My Cultural Voice — The Danger of the Single Story for the Identity Adventurer

31 05 2010

©May 2010 by Fabienne Lopez

One of the reasons I blog is that Astrology Unboxed helps me find my own voice. Something that is hard to hear when you have multiple cultural voices. Being multicultural (French, American and Brazilian) felt to me a good conversation piece at a cocktail party but not something you really were proud of. I felt too rootless to really enjoy it as an added benefit of who I am. However this week, I was reminded that our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.

I listened to a speech that Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, presented at the last TED conference [link to this speech?]. Her speech tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns that if we hear only a single story (a cultural story that excludes any other) about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”

The content of her presentation made me stop and reconsider my own cultural background. I strongly related to what Adichie had to say. Her story seemed to run parallel to mine, different starting point  but same result, different backgrounds but same effects. We both grew up believing there was only one story of whom we were.

Chimamanda Adichie grew up reading British and American childhood books and colored according to the books she read, both in her perception and in her drawings.

I am a multicultural child. Born and raised in Brazil from an American father and a French mother. I grew up immersed in 3 different cultures at the same time. I read French and English children’s books. Not Brazilian ones. Like Adichie, I drew characters who were white and blue-eyed and played in the snow and who talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.

Now this was despite the fact that I lived in Rio de Janeiro, and that most of my friends had skin colors that ranged from mahogany to light chocolate milk. Similar to Adichie, I ate mangoes, pineapples, papayas and sugar-apples. We both never talked about the weather, because there was no need to as there is only two seasons: dry and wet.

In her speech on TED, Adichie acknowledges how much she loved these books. Ditto for me, they stirred my imagination. But similar to her case, they had an unintended consequence for both of us: we didn’t see ourselves in these books. She did not know others like her existed in literature.

Growing up, I felt like an outsider, a cultural island. I was torn apart. I could relate to the books I was reading as they were the same books as my parents had read as kids, but they were not the books that my friends were reading. I had no one like me. Unlike Adichie, I did not find stories that reflected my multicultural background.

I had some French-Brazilian friends and some American-Brazilian friends. The common denominator was that one of the parents was a native, with roots deeply implanted. I had no such luck. It did not help that my parents were fighting to establish whose culture was better and had utter contempt for the Brazilian culture. I wanted to belong somewhere, and had nowhere to go. Much like Adichie I was looking for a reality that encompassed mine.

The similarities I felt with Adichie also relate to the experiences she encountered in the United States and the preconceived ideas her roommate in college had about Africa and Africans: “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.”

Upon learning that I am from Brazil,  many natives of the places I lived and traveled to have this idea of a country steeped in Carnival, beaches with nude women, soccer, poverty and violent crimes awaiting unsuspecting tourists.

Again, the theme of a single cultural story is being played out. Adichie points out that those misconceptions are patronizing, in a well-meaning, pitiful way. By holding these stereotypes, we reduce every single story to one, with no possibility of more complexity than a single line plot.

For Adichie, this dominant story started with the first accountings of the white explorers of Africa, who saw the natives as “half devil, half child,” in the words of Rudyard Kipling, and that continues to this day as her literature professor criticizes her work for not being “authentically African.”

A story I’ve heard all my life for not being “enough Brazilian” or “enough French” or enough “American.” Not fitting the stereotype of what I should look like.

Adichie makes me realize, as she did, that each of us throughout our lives, see and hear different versions of this stereotype.

But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in applying such cultural stereotypes. A few years ago, I visited Texas. I remember walking around on my first day in San Antonio, watching the people going to work in cowboy boots and hats, smoking, and laughing. I remember first feeling happily surprised. Cowboys were for real! Looking back, I realize that I had been so immersed in the tourist image of Texans that they had become one thing in my mind, the stereotypical cowboy. I had bought into the stereotype, hook, line and sinker.

It is very easy to create a single story, as Adichie points out: ”Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Single stories create stereotypes that are carefully preserved, propagated and passed on. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

My story was one of being a multicultural woman with no roots, no ancestry, a “poor me” child of an unhappy childhood, crazy parents, not fitting, a “foreigner” wherever I went. That was my only story.

But there are other stories that are not about this story of being dispossessed of my origins. And it is very important, it is just as important, that I start talking about them.

Adichie emphasizes in her speech that she always “felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

By clinging to my own single story, my own stereotype of who I was, as my only story, I did myself a disservice since it prevented me from recognizing that everybody in some measure goes through the challenges of understanding we all share similar anxieties.

At the end of her presentation, Adichie advocates for “a balance of stories. 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.”

Once I started writing and telling stories on my blog, I realized that I am no longer attached to my single story. As I read, research and tell stories, my voice has become several voices. I have regained my humanity, my dignity and it does no longer matter what my story is. It is only one of my stories. As I embrace these stories, I’ve regained a kind of paradise of who I am.




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