Why our many stories matter

Michael Ellion's controversial artwork, Perceiving Freedom. (Mike Huthings, Reuters)

Michael Ellion's controversial artwork, Perceiving Freedom. (Mike Huthings, Reuters)

When Michael Elion recently compared the fury storm he’s been facing over his horrible and blithely venal corporate artwork, Perceiving Freedom, with the Rwandan Genocide, his critics predictably guffawed.

“What a fool! A privileged white male thinks he’s the victim here? He should up his meds,” they gloated in lengthening strands of digital bile. How can you compare your own meagre and well-won strife with national genocide?

It is a deeply unfortunate metaphor, particularly considering that this is the 20th year in which we commemorate the mass violence and slaughter of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in 1994.

And yet, when I paused to think about it, I sort of understood what Elion was getting at. If you’re capable of putting aside your well-wrought and sexy argument for a few moments – stepping out of it, like blood-soaked chainmail after the Crusades – it’s not so hard to imagine how hated and targeted he must feel, because, let’s face it, there’s been more than a whiff of crucible fever gusting in on the southeaster of late. But it’s not just these past weeks.

This is not a story about a pair of outsize Ray Bans monumentally failing to commemorate anything but the glib triumph of neoliberal capital slap bang in the public passage of the Sea Point promenade. It’s not just about Elion, who doesn’t seem to be absorbing the message much anyway.

It’s about everyone and everything that splits us quickly down the middle – from Woody Allen to Julius Malema and Renée Zellweger to Gaza and back again. It’s about conceptual fixity, and jumping into the brawl and staking our turf so firmly and furiously that we can’t see things through any other lenses but our own.

In 2009, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose Orange Prize-winning second novel, Half a Yellow Sun, is set before and during the Biafran war, gave a TED talk, titled The Danger of a Single Story. She spoke about growing up in eastern Nigeria, reading mainly British and American children’s books and the limitations this had on her childhood imagination, how it restricted her capacity to invent characters who weren’t white and blue-eyed, who didn’t play in the snow and eat apples and talk a lot about the weather.

And about how things changed when she discovered African books by writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, and how she realised then that people like her – “girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails” – could also exist in literature.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says growing up in eastern Nigeria, reading mainly British and American children’s books, limited her childhood imagination. (Akintunde Akinleye, Reuters)

She spoke about the power of stories and how limiting the kinds of stories to which we are exposed in turn restricts our ability to comprehend people and situations beyond our immediate local experience. “The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar,” she said. “Stories matter. Many stories matter.”

Adichie was speaking mainly about the kinds of flawed preconceptions and stereotypes that wrongly shape people’s perceptions of Africa and Africans. But the title of her talk has been bouncing about my inner classroom this past month in relation to the policy drafted by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, which proposes abandoning the current system, in which schools choose from eight approved books per subject per grade, with no choice at all: only one book will be approved per subject per grade.

The danger described by Adichie is the same kind of danger South Africans will be facing if this Maoist legislation is passed. It won’t just be scholars who feel the effects of this “single story” approach; it will be all of us. Sometimes, as if in an unheimlich spell of déjà vu, it feels as though we’re in it already.

I don’t have children, but I have the memory of what it was like to live in a culture dominated by a single story and it makes me nauseous to think of it. I remember being kicked out of classes in high school and having to pace up and down the gleaming red Cobra-polished passages of that suburban brick bastion of Christian National Education for daring to question why only Christians would get to experience the release of heaven.

But religion was just the icing. It wasn’t until I got to university that I was able to gain access to contested historical narratives about what was actually going on in South Africa and why everything around me felt so extremely wrong and strange.

But now Motshekga wants to put the ANC government in charge of deciding the limited official story that will shape young South African minds all over again.

Can this nightmare be real? Apparently so. Mpuka Radinku, executive director of the Publishers’ Association of South Africa, has said that “the publishing industry as we know it will be decimated”. Have we forgotten that nationalism, a set of beliefs about political legitimacy and cultural identity, in whatever shape it takes, has probably been the most pervasive framework for the writing of history in Europe and in those former colonies influenced by Europe since the 19th century?

Under nation-state dominated discourses, the past gets reconstructed to accord with nationalist agendas. Historical phenomena are interpreted only as they relate to the development of the nation-state.

Having been subjected to stringent control of “the single story” by one nationalist regime, must South Africans – who seem, so far, to have only tentatively seized the radical possibility of many stories/countless versions – now be subjected to the reductionist counternarrative of another narrowly nationalist regime?

It’s not as though we’re a particularly open-minded bunch to start with. On the contrary, sometimes the insidious spirit of intolerance, bullying and conceptual narcissism I experience, even among friends on Facebook, is enough to make me feel like an exile.

One of the definitive features of narcissism is the erotic charge associated with self-interest and the failure to distinguish the self from external objects. You feel it a lot on Facebook, people getting turned on by their own succinct and hardened archness.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not politeness that is in deficit, but unsettledness and agility – hospitality to the viewpoints of others and a willingness to be undone/rewritten in the process.

I find myself returning to Noam Chomsky’s words: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Alex Dodd is an independent writer who lives in Cape Town.



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