Part 3 Chapter 12
The personal narrative, a form of creative writing, is a story about personal experiences. Two examples of personal narratives are literacy narratives and memoirs. These genres share more similarities than differences, so for this reason, we will cover the genres in one chapter; however, your teachers may assign either the literacy narrative or memoir, so please closely read your essay prompts. This chapter covers similarities in these two genres, and in later subsections, the chapter covers how the genres are different.
Creative writing can take place in a variety of forms: poems, short stories, memoirs, novels, and even song lyrics. Memoirs and literacy narratives can also be classified as creative nonfiction. Narratives whether in the form of a poem, a story, or an essay, often attempt to achieve, or create, an effect in the minds of the readers. In this class, you will only write nonfiction, but if you would like to learn more about creative writing, check out the creative writing courses the CNM English department offers: English 2120 (nonfiction), English 2310 (three genres of CW), English 2320 (fiction), English 2330 (poetry). Additionally, the student literary journal at CNM, Leonardo, publishes creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. If you write a memoir for class that you are proud of, consider submitting your memoir essay to Leonardo, which accepts submissions in the fall and spring semesters. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The intended effect of creative writing differs depending on the writer’s goals. The intention or purpose may be to expound on the grieving process (catharsis), or to encourage an emotional response from the reader, for example, making a person laugh or cry. The potential results are unlimited. Creative writing can also be used as an outlet for people to get their thoughts and feelings out and onto paper. Many people enjoy creative writing but prefer not to share it. For this class, be prepared to share your narratives with your teacher and potentially classmates if your teacher uses peer review.
Ultimately, narrative writing tries to relay a series of events in an emotionally engaging way.
You want your audience to be moved by your story, which could mean through laughter, sympathy, fear, anger, and so on. The more clearly you tell your story, the more emotionally engaged your audience is likely to be.
A reader may not have experienced similar life circumstances as yours, but that doesn’t mean the reader won’t be able to identify emotionally with what you and your characters go through. Human strife is human strife. For this reason, the subject of the memoir cannot be you. Your story, whether a literacy narrative or a memoir, needs to be about something larger than yourself. Your task, as the writer, is to explain how an event or experience is vexing, enlightening, or engrossing, something an outside reader could potentially relate to. Here’s an example, I used to spend summers at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey–snore. Who cares, right?
But what if I explain that during my stay at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey when I was nineteen, I learn that my father has re-married without telling me and he now has a child on the way. I understandably feel betrayed and left out. Throughout the story, I reflect on the idea of honesty and trust in father-daughter relationships, while explaining the events that unfolded as my father called me on the phone and said I was his little Pica-paca-pu. Now that’s a story. The more specific the details in a memoir or literacy narrative, the more human, appealing, and universal your story becomes.
Nonfiction and Memory
Because literacy narratives and memoirs often deal with events that happened early on in your life, you may be wondering, “But what if I don’t remember all the details?” That’s okay! Chances are that you won’t remember every word you spoke or what the weather was like, but it is important that you tell the emotional truth. In other words, you convey the heart of what happened and what it meant, rather than intentionally changing aspects of the story to make it more interesting or to make yourself (or your Grandma or your third grade teacher) look better. For example, let’s say your mother’s favorite color is red and you know when you were first learning to read that she had a red dress she wore often. It’s perfectly okay to say that your mother was wearing that red dress when she sat you down to teach you the alphabet; however, it’s not okay to say that she turned into a giant dinosaur that day. Filling in small pieces with likely details from the past is fine, but outright fabricating is not.
Structuring a Personal Narrative
When writing a personal narrative for class, first consider the prompt your teacher assigned you. Then freewrite about topics that are of general interest to you. For more information about freewriting, see chapter six, which discusses the pre-writing process.
Once you have a general idea of what you will be writing about, you should sketch out the major events of the story that will compose your plot. Typically, these events will be revealed chronologically and a climax at a central conflict that must be resolved by the end of the story. Major narrative events are most often conveyed in chronological order, the order in which events unfold from first to last. Stories typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and these events are typically organized by time.
Not all personal narratives are written in chronological order. Some are told backwards, or some are arranged thematically. On occasion, a narrative can be structured by starting in the present and then “flashing back” to a prior, related event. Typically, this is a strategy used to create interest and tension–the reader has to read the rest of the narrative to find out what happened. When using flashback, the writer usually concludes by returning to the present and reflecting on the flashback or its resolution. Regardless of your structure, whether you tell your story chronologically or non-chronologically, you will definitely need transitional words and phrases to guide the reader through time.
|Transition Words and Phrases for Expressing Time|
|after/afterward||as soon as|
|while||first, second, third|
As always, it is important to start with a strong introduction to hook your reader into wanting to read more. Try opening the essay with an event that is interesting to introduce the story and get it going. Tell the story with scene and engaging details. Finally, your conclusion should help resolve the central conflict of the story and impress upon your reader the ultimate theme of the piece. The ultimate theme of the piece is the larger wisdom or the universal experience that other people can relate to and enjoy.
Crafting a Personal Narrative
Craft features are the tools a writer uses to tell stories. Some examples of craft features include theme, characterization, setting, mood, imagery, persona, plot–these help you to shape and craft your story.
Craft features, stylistic elements, or literary devices–these are all synonyms for the same basic idea–these are your writer’s toolbox, and using craft features effectively in a piece of writing tells the reader that you know your focus, and you are using craft as support for your larger idea–some people call it theme, some people call it a universal experience.
