by Asolia Zharmenova & Katie Simpson
In her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made a powerful statement about the power of stories She said: “I've 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. “ Adichie’s speech emphasized the power and necessity to elevate stories of individuals and communities in writing and rhetoric. Personally, I was moved by her words to consider ways in which I often fail to provide space and listen to the stories of those around me; because more often than not, I fill in the gaps in my knowledge with stereotypes so as to avoid facing a simple reality of being human.
As we began reading The Book of Unknown Americans last week, many of us expressed the difficulty of keeping up with the multiple perspectives of different characters that are introduced with each chapter. Perhaps, the author Cristina Henriquez chose to place the tone of each perspective in the first person, so as readers we only collect a portion of each character’s story that they have chosen to disclose and recognize the individuality within each story as well as the commonality between stories. It seems that the characters are united by their setting, circumstances, and new cultural identity as they retell stories of their immigration or navigate a new way of life as newly resettled individuals.
Though many of the narrators share the experience of immigration, each person's perspective in narrative is filled with individuality. For example, the generational divide between the two main narrators, Alma and Mayor, shapes their experience of migration and of life in America. Where Mayor experiences the “in-between” identity of a young immigrant, Alma experiences the profound displacement of leaving the only home you’ve ever known. Yet both know what it is to be seen as an outsider by the majority culture. Within every apartment is a different collection of intergenerational stories, combined to form a larger community.
Now, returning to Adichie’s talk (which I encourage everyone to listen to if you haven't already), what are ways in which we might begin to respect the stories (specifically immigrants), so as not to “deprive them of their dignity”? I think one of the best ways is listening to the voices of those immigrants who came in the former generations. The history of immigration in the United States is far more complex than the “melting pot” narrative. Nevertheless, it is a history worth our study.
Policies such as family separation and the attendant news coverage degrades the dignity and right of the migrants themselves as they are reduced to the status of either a parasite or a helpless victim rather than the complex human beings they are. Although it feels as though we can’t do much to help those who are suffering because of their national identity, by keeping ourselves informed we begin to do justice to their full humanity NPR’s This American Life received a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage on the lives of people at the Mexican/US border. Thanks to the efforts of these reporters, we hear first-person accounts of the unique experiences of individual migrants rather than reducing them to anonymous figures. As listeners, although we do not see them, we hear their voices. We hear their stories. And perhaps, we begin to realize not just how our stories are different from those of the migrants, but how they are the same in the human desire for well-being and flourishing. That is the simple reality. With that foundation in mind, and thanks to the work of novelists like Henriquez and journalists like Molly O’Toole and Emily Green, we might become less prone to assuming a single story for all. As we read the first-person accounts of Alma and Mayor as well as other residents in that little community somewhere in rural Delaware, might we consider the interplay of their stories as uniquely individual and fundamentally human.
about the contributors:
Asolia grew up overseas. She studied piano performance at a small liberal arts college on the outskirts of Boston, MA. In the future, she hopes to travel more and learn French.