The Sydney Writer’s Festival was officially launched last night by Nigerian star-on-the-rise, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie burst onto the international literary scene with her first novel Purple Hibiscus before winning the Orange Prize for her second book, Half of a Yellow Sun. Her latest work, That Thing Around Your Neck, is a collection of short stories exploring various Nigerian lives, both in their native country and abroad in the USA, where Adichie herself now resides.
For many readers, Adichie’s books have been their first introduction to African literature (by this I mean African stories written by African authors, rather than stories written about Africa by western authors for western audiences) and one of the responses that surprised Chimamanda is the assertion that her characters and their lives were somehow not ‘authentically African’. This was in fact the phrase used by an American Professor in criticism of Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel ostensibly dealing with Biafra, the Nigerian Civil War that claimed both of her grandfathers and had a lasting impact on all Nigerian families. Leaving aside the larger question of whether there even is such a thing as an authentic African story (or American, or Australian for that matter), we must explicitly ask how an educated man could make such an absurd remark.
That kind of arrogance can only be born from certainty, a firm confidence about the ‘true’ nature of Africa, its people and their story. And there, lying limply and unobtrusively at the end of the sentence, is our answer: ‘their story’. Uncounted lives huddled (bundled?) together under a single, catch-all African narrative, like so many starving children and only one blanket. Would this same professor offer a similar critique to a US born author writing about their home town? Or would he unconsciously swap definitive articles from ‘the’ to ‘an’: another American story? Why are westerners granted the right to their own story while a Nigerian must conform to some artificial concept of ‘Africaness’.
This was the focus of Adichie’s speech–the danger of the single narrative and the vital importance of multiple stories in humanising the Other(s). The prevailing image of Africa today, according to Adichie, is of a poverty-stricken, war-torn continent of safari animals and HIV infected tribesman, dependent upon the charity and guiding hand of the West. This, at least, is the picture one would be expected to form if their only information about Africa was received through the modern media. News headlines rarely mention Africa outside the context of war, famine or foreign aid. Even well meaning aid agencies contribute to the de-humanising image by filming white celebrities rescuing starving children in impoverished villages.
This is not to say that war and famine aren’t a part of the stories of many African people or that those aid agencies and their celebrity benefactors aren’t doing incredibly worthwhile and commendable work. But this is only part of African life and we are fooling ourselves if we believe we can make claims to ‘African authenticity’ on this basis. This is not a problem limited to Africa. Adichie admitted falling into the single story trap herself in relation to Mexico. It was only upon visiting the country itself that she realised how much the heightened political rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate in America had shaped her own conception of the Mexican people. She was disgusted with herself for being guilty of the same stereotyping that she had been so critical of.
This problem has serious consequences in a globally connected world. The US media rebuked many foreign countries for their lack of public sympathy after 9/11, but much larger terrorist attacks in Rwanda, Sudan and several other African nations rarely see the front page of western newspapers. While we blanket almost the entire continent under a single story, each new atrocity or natural disaster is disregarded as so much old news, regardless of nation, political history or race – unless, that is, white people are involved (South Africa and Zimbabwe for example).
The best way to break out of the single story trap is of course travel, but this is obviously not a particularly practical solution. The next best thing, asserted Adichie last night, was reading. Stories allow us to live in the bodies of other people and witness the shared humanity that binds all of us together. Writer’s Festivals like the SWF are events that celebrate the multiplicity of stories in our world and the humanising they have. It was a simple but clear message but it is easy to take for granted in Australia the privilege not only to tell our own story, but also to live out that story the way we choose. Our stories are precious things and control over our own story is possibly the most powerful tool of freedom we possess. It’s worth remembering.