This blog reflects on the dangers of becoming trapped in the single story. This is a ubiquitous risk. From getting trapped in our personal history, to the dangers inherent in how media shape messages for our consumption, we all need the inoculation that a multiplicity of diverse and contradictory stories bring.
“Show a people as only one thing, over and over again and they become that one thing.”
These are the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist who has dedicated herself to writing about the many stories of her life; her country and her continent. Her newest book, The Thing Around Your Neck, is a brilliant collection of stories about Nigerians struggling to cope within a corrupted context in their home country, and about the Nigerian immigrant experience.
“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.”
Adichie in her TED talk, which you can listen to here, remarks that:
“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 a lot about the weather: ‘how lovely it was that the sun had come out’. This despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria; we didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.”
In much the same way, when it comes to the stories of disability and mental health challenges or recovery from addiction or for people in (or with experience of) prison, there is a lot of stereotyping. A single story dominates: one of deficit and dependency on professional services.
When we take care to ask people what a good life might look like and invite them to share their stories of how their good life has previously manifested in their lives, a fuller truth is revealed. None of them are single stories, none of them stereotype, or diagnose, or fix. They are in sum, the human story, we understand them because of our shared humanity….
Adichie rightly points out that:
“How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power.”
To illustrate this point further she notes:
“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.”
Similarly when we only hear, record, and tell the single story of people living with disability or mental health challenges for example, and we talk only about need for services and peoples deficits, we take power and dignity away from the people we serve and or love, and we also diminish ourselves. This is exactly what we are working with the Barnwood Trust to mitigate.
Jubilant Stories like this one matter:
“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.”
These stories have tremendous power, in that they testify to the fact that hospitality does indeed exist throughout the county. But they also lay down a challenge to us, to create even greater hospitality, and to set our face against exclusion. They invite us to step over our stereotypes and societal imposed thresholds, to expand our repertoire of stories by coming closer to people with disabilities and mental health challenges or with experiences of addiction or prison. And to listen more carefully and invite more heartily their stories, gifts and dreams into our lives. When we become a character in their Jubilant Story, and they in ours, we will discover the real meaning of community and be all the better for it.