I'm posting here my exam presentation in Global Literature 2012. It's been a hard assignment to write, but I would do it again any day! I have learned so much!
The dangers of a single story with a starting point in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun
The dangers of a single story with a starting point in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun
This is my definition of the single story.
“One narrative or recollection of historic facts, one comment upon a serious matter, one fictional literary work, upon which we base our whole opinion, not seen in context with a variety of literature or comments on the same subject, leaving the reader unable to form an educated opinion (but not stopping the reader from forming and voicing that given opinion).”
The Nigerian novel, Half Of A Yellow Sun, is a narrative depicting the horrors of the Biafra-Nigerian war, 1967-1970.
Getting immensely caught up in the suspense of the story is incredibly easy as it is a fictional novel diving deep into sordid details of wildly and accurately accounted for historic events.
Some of the characters with historic significance are identical, such as political leaders etc. But the protagonists of the novel are purely fictional, and are based upon and or dedicated to people who lived and died, or lived and survived the war.
Apart from one of the protagonists, probably the true narrator of the story, Ugwu, the characters in this novel are academics from the middle class, leading normal everyday lives in the small Nigerian University town of Nsukka. It’s a town about to face the challenges and the atrocities of war, blockade and violent starvation, awakening the press sending images of starving children across the world.
It is a bit challenging looking at the story from the middle class’s point of view because this forces the reader to stretch their image of the authentic African protagonist.
This is the first snare in the dangers of a single story.
When reading any story we should be perfectly able to imagine characters like us, living lives such as ours, searching for importance and knowledge such as ourselves, and in imagining so, we should be able to think this is normal. We should be able to think this is the normal way of existence. That this is the way our protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, actually live their lives.
However, when imagining characters form the African continent, when asking almost anyone, the stereotype will emerge:
The starving African child, the ones dying from AIDS, or the savage dancing naked and frenetically around a ritualistic fire, hypnotized by the suggestive drums.
All stereotypes inhumed and stripped of anything but the blasé and hollow notions they are left representing. Not one of us manages to see the human being behind these pictures or images flashing across various screens.
A powerful image from the book describing this is when Olanna stands in line to get charity food for Baby.
So when a novel from Africa, by an African author, is about everyday people worrying about everyday problems, learning, loving and living, the authenticity has to be and will be scrutinized.
The Media has an awful lot to answer to here. Any switched on screen is portraying the stereotypical image every single day. If we forget to be mindful, if we forget to make up our own individual opinion, we will fall into the trap of believing authorities and the media as the one truth. “It’s inevitable.” (Matrix)
Most of, and probably more than most of, the socially acceptable misunderstandings has their origin in documents, articles, news, interviews etc. This leaves it up to the single person to sort out the single story.
Considering refugees; how anyone in their rightful mind can think that it’s ok to be a high school kid thousands of miles from a family that’s no longer alive, alone in a strange and cold country with no social safety, no comfort… and then be expected to bow in gratitude for the lovely that is charity… How anyone can believe that this is preferred over “Safe and Sound Off The Ground” (Marillion) in your own life, in your own home, in your country, is completely beyond me.
I am presenting a generalized view here, fully aware that some of us manages to peak behind that constructed veil of “Truth” and “Knowledge”. But the fact remains, as a common race we tend to think with a single consciousness believing what the authorities tells us.
I believe we are all responsible for questioning and researching “truth”. I also believe we should be able to imagine normality in any parts of the world. Normality to people will exist where there are people.
When Adichie published her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus”, her professor at Johns Hopkins told her that it did not come across as authentically African as the characters were educated and from the middle class. The were even driving cars…
This was a professor at a university, and he was unable to think outside the so-called box. And when academic authorities such as that can’t manage to break free from hundreds of years worth of miscomprehensions and colonisation of the mind, how can we be expected to convey understanding and broaden the minds of the man in the street?
Global literature has served as a major eye-opener for me.
According to Said the west created The Orient through an image of what it would be like, and if there’s truth to this, then we also created “The Other”.
“Other”, in reference to what?
“Other” in reference to personal experiences, or “Other” in reference to the European/Western society’s perception of reality.
If we look at “The Other” from a personal view, every single soul on the face of the earth will end up distinguished and separated from one another, as anyone not “ME” will be “An Other”.
But if we look at this from a world-view perspective, The West vs. The Rest, then the problematization becomes a different one entirely.
Europeans, and later Americans, set out to colonise the world. At first this might have been an enterprise with a philanthropically goal.
Because the Europeans were the first to define what truth and knowledge were, and also the first to define what important truths and knowledge were, they could easily argue their case. Though arguing through violence and suppression most of the time was the universal language of colonisation.
The philanthropic view is not what we use to describe hundreds of years of colonisation, as we see today the negative repercussions with countries left “Scattered, divided, leaderless” (Elrond from Lord of the Rings, Tolkien), and at the mercy piracy and anarchy.
Colonised countries are increasingly critical to the complete lack of respect for their native cultures and languages, left feeling their native history has been wiped off the sheets of the books completely. Now the literary elite of the colonised world is rising and de-colonising the mind. But to achieve this, a serious de-colonisation of the world will have to occur. This is because the colonisation process has worked both ways. The colonisers have been colonised in return, taken on new truths and new knowledge from all the “Dark Continents” of the world.
And some of us even feel a sense of guilt when thinking about the atrocities the colonies has been put through over the centuries. This quote does in a humoristic way describe The Other side of this.
“A guard was sitting on it, smoking a cigarette. He was black. Newt always felt guilty in the presence of black Americans, in case they blamed him for two hundred years of slave trading.” (Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman).
