Thursday, October 15, 2015

Michele Hathaway on "The Single Story"

One of the things I love about World War II stories is how many of them there are--and how many continue to be written. As a child, some of my most memorable were Children of the Resistance,  Anne Frank (of course), and my absolute favorite, Snow Treasure; what child wouldn't want to smuggle gold bullion on a sled right under the noses of Nazis? In addition to books, there are dozens of films, produced both during and after WII: The Sound of Music still sings to us all.

 But what if we didn't have all those stories? What if we had only one? How could we begin to know anything about WWII through only one story?

 "The Danger of a Single Story"

In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian author, speaker, and teacher gave an excellent Ted Talk on "The Danger of a Single Story."  The single story, says Adichie, shows "people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become." As a middle-class child in Nigeria, she perceived her family's house boy, Fide, as poor, as having nothing. Then one day she went to visit Fide's family and discovered that although they were poor, his brother made beautiful raffia baskets. What she learned was that they worked hard and could create beautiful things. She no longer had a single story about Fide and about the poor. 

When Adichie went to college in the United States, she experienced the single story as her roommate applied it to her. Adichie says "She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me." Her roommate pitied her, expecting her English to be poor, her music to be tribal, and her knowledge of the world to be provincial and ignorant. I will not attempt to tell more of her honest and moving story here. I could not do it justice. I urge you to follow the link above and listen for yourself. The point is that,

"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."-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Limited Views

If you only had the photo on the left to go by, could you identify this mountain? You can probably tell that it is a volcano, and you might guess some of the more famous ones around the planet, but could you know for certain? Hold that thought. I'll come back to it.

If we only had one story about the Lakota, could we assume we know all about the rest of the North American Indians or even the rest of their related Sioux tribes? Ridiculous, right? There were hundreds of tribes at the time of the first European contact, and even if we had one story about each of them, we would still have a limited view of Native Americans in North America. For that, we would need stories from different periods of history, from female and male perspectives, from the young, the old, the middle-aged, from people with various roles, skills, and  experiences. The list goes on. 

First the Good News

What this means for historical fiction and writers of historical fiction is that there is a great need for more stories! We need stories written by people from around the world. We need them to be written for their own people, and we need them to be translated so others can read them. 

The Bad News

Right now, most of these stories are unwritten. For some topics, such as WWII and perhaps a few others such as the American Civil War, there are enough stories that we have a more accurate picture, but there are always more stories. 

Some Possibilities

Teachers: I would urge teachers to consider the danger of a single story and include multiple books and short stories into a unit of study. It may be better to read three books from different perspectives on a subject, than to read three books on three different subjects. If this is not feasible, perhaps summer reading could focus on one subject. In the classroom, perhaps students could work in teams, each reporting on a different story to their team. You'll know best how to plan. Be sure to request books from your school and public librarians! 

Librarians: Check your collection and try to add multiple books on the same period or country. I know collection size is limited, but larger library systems may be able to handle this, and even small libraries can specialize.

Parents: Suggest purchases to your school and public libraries when you find gaps. One of the things I love about my local public library is how open and responsive they are to patron requests. Try it!

If you guessed Mt. Fugi, you were right. The danger of the single story is a mountain to overcome, but the view is worth it.


  1. Excellent article, Michelle. And I'd like to echo your admiration of The Single Story TED talk. It's an important one for writers--and everyone.

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  3. Thank you, Stephanie. I agree that The Single Story TED talk is inspiring! Sometimes I wonder why it can take so long to find such a gem. I plan to expand on the topic more in my next post.