Not one Story
Avoiding misrepresentation in writing
In her TED talk, given a few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke of the dangers of ‘a single story.’ She suggests it’s unwise to make assumptions about people’s histories and attitudes. 'Show a people as one thing,’ she claims, 'as only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become… The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ Instead she believes we should consider different interpretations of people’s situations if we are to portray them accurately.
One of my favourite reviews of my novel ‘The Oceans Between Us’ comments on its '360 degree view of events.’ The situation I describe is complex and so I decided that presenting it from a number of viewpoints enables us to understand the differing perspectives of the individuals involved. It’s a way of showing there are different stories, all valid in their own way. It is up to the reader to decide, if at all, which story appeals most.
My new novel features some world war two German soldiers. Initially I presented them all as merciless and uncompromising but my editor pointed out that this was only one story, one reading of events. Yes, there was cruelty but there was also reluctance, ambivalence, guilt, shame…many different stories and the novel would be richer for reflecting them. As my ex supervisor once pointed out, even Hitler liked animals. so some of my soldiers are shown with conflicting loyalties and the result is much more nuanced.
In seeking to craft our narratives we must be careful not to distort or simplify the truth. Life is layered and subjective, our writing needs to reflect that.