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
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
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
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 and 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
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
I 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. And now, 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. I did not have a single story of America.
When I learned, some years ago, that writers were
expected to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I
began to think about how I could invent horrible things my parents had
done to me. (Laughter) But the truth is that I had a very happy
childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family.
But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee
camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate
healthcare. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash
because our firetrucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive
military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes my
parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam
disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then
bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all,
a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives.
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist
on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to
overlook the many other stories that formed me. 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.
Of course, Africa is a continent
full of catastrophes. There are immense ones, such as the horrific
rapes in Congo. And depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people
apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that
are not about catastrophe. And it is very important, it is just as
important, to talk about them.
I've always felt that
it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without
engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The
consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It
makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes
how we are different rather than how we are similar.
So what if before my Mexican trip I had followed the
immigration debate from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if
my mother had told us that Fide's family was poor and hardworking? What
if we had an African television network that broadcast diverse African
stories all over the world? What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe
calls "a balance of stories."
What if my roommate
knew about my Nigerian publisher, Mukta Bakaray, a remarkable man who
left his job in a bank to follow his dream and start a publishing
house? Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians don't read
literature. He disagreed. He felt that people who could read, would
read, if you made literature affordable and available to them.
Shortly after he published my first novel I went to
a TV station in Lagos to do an interview. And a woman who worked there
as a messenger came up to me and said, "I really liked your novel. I
didn't like the ending. Now you must write a sequel, and this is what
will happen ..." (Laughter) And she went on to tell me what to write in
the sequel. Now I was not only charmed, I was very moved. Here was a
woman, part of the ordinary masses of Nigerians, who were not supposed
to be readers. She had not only read the book, but she had taken
ownership of it and felt justified in telling me what to write in the
Now, what if my roommate knew about my
friend Fumi Onda, a fearless woman who hosts a TV show in Lagos, and is
determined to tell the stories that we prefer to forget? What if my
roommate knew about the heart procedure that was performed in the Lagos
hospital last week? What if my roommate knew about contemporary
Nigerian music? Talented people singing in English and Pidgin, and Igbo
and Yoruba and Ijo, mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley
to their grandfathers. What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer
who recently went to court in Nigeria to challenge a ridiculous law
that required women to get their husband's consent before renewing
their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of
innovative people making films despite great technical odds? Films so
popular that they really are the best example of Nigerians consuming
what they produce. What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully
ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business selling
hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians who start
businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition?
Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual
sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure,
our failed government. But also by the incredible resilience of people
who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it. I teach
writing workshops in Lagos every summer. And it is amazing to me how
many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories.
My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a
non-profit called Farafina Trust. And we have big dreams of building
libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist, and providing
books for state schools that don't have anything in their libraries,
and also of organizing lots and lots of workshops, in reading and
writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories.
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.
The American writer
Alice Walker wrote this about her southern relatives who had moved to
the north. She introduced them to a book about the southern life that
they had left behind. "They sat around, reading the book themselves,
listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained." I
would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single
story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any
place, we regain a kind of paradise. Thank you. (Applause)
Which is your favorite Psalm Sandy? I used to like Psalm 92 ... My grandmother made it mine in a dream of hers when I was a child ... and she insisted I read it at bedtime and on risising in the morning ... now I can recite with little thought ... Psalm 23 was her favorite ... haven't thought of this in decades ... thanks for bringing to mind a good memory Sandy ...
I have heard about her....but I dont like to read books...but she will convince me to start ready her books....because I always ..worried about Africa....And wish someday to win one million and bring the half to Africa...by myself.(Dream)