“How impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children,” says author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her powerful Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”
Adichie grew up in Nigeria, reading mainly stories about white children who ate apples and played in the snow, and believing that literature, by its very nature, must be about white people. She discusses how her discovery of African books lead to a dramatic shift in her perception of literature. Reading stories by Camara Laye and Chinua Achebe showed her that girls like her, girls from any culture, could be marvellous characters. That people might want to read her story, even though she was a “foreigner” to them. But she also discusses how, after moving to America, she discovered how negative “The African Story” was, and how the implications of that story affected her experience in North America.
Adichie’s discussion of the dangerous “single story,” the reoccurring subjects, tragedies, and tropes that are assigned to a particular culture over and over and over, reveals valuable insight for libraries. The ALA Library Bill of Rights states, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” Libraries have the responsibility to tell every story, and to represent every member of the community. Not only do libraries need to embrace multiculturalism, but they need to encourage and celebrate accurate multiculturalism.
How can library readers’ advisory services learn from “The Danger of a Single Story?”
- Librarians can make a point to find and read stories from other cultures that challenge the “single story.” Stories that seek to celebrate the culture, and portray the beautiful intricacies of the world. Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie’s 19 critically acclaimed literary works might be a good place to start.
- Librarians can construct advisory displays that contain stories from multiple cultures. Stories that are marvellous because of the way they are told, the fullness of the characters, and the culture they portray.
- Librarians can be conscious of the number of North American authors they promote compared to authors of other cultures. Librarians can make a note to integrate multicultural stories into every readers advisory tool they use – whether or not the theme of the week is “Multiculturalism.”
- Librarians can create read-alike advisory services centred around popular books that might fall under the “single story” danger, in order to direct readers towards a more accurate understanding of the culture. For example, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, although 3rd on the 2005 best sellers list, has been criticized for its thoroughly inaccurate depiction of Afghanistan history and culture. Books which share the appeal factors of realistic fiction, highly dramatic story lines, and have a Non-North American setting, but portray a fuller, single-story-shattering depiction of culture, could be added to a The Kite Runner read-alike service.
- Librarians could partner with local multicultural associations to discover emerging and popular authors, and to better understand the needs and interests of every member of their community.
Finding stories that challenge the perpetuation of “the single story” will require a lot of attention and work. One must first have an awareness of the reoccurring story and portrayal of a certain culture. But one must also have some sense of “the other side of the story,” before being able to identify fair alternatives to the single story. Collection Developers need to be deeply aware of emerging stories from other cultures – beyond what Oprah’s Book Club recommends.
The diversity of cultures makes this a difficult task, but also an exciting one. The awareness of librarians is the first step towards a culture of acceptance and understanding. It will be a slow process, but as Adichie says, “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” (Adichie).
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED Talk. July 2009. 18 minutes. Web.