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Books, anthropology and the danger of the single story

The types of novels I enjoy reading seem to stem from my interest in Anthropology from when I studied Sociology and Social Anthropology at uni. Before then I’m not really sure what I read but it didn’t seem to be the kind of books I read now, but it certainly wasn’t any Mills and Boon either.

The novels that tend to stick in my mind are those by writers such as Andrea Levy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Frank McCourt etc. Novels that have some cultural or historical significance. But I also enjoy non-fiction books by, say, Bill Bryson or Kate Fox. Or TV programmes which open up anthropology to the masses, such as Tribe, which I remember seeing a lot of criticism towards at the time for not being ethnographically accurate and thinking ‘who cares if it’s getting people interested in different cultures’.

Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be a post about anthropology, ethnography or literature. It was supposed to be a short introduction to a talk on TED which I recently stumbled across and thoroughly enjoyed. I was going to say how I have also always been interested in equality and diversity and hearing other voices – and found this talk fascinating.

So, when I came across  Chimamanda Adichie: the danger of a single story I decided to share it on Facebook  (though I’m only aware of two of my friends actually watching and enjoying it). In it Adichie discusses how she grew up in Nigeria reading and writing novels white children with blue eyes who “played in the snow…ate apples…talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out”. How when she went to study in the USA she met a girl who was surprised she could speak English and listened to Mariah Carey and not “tribal music”. How, when we are subjected to novels which paint one picture, how can we expect people to fully understand other cultures and individuals? And the strong need encourage African writers so that we receive a fuller picture and get to hear many stories. About the danger of the single story.

So, while programmes such as Tribe might be criticised for being simplistic or not of value to serious anthropologists, surely they’re a good start to providing a fuller picture alongside work from a diverse group of novelists.

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