The Danger of a Single Story


In one of my favorite TED talks, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, recounts a conversation with an American student who, after reading her novel centered on an abusive male protagonist, lamented the fact that Nigerian men were abusive. Having just read American Psycho, Adichie returns his pity, and calls it a shame that “all young American men are serial killers.”

Her generalization is, and meant to be, absurd, but the point is clear: the danger of a single story is that it prevents people from connecting with other people as individuals. That single story, Adichie says, ”creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I thought of Adichi’s talk recently, when I came across a CNN iReport by a University of Chicago student, RoseChasm, that went viral. The India RoseChasm wrote about in her blog is an India I’ve seen and experienced: the picture taking, the leering, the groping, the cat-calls and the increasing distrust of Indian men.

And while her story should be shared, listened to and talked about (and certainly has with 1.2 million hits), there is a danger in reading that, and only that story. Because to discuss India – or anyplace really – in only a negative light, is to rob others of experiencing a beautiful, warm, colorful and exciting country.

I only wish 1.2 million people had read my blogs alongside RoseChasm’s. Because if you had then you would know that my India is a story of an India I love, one of incredible people that brought me into their homes, their organization, really their whole lives, not once, not twice, but three times. I’ve written about my lessons learned, how my world opened up and how it has changed during and since my time there. My time there was certainly not easy and at times incredibly frustrating, but I look back on my time on India with fondness and, with increasing frequency, sadness, because I know it will be some time before I am able to return again.

It is often said in India, where something is true, the opposite will also be true. Above is my truth of India. It is the India I think about, the India I smile about, the India I talk about and the India I write about. And I am sorry to read about RoseChasm’s story because I do understand the truth behind it. But it is only one truth…just as mine is too.

Stories open up our imaginations, transport us to a place different from what we know, and hopefully, ultimately, encourage us to break out of our own small world and explore those places we only dream of. Stories can empower and humanize, but they can be dangerous too.

If you haven’t, I hope one day, you get the opportunity to travel to India. And with you, take the warnings of RoseChasm’s experiences, combined with the lessons of my experiences and create your own truth. If you do this, I can assure you, you will create your own story in incredible India.

Sarah Cole Kammerer Photograph

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About Sarah Cole Kammerer

Sarah Cole Kammerer focuses on advancing women's health, specifically in marginalized communities. She holds a master’s degree in public health and was awarded a 2012-13 Fulbright Research Grant to India to pilot a family planning program among women's groups in tribal communities. In "Global Storming," she tells stories about India and shares her thoughts on the global impact of women's issues. Find more