Last week I went to see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at our local library. Her latest book, Americanah, just won the National Book Critic’s Circle (NBCC) prize for fiction. Adichie is more beloved, however, for the award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel of love set around the Biafran War (yeah, look that up). She wrote that story to “honor the collective memory of an entire nation” as well as to honor her grandfathers who died as refugees from that war. She doesn’t write memoir, but like most fiction writers she uses real experiences, real people, real culture and history to create story. As a writer, Adichie says she “feels one step away, observing and looking for story to write.”
What caught my mind about Chimamanda Adichie was her TED talk of 2009, which I found while researching prior to her author event here. Her delivery of The Danger of a Single Story is amusing but passionate, worth listening to and not just because of her beautiful way of speaking.
“Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”
What does this have to do with memoir and lifewriting? For one, the characters in our lives don’t have a single story, they are three-dimensional people with perspectives based on their own experiences. Don’t make them all good or all bad (that goes for ourselves as main characters, too), and you might consider putting a bit of backstory into your characters– usually hints or short explanations, not long, distracting side stories. Why might they have acted the way they did? Second, the single story needs more stories to create a fuller picture. One person’s experiences in time and place are not representative of everyone’s in that time and place. This makes your story important to the grand drama of history and culture, or to the story of recovery and healing. Let’s write, and let’s read.
Note: The film Half of a Yellow Sun will be released this July