It’s thanks to Rich Pollett on Google+ that I watched the TED talk given by novelist Chimamanda Adichie. It is an eloquent and moving account of the power of stories.
Adichie sets the scene by illustrating the power of stories in her childhood:-
I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books. I was also an early writer, and when I began to write at about the age of seven…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, and they talked about the weather and how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now this, despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria – 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.
What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of stories, particularly as children.
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 books are.
She goes on to describe how stories have a powerful effect on how we see others:-
[An American] professor 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 in 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 authentically African.
Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity; it makes our recognition of an equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. When we reject the single story; when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
For me, this is a beautiful description, and one which goes some way to explaining why I think cinema – that is, a diverse cinema which reflects the experiences of people from all corners of the world, from every walk of life – is such a potentially important, enriching, enlightening, and empowering force. If, for example, you have seen the films of Abbas Kiarostami, or Asghar Farhadi’s recent A Separation, it is difficult to read or view news reports about Iran in quite the same way; to interpret these reports without being reminded of the humanity of Kiarostami’s and Farhadi’s characters, to be reminded of the many people just like us who are going about their daily lives in that country.
We are reminded of our ‘equal humanity’.