Recently I re-watched a TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "The Danger of a Single Story." Although her talk was recorded over six years ago, I found her words to be urgent and relevant as ever. Adichie grew up in Nigeria, reading American and British children's books. When she started writing stories, they were similar to the kind of stories she read. Her characters were white, they drank ginger beer, and they played in the snow—all things that were outside of Adichie's own experience.
What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.*
There are so many important, necessary conversations going on in the publishing world—and particularly in the kid lit community—regarding diversity and representation of marginalized characters, voices, and authors. Adichie's talk is part of these conversations. Not only do we in the publishing world have a responsibility to represent diverse voices, we have a responsibility to present many diverse voices and many different stories. Otherwise, as Adichie warns, we may fall into the trap of the single story.
It is impossible to take about the single story without talking about power. . . . how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told—are really dependent on power.
Adichie explained a personal experience she’d had with the single story, when she’d showed up at college to find a roommate who was shocked that she could speak English so well, that she listened to Mariah Carey, and that she had used a stove before. Her roommate had a single story of all Africans, and from her perspective, there was no possibility that someone from Africa could be at all like her. The roommate’s single story of Adichie was a result of the single story of Africa she had heard from western literature. “Show a people as one thing . . . over and over again, and that is what they become,” Adichie says.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
Adichie offered another personal anecdote. When she was visiting a university, a college student once commented that it was too bad that men in Nigeria were like the abusive father character in her novel. She responded that she had just read American Psycho, and it was really too bad that all young Americans were serial killers. Of course, Adichie noted, she knew this not to be true because she did not have a single story of America.
The problem of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. . . . It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
In the publishing world, as we seek to represent and reflect the diversity that is our world, let us not forget Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s observations and reflections on the danger of a single story.
When we reject the single story . . . we regain a kind of paradise.
*All italicized sentences are attributed to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her TED Talk, "The Danger of the Single Story." Find the transcript here.
— Eliza Leahy, Associate Editor