One of the three protagonists from Half Of A Yellow Sun, the English writer, Richard, is in Africa with a desire to tell Africa’s story as it truly and honestly is. He wishes to tell the brutal truth about the Igbo and about the Africa he so desperately and apparently loves. He ends up crash landing in the single story, completely unable to convey even that single story. His aim and starting point is a philanthropic one, but it fails him. He’s not in possession of historic knowledge and truth.
He’s not a native.
And though he speaks the language, both his Nigerian girlfriend and the society he lives in ridicule him for his lack of knowledge. He ends up as a symbol describing the western fog of ignorance, and is silenced, leaving the storytelling to the native.
Throughout the story we get a feeling that “The World Was Silent When We Died” is penned by Richard, however, the story has to be and is told by Ugwu.
Through a tragedy look-alike Adichie depicts a beautiful narrative about life. The story embodies a few of the classic tragedy features. We find characters with a growing dramatic flaw, and many of these characters are experiencing a downward spiral as the story unfolds. But people being people, having good and bad days, doing good and bad things to one another, does not make them into the tragedy’s scapegoat. The war itself becomes a character, the one embodying all the dramatic flaws, and the one sacrificed to reach catharsis.
I do, in fact, get a strong sense of catharsis in the end, even though the story is unresolved. The trials of our characters are basically over. Now life continues, slowly returning them to normality. The sense of loss is cataclysmic.
They have lost loved ones. They have lost dignity. They have lost possessions and social standings. Some of them lost themselves. Some of them found themselves. The feeling of life continuing in spite of horrible drama functions as my catharsis, making the tragedy look-alike apply.
Reading the story one gets a feeling of what it would have been like in this war, but we get this feeling from the middle class’s point of view. And this is still only one story depicting war and wrath, love and life.
But however brilliantly written, this is just one story.
The author has a struggle with the single story within her novel as well. She is from the middle class, and her family encouraged education and acquiring knowledge. She also comes from a family able to afford sending their children abroad to get their deserved and desired education. So how can she properly depict poverty and struggle when she herself never lived it?
And though Half Of A Yellow Sun comes off as incredibly credible, again, this is only one story.
Still, having read it, I can’t help thinking that this is what it must have been like. And having said that, I need to correct myself. This is what it must have been like to the people who started out having money and position. And…having said that, I am now basing my entire understanding of the Biafran war on this single narrative.
I’m not alone in doing this. Within any country people suffer from thousands of miscomprehensions every single day. And this is not only when talking about literature.
Someone must, at one point, having been the first to claim that the foreigners come to our country stealing our jobs. This, to some parts of the population, is an undeniable truth.
Though the truth-part to this statement is less than zero, this gives a very comprehensible example of how trusting the single story is an easy mistake to make. We tend to believe what we’re told. And when someone tells us something, positively wrong, enough times, the statement will emerge as the truth no matter how derived it started out.
“The hollow man has got you long before you realize” (Marillion)
Decolonisation of the mind is one of our biggest challenges.
Even today we see a Victorian attitude towards colonisation. Comments such as “They weren’t ready, but they needed it” are used to justify the reasons for colonisation. Even today, when America marches in to Afghanistan and Iraq, expecting a democracy waiting as soon as they kill the corrupted leaders, and actually expressing surprise when this reality fails to present itself, tells me that this is a question still very relevant.
I had a conversation with a man twice my age, somewhat of a globetrotter. He has lived in Asia, America and also Africa, and from the single story’s point of view I trusted that this man knew what he was talking about.
I was telling him about the course I’ve taken in Global Literature. I sunk into a monologue kind of dialogue, maybe even a dramatic monologue…where I told him about all the mistakes the western world has made in the name of colonisation and greed. I continued telling him about how colonisation has stripped millions of their history, and how they are now trying to rise from this systematic mental rape, also known as epistemic violence.
His reply was this:
“Well, I guess THEY weren’t ready for it yet. THEY weren’t ready to fully accept and appreciate the culture and knowledge we had to offer.” (Man, anonymized for his own safety…)
And this reply completely floored me.
This is still very much happening around the world.
And my questions were these, who are THEY?
Are THEY the OTHERS?
Have we moved no further than “the horror” of Heart of Darkness?
We’re still placing our western values, our western history, our western culture, above that which we do not fully understand. We still consider tribal behaviour strange. At best we find it excitingly exotic!
“The dangers of a single story” is still fierce and still a topic for further discussions. Actually it’s still a topic in great need of discussions and further enlightenment.
The novel is extremely well written, and the sincerity and seriousness of it is breathtakingly heart braking and painfully beautiful. And as far as the single story is concerned, I’m convinced this particular narrative conveys an awful lot of truth…
“See the lies behind our eyes, see the will to win” (Marillion)
Sources of information
Janne Stigen Drangsholt - Lectures on British and Global literature
Heidi Silje Moen - Lectures on American and Global literature.
Brita Strand Rangnes - Lectures on British and Global literature
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun (novel)
Edward W. Said - Introduction to Orientalism
Joseph Conrad - Heart of Darkness (novella)
Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart (novel)
Olive Senior - Colonial Girl’s School (poetry)
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman - Good Omens (novel)
The Wachowski brothers
J. R. R. Tolkien - Silmarillion and Lord of The Rings (novels)
T. S. Eliot - Hollow Men (poetry)
The inspiration, music and lyrics of Marillion - “Hollow Man” “Go!” “Happiness is the Road” (song lyrics/poetry)