I recently finished the novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was introduced to Adichie when I came across one of her lectures, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Purple Hibiscus follows the life of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old living in Nigeria. The novel describes Kambili’s relationship with her family and friends and how the overall political/social state of Nigeria influences their existence. I found the novel beautifully descriptive, interesting, and complex. Adichie was able to describe historically rooted layers of power, while intertwining them in the everyday experience of a fifteen-year-old female. This novel was Adichie’s first, and received excellent reviews. One of the reasons the novel received such positive attention was that it created a complex narrative of Nigerian people. Rather than focusing solely on the disparity in the country, it illustrated that, just like families from other regions, Kambili’s Nigerian family had a loving, tumultuous, and contradictory relationship.
A review from the Boston Globe proclaims: “Adichie’s understanding of a young girl’s heart is so acute that her story ultimately rises above its setting and makes her little part of Nigeria seem as close and vivid as Eudora Welty’s Mississippi.”
This review helps to outline how welcomed Adichie’s ability to convey such an identifiable narrative is by an audience that so often receives only a single narrative about African nations.
In her lecture “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie eloquently addresses the single narrative that Africans and North Americans have been receiving of “Africa.” Adichie recalls how reading British and American novels in her childhood subsequently shaped her own writing and made her believe people like her (Africans) could not exist in literature. She also discusses the single story of “poverty,” which resulted in her American roommates’ surprise at Adichie’s ability to speak English and the non-tribal music she listened to.
This single story that Adichie discusses is extremely relevant when reviewing North American ideas of “development.” The single form of “development” recognized in North America is often the idea that “the First World helps the Third World.” Adichie’s lecture speaks to this point, as she outlines how power relations and complex narratives are intertwined. While Adichie read complex stories about American and British individuals, western individuals rarely read complex stories about Africans.
She illustrates this point with the story of a student who came to her and said, “It was such a shame that Nigerian men were all physical abusers like the father in your novel.”
Adichie responded that she had just read a novel called American Psycho and that “it was such a shame that young Americans were all serial murderers.”
Adichie goes on to explain that she would never have thought one character from an American novel would define an entire population, because she had read a variety of American novels, with a variety of complex characters. The student, however, had rarely come in contact with complex narratives about Africans. Adichie claims her familiarity with American stories is related to America’s position of power in the world and ability to spread their stories/cultural products. She outlines that, in contrast to these complex American stories, narratives about Africans that North Americans receive focus only on poverty and catastrophe.
This single narrative is difficult to dispute when reviewing Africa in North American news coverage, documentaries, best sellers, etc. Adichie contends: “Show a people as one thing over and over again and they become it.” North Americans’ understanding of individuals in the “Third World” has been shaped by this single story of poverty/chaos and, consequently, so too have our understandings of methods of development. If all we see are images and stories of poor, helpless, and dying people in the “Third World,” then of course we are going to understand in our position as a monetarily wealthy nation that we should help them. Like Adichie, I do not believe the answer is denying stories of poverty and death in the “Third World,” but creating a more complex understanding and thus hopefully influencing ideas of development. I hope that with more complex narratives about the “Third World,” more complex methods of development will follow.
I highly recommend watching the entire video of Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” if you have not already done so.