"Many Stories Matter"
I won’t summarise her talk which can be found here.
Regardless, my single story until I discovered writers like R K Narayan, Mohsin Hamid and Adichie, no less, was a story that I had nothing to do with. These stories of mine remained incomplete because there was nothing I could give to them, nothing to make them my own. I was retelling Enid’s stories, which were magical because they were about her world. She had something to give to her tales of children climbing trees and playing with dogs because they formed some part of her life.
Now, when I long for my childhood home, a town-house in the bustling Chennai in South India, I narrate tales of roof terraces, of flowers showering our garden and picking them before school, of mango trees with branches invading our balcony, of playing cricket on the streets, of power-cuts and singing in the dark. And of goats in auto-rickshaws.
For there is some truth in that single story. That’s how it came to be that single story. And this is why I think Adichie isn’t quite right. It isn’t really about telling many stories; it’s about listening to them. Take any tale, or mine, by way of example: if, when you hear ‘mango’, ‘cricket’, ‘power-cut’, you see a caricature of a country or a culture, the story has failed you. Or rather, you have failed the story. You haven’t listened to the story. You’ve heard what you thought you heard that confirmed what you thought you knew.
Because, I guess, stories aren’t about how different we all are. They are about how similar we all are. In relating to a character from an entirely different world we recognise the common humanity (as John Finnis would have put it!) that runs through our lives, weaving us together in its golden thread. And that is why I think that many stories may be told, but if what they are saying is misheard or not heard at all, then we run the risk of confirming a stereotype with several stories – almost evidencing that stereotype. A brilliant storyteller, like Adichie, will make even the most begrudging audience realise this commonality by powerfully narrating a single story in a way that forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of her characters. A single story, then, is enough if it urges the listener to see how similar we all are, despite our many indisputable differences.
The danger of a single story is very real. But the danger of mishearing the many stories is no less potent.