My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in "India, Africa and other countries." So, after I had spent some years in the U. as an African, I began to understand my roommate's response to me.
In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.
I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide's family. at the time was tense, and there were debates going on about immigration.
This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. And, as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans.
Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Lok, who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border, that sort of thing. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant.
After referring to the black Africans as "beasts who have no houses," he writes, "They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts." Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are "half devil, half child." And so, I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not "authentically African." Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.
I told him that I had just read a novel called "American Psycho" — But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans.
This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America.
I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.
Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African.
So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children's books.
I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.