Chimamanda Adichie and the Dangers of Telling a Single Story

Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, nonfiction writer, and short story writer, spoke at a TED Talks about “The Dangers of a Single Story”. Culture and societies are built off of the stories humans create through their observations and judgments – Humans are constantly scanning their surroundings for stories to tell. In fact, societies are constantly trying to organize and categorize particular groups of people: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Adichie first discovered the dangers of telling a single story when she was a young girl reading Western literature. Whenever Adichie would try and write novels, they would always emulate the western novels she read: “all of my characters were white and blue eyed. They played in the snow, ate apples…and drank ginger beer”. This all happened despite the fact that Adichie lived in Nigeria and had never even knew what ginger beer was. Adichie demonstrated how “impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children”. After finally discovering African literature, Adichie was able to see that an African girl like her “with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.” However, single stories are not just contained within literature. Years later, Adichie discovered how a single story could impact a country, culture, or a group of people. When visiting Mexico, the U.S political climate was tensely focused on the negative impacts of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S boarder. The mainstream media only showed one story of Mexico, and so when Adichie first visited Guadalajara she walked the streets “watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame.” She had immersed herself in American media that she had seen Mexicans as only the abject immigrant.

Stories are always connected and defined by the power behind the stories being told: “power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” A Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti stated that “if you want to disposes a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.’” If you “start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, then you have an entirely different story. Begin a story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” The power and influence of the West is what led to Adichie having access to reading so many western novels. The influence of America is what led to Adichie buying into what mainstream media said about Mexico and its people. However, we decide what we give power to. Cultures and societies are constructed by humans that are living within them today. Decades from now, the societies and cultures of those in the future will be based upon what the people of today decide to pass down to the children of tomorrow.

When the media, literature, films, and TV shows try to sell a single story, there must be resistance as seen by Adichie. Question what story these story tellers are trying to sell you, and more importantly, how these stories are changing your perspective of a group of people. As mentioned above, single stories are meant to divide people as well as categorize them into groups. These stories shape our ideologies and shift our mindsets to only see people as having one story. The danger of a single story is that “it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” However, the great thing about stories is that they can always be re-written, altered, and very possibly have new endings.

Author bio: Idil Dahir

Idil Dahir is a freelance writer and editor living in Toronto, Ontario. She is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto in which she completed a specialist program in English. Idil enjoys everything from Films, TV Shows, Sports, Novels, and Comic Books. She is currently working on her fantasy novel as well as her freelance work. If you would like to contact Idil you can reach her at: