In her talk, Ms. Adichie speaks of the danger of the single story, and the assumptions such single stories encourage us to make. She says that stereotypes are not dangerous because they are lies, but because they are only a single story from a multitude of others. She bravely recounts her own experience falling for the ruse of the single story when visiting Mexico and seeing Mexicans from a decidedly U.S.-centric viewpoint.
I’ve tried to be hyper-vigilant in dealing with my own book and have definitely made some single-story type assumptions. One reader called me out on a place where I slipped up. Originally, in describing Sharmalee, a member of the Pack and a secondary character, I moved quickly through her description, then labeled her as “Indian-American” and moved on.
While I did spend some time describing her body and the way she dressed, I didn’t speak to her hair, her skin, her eyes, the shape of her face or many of the other ways authors “flesh out” their characters. I used “Indian-American” as a short-hand for the way she looked and provided no more information.
Now of course, I know that Indian people, like all people, look all sorts of ways, but I made assumptions that my readers would get the right impression of her just like that. While this is a relatively benign example, it speaks to how easy it is to make assumptions and move on without providing context or additional, necessary information.
I realize that as a child of racial privilege, it may be easier for me to slip into assumptions and not allow each person to be fully expressed as an individual rather than a representative of their race or nationality. I need to spend more time checking myself for where I take things, and people, for granted. To be fair, this is harder when writing minor characters, as by definition, they don’t get as much time in the spotlight. Renee, for instance, didn’t suffer the same treatment as Sharmalee, because, while she’s a woman of color, she’s also a major character in the book. So she gets a fair amount of “screen time” to talk about her life and her personality and gets developed throughout the book.
It’s also important for me to draw distinctions between my point of view as the narrator and Lexie’s point of view as the protagonist. Lexie, a white girl growing up in the sticks of central Oregon, has plenty of naive viewpoints. At one point, for instance, she insists that her classmate Duane, a “golden boy” by all accounts, will have an easy, care-free life because he is middle class, handsome and smart. The fact that he is black doesn’t play into her perception of him at all, and the idea that perhaps his blackness will make life less easy for him rather than more so never comes into her purview. While I as an author and as a person don’t share this viewpoint, I have to be careful to let this be a trait that describes Lexie’s personality, not Duane’s and not mine.
I see this as a virtue of being a writer. I am constantly challenging myself, and being challenged by my readers, to broaden my horizons and question my assumptions. This can work with plot (Does so and so have to do that? Couldn’t they do this instead?), and with people (Of course she can speak Polish and Farsi. Why the hell not?).
The writer’s job is to keep telling stories, to keep adding voices to the mix. Story-tellers by their very nature are the combatants of the single story. We keep speaking up, keep sharing the diversity of voice, an keep the conversation moving. The best weapon against the single story is to tell more stories.