Im a narrator. And I would wish to state you a few personal narratives about what I like to name “ the danger of the individual narrative. ” I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My female parent says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is likely near to the truth. So I was an early reader. And what I read were British and American kids ‘s books.
I was besides an early author. And when I began to compose, at about the age of seven, narratives in pencil with crayon illustrations that my hapless female parent was obligated to read, I wrote precisely the sorts of narratives I was reading. All my characters were white and fair-haired. They played in the snow. They ate apples. ( Laughter ) And they talked a batch about the conditions, how lovely it was that the Sun had come out. ( Laughter ) Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had ne’er been outside Nigeria. We did n’t hold snow. We ate Mangifera indicas. And we ne’er talked about the conditions, because there was no demand to.
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My characters besides drank a batch of ginger beer because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no thought what ginger beer was. ( Laughter ) And for many old ages afterwards, I would hold a despairing desire to savor ginger beer. But that is another narrative.
What this demonstrates, I think, is how waxy and vulnerable we are in the face of a narrative, peculiarly as kids. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become positive that books, by their very nature, had to hold aliens in them, and had to be about things with which I could non personally place. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There were n’t many of them available. And they were n’t rather as easy to happen as the foreign books.
But because of authors like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental displacement in my perceptual experience of literature. I realized that people like me, misss with skin the colour of cocoa, whose kinky hair could non organize ponytails, could besides be in literature. I started to compose about things I recognized.
Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imaginativeness. They opened up new universes for me. But the unintended effect was that I did non cognize that people like me could be in literature. So what the find of African authors did for me was this: It saved me from holding a individual narrative of what books are.
I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian household. My male parent was a professor. My female parent was an decision maker. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic aid, who would frequently come from nearby rural small towns. So the twelvemonth I turned eight we got a new house male child. His name was Fide. The lone thing my female parent told us about him was that his household was really hapless. My female parent sent yams and rice, and our old apparels, to his household. And when I did n’t complete my dinner my female parent would state, “ Complete your nutrient! Do n’t you cognize? Peoples like Fide ‘s household have nil. ” So I felt tremendous commiseration for Fide ‘s household.
Then one Saturday we went to his small town to see. And his female parent showed us a attractively patterned basket, made of bleached raphia, that his brother had made. I was startled. It had non occurred to me that anybody in his household could really do something. All I had heard about them is how hapless they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but hapless. Their poorness was my individual narrative of them.
Old ages subsequently, I thought approximately this when I left Nigeria to travel to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roomie was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to talk English so good, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to hold English as its official linguistic communication. She asked if she could name to what she called my “ tribal music, ” and was accordingly really dissapointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. ( Laughter ) She assumed that I did non cognize how to utilize a range.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default place toward me, as an African, was a sort of patronizing, well-meaning, commiseration. My roomie had a individual narrative of Africa. A individual narrative of calamity. In this individual narrative there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any manner. No possibility of feelings more complex than commiseration. No possibility of a connexion as human peers.
I must state that earlier I went to the U.S. I did n’t consciously place as African. But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nil about topographic points like Namibia. But I did come to encompass this new individuality. And in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still acquire rather cranky when Africa is referred to as a state. The most recent illustration being my otherwise fantastic flight from Lagos two yearss ago, in which there was an proclamation on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “ India, Africa and other states. ” ( Laughter )
So after I had spent some old ages in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roomie ‘s response to me. If I had non grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I excessively would believe that Africa was a topographic point of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animate beings, and inexplicable people, contending senseless wars, deceasing of poorness and AIDS, unable to talk for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a sort, white alien. I would see Africans in the same manner that I, as a kid, had seen Fide ‘s household.
This individual narrative of Africa finally comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quotation mark from the authorship of a London merchandiser called John Locke, who sailed to west Africa in 1561, and kept a absorbing history of his ocean trip. After mentioning to the black Africans as “ animals who have no houses, ” he writes, “ They are besides people without caputs, holding their oral cavity and eyes in their chests. ”
Now, I ‘ve laughed every clip I ‘ve read this. And one must look up to the imaginativeness of John Locke. But what is of import about his authorship is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of stating African narratives in the West. A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a topographic point of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the fantastic poet, Rudyard Kipling, are “ half Satan, half kid. ”
And so I began to recognize that my American roomie must hold, throughout her life, seen and heard different versions of this individual narrative, as had a professor, who one time told me that my novel was non “ genuinely African. ” Now, I was rather willing to postulate that there were a figure of things incorrect with the novel, that it had failed in a figure of topographic points. But I had non rather imagined that it had failed at accomplishing something called African genuineness. In fact I did non cognize what African genuineness was. The professor told me that my characters were excessively much like him, an educated and middle-class adult male. My characters drove autos. They were non hungering. Therefore they were non genuinely African.
But I must rapidly add that I excessively am merely as guilty in the inquiry of the individual narrative. A few old ages ago, I visited Mexico from the U.S. The political clime in the U.S. at the clip, was tense. And there were arguments traveling on about in-migration. And, every bit frequently happens in America, in-migration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were eternal narratives of Mexicans as people who were overcharging the health care system, mousing across the boundary line, being arrested at the boundary line, that kind of thing.
I remember walking about on my first twenty-four hours in Guadalajara, watching the people traveling to work, turn overing up tortillas in the market place, smoke, express joying. I remember first feeling little surprise. And so 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 head, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the individual narrative of Mexicans and I could non hold been more ashamed of myself. So that is how to make a individual narrative, demo a people as one thing, as merely one thing, over and over once more, and that is what they become.
It is impossible to speak about the individual narrative without speaking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power constructions of the universe, and it is “ nkali. ” It ‘s a noun that slackly translates to “ to be greater than another. ” Like our economic and political universes, narratives excessively are defined by the rule of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they ‘re told, how many narratives are told, are truly dependent on power.
Power is the ability non merely to state the narrative of another individual, but to do it the unequivocal narrative of that individual. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest manner to make it is to state their narrative, and to get down with, “ secondly. ” Start the narrative with the pointers of the Native Americans, and non with the reaching of the British, and you have and wholly different narrative. Get down the narrative with the failure of the African province, and non with the colonial creative activity of the African province, and you have an wholly different narrative.
I late spoke at a university where a pupil told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian work forces were physical maltreaters like the male parent character in my novel. I told him that I had merely read a novel called “ American Psycho ” — ( Laughter ) — and that it was such a shame that immature Americans were consecutive liquidators. ( Laughter ) ( Applause ) Now, evidently I said this in a tantrum of mild annoyance. ( Laughter )
I would ne’er hold occurred to me to believe that merely because I had read a novel in which a character was a consecutive slayer that he was someway representative of all Americans. And now, this is non because I am a better individual than that pupil, but, because of America ‘s cultural and economic power, I had many narratives of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did non hold a individual narrative of America.
When I learned, some old ages ago, that authors were expected to hold had truly unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to believe about how I could contrive atrocious things my parents had done to me. ( Laughter ) But the truth is that I had a really happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a really closely knit household.
But I besides had grampss who died in refugee cantonments. My cousin Polle died because he could non acquire equal health care. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane clang because our firetrucks did non hold H2O. I grew up under inhibitory military authoritiess that devalued instruction, so that sometimes my parents were non paid their wages. And so, as a kid, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast tabular array, so oleo disappeared, so bread became excessively expensive, so milk became rationed. And most of all, a sort of normalized political fright invaded our lives.
All of these narratives make me who I am. But to take a firm stand on merely these negative narratives is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other narratives that formed me. The individual narrative creates stereotypes. And the job with stereotypes is non that they are untrue, but that they are uncomplete. They make one narrative go the lone narrative.
Of class, Africa is a continent full of calamities. There are huge 1s, such as the horrific rapes in Congo. And dejecting 1s, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one occupation vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other narratives that are non about calamity. And it is really of import, it is merely every bit of import, to speak about them.
I ‘ve ever felt that it is impossible to prosecute decently with a topographic point or a individual without prosecuting with all of the narratives of that topographic point and that individual. The effect of the individual narrative is this: It robs people of self-respect. It makes our acknowledgment of our equal humanity hard. It emphasizes how we are different instead than how we are similar.
So what if before my Mexican trip I had followed the in-migration argument from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if my female parent had told us that Fide ‘s household was hapless and hardworking? What if we had an African telecasting web that broadcast diverse African narratives all over the universe? What the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe calls “ a balance of narratives. ”
What if my roomie knew about my Nigerian publishing house, Mukta Bakaray, a singular adult male who left his occupation in a bank to follow his dream and get down a publication house? Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians do n’t read literature. He disagreed. He felt that people who could read, would read, if you made literature low-cost and available to them.
Shortly after he published my first novel I went to a Television station in Lagos to make an interview. And a adult female who worked at that place as a courier came up to me and said, “ I truly liked your novel. I did n’t like the stoping. Now you must compose a subsequence, and this is what will go on… ” ( Laughter ) And she went on to state me what to compose in the subsequence. Now I was non merely charmed, I was really moved. Here was a adult female, portion of the ordinary multitudes of Nigerians, who were non supposed to be readers. She had non merely read the book, but she had taken ownership of it and felt justified in stating me what to compose in the subsequence.
Now, what if my roomie knew about my friend Fumi Onda, a unafraid adult female who hosts a Television show in Lagos, and is determined to state the narratives that we prefer to bury? What if my roomie knew about the bosom process that was performed in the Lagos infirmary last hebdomad? What if my roomie knew about modern-day Nigerian music? Talented people singing in English and Pidgin, and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo, blending influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley to their grampss. What if my roomie knew about the female attorney who late went to tribunal in Nigeria to dispute a pathetic jurisprudence that required adult females to acquire their hubby ‘s consent before regenerating their passports? What if my roomie knew about Nollywood, full of advanced people doing movies despite great proficient odds? Films so popular that they truly are the best illustration of Nigerians devouring what they produce. What if my roomie knew about my wondrous ambitious hair braider, who has merely started her ain concern selling hair extensions? Or about the 1000000s of other Nigerians who start concerns and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse aspiration?
Every clip I am place I am confronted with the usual beginnings of annoyance for most Nigerians: our failed substructure, our failed authorities. But besides by the unbelievable resiliency of people who thrive despite the authorities, instead than because of it. I teach composing workshops in Lagos every summer. And it is astonishing to me how many people apply, how many people are eager to compose, to state narratives.
My Nigerian publishing house and I have merely started a non-profit called Farafina Trust. And we have large dreams of edifice libraries and renovating libraries that already exist, and supplying books for province schools that do n’t hold anything in their libraries, and besides of forming tonss and tonss of workshops, in reading and authorship, for all the people who are eager to state our many narratives. Narratives matter. Many narratives matter. Narratives have been used to dispossess and to badmouth. But narratives can besides be used to authorise, and to humanise. Narratives can interrupt the self-respect of a people. But narratives can besides mend that broken self-respect.
The American author Alice Walker wrote this about her southern relations 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 sort of Eden was regained. ” I would wish to stop with this idea: That when we reject the individual narrative, when we realize that there is ne’er a individual narrative about any topographic point, we regain a sort of Eden. Thank you. ( Applause )