Here are a few craft features, or writer’s tools, defined for you from Successful Writing:
Plot – The events as they unfold in sequence
Characters -The people who inhabit the story and move it forward. Typically, there are minor characters and main characters. The minor characters generally play supporting roles to the main character, or the protagonist. Characters are fleshed out not only through how the author describes them, but also through their actions, dialogue, and thoughts.
Conflict -The primary problem or obstacle that unfolds in the plot that the protagonist must solve or overcome by the end of the narrative. The way in which the protagonist resolves the conflict of the plot results in the theme of the narrative
Theme – The ultimate message the narrative is trying to express; it can be either explicit or implicit. The theme of a story is also what makes it significant. If the story has lasting meaning to you, it will be meaningful to your readers.
Stills from the animated short Sintel
Successful Writing introduced a few craft features to help you write a personal narrative, but there are more features available for you to use in a personal narrative. The chapter continues with more talk of plot, and then other features.
Basic Orienting Facts-Lets the reader know who, when, where, and what is happening.
Organization-This is so important that it has a whole sub-section on the next page.
Structure-This is also so important it has a whole sub-section on the next page.
Scene-The reader likes vivid descriptions of the setting and what you said in order to feel immersed in a story. Scene is the opposite of summary. Use scene sparingly when you want to slow down and focus on an important part of the story.
Summary-This term is slightly different when used in creative writing. In academic writing, when you summarize, you tell the reader the main idea of a text. In creative writing, summary is different–it’s a way to manage time. When you tell the reader what used to happen in your family, for example, you could explain, “My mother used to cook Sunday dinner for the family. She often made a roast.” You are summarizing what used to happen in the past. If you were to write about a specific Sunday, and you fleshed out what happened in scene with dialogue, included details about the sound of vegetables being chopped, described the smells in the kitchen, and told the reader what your mother was wearing, and reflected on the conversation you had, that would be a scene. Summary condenses information in both academic and creative writing, but in creative writing, summary is linked to time management.
Persona– Be aware that the character of you in the memoir is a construct. It’s not literally you, because you are not words on the page, right? You are flesh and bone and you have a rich inner life. Use that rich inner life to develop your persona. Persona comes from the Latin word for mask. It’s the version of you that you would like to illustrate for the reader in your memoir. This is a complicated concept. One way to think of your persona is you in relationship to the situation or people in the story. The persona can also be shaped by time: who and what you were like when you were twelve, for example. It can be shaped by relationship to your topic: who and what you are like in relationship to your mother or third grade teacher or your sergeant in boot camp.
Accountability to the reader-Readers won’t automatically question your credibility as a narrator on the page, but if you seem very infallible or somehow superhuman while everyone else in the story is tragically flawed, then the reader will wonder about the truthfulness of your own self-depiction. You are accountable to telling the story to your reader as truthfully as you can, while using craft elements to engage the reader. It’s a daunting task. Also, readers like protagonists who are flawed, so be truthful about your mistakes.
Setting-Where and when the story takes place.
Mood-The emotional weight or atmosphere of a story, created through details, description, and other craft features, for example, sometimes setting can help create a mood.
Imagery-An image in a story, or in a poem, is a description that appeals to one of the five senses. An image should also convey additional meaning, either emotional and/or intellectual. It’s not an image to say green gelatin. Green gelatin is meaningless until the reader injects the gelatin with meaning. You can, however, create an image if you were to write, “The Frog Eye Salad recipe that my beloved grandmother used to make for Sunday picnics.” The latter description is specific and contains emotional content.
Reflection-The sense and interpretation that you make of the events that transpired in your memoir and how you feel and/or think about them. You can also reflect on the story and relate the events to the universal meaning or theme you would like to include in the story.
You can use all of these tools or craft features to help you tell a story that is vibrant and focused. All of these craft features work together in a story to help the writer convey the ultimate theme or universal experience in a nonfiction work. That universal experience, what reading and writing means for you, personally, getting down to that level of personal experience actually makes your writing more appealing and universal to the reader. The more specific your descriptions and stories become, the more easily the reader can relate and enjoy your stories.
Literacy + Narrative = Literacy Narrative
A commonly accepted definition of literacy is the ability to read and write; however, there are different types of literacy. A person can be computer literate, which would suggest either having knowledge of computers, or being well-versed in their function and capabilities.
For our purposes and time constraints, we will define literacy as the ability to read and write. When you combine that concept with the rhetorical mode of narration, a literacy narrative is born. In a literacy narrative, a writer may discuss learning to read and write, or the writer could recall a time in which he/she became more proficient or skilled in reading and writing, or a writer could even write about a person who taught him/her to read or be inspired by stories.
Because a literacy narrative is a story, a story needs to have some sort of trouble, or something vexing for you as the protagonist. For that reason, literacy narratives can contain specific themes to help focus the story. For example, literacy can be linked to the idea of being empowered, for example, Malcolm X describes the freeing aspects of literacy in his essay, “Literacy Behind Bars.” If literacy has affected your identity or self-discovery, you could write about “…the time my journal saved my life or sanity…who knew I was a slam poet?” You could also tackle how literacy for you is linked to struggle or triumph, for example, the story could begin, “Here I am in college. I’m sure my second grade teacher, Mrs. Lukenda, who once told me I was dumber than a box of rocks, would be surprised.”
The more specific you are in a literacy narrative, the more focused the details become. When you write about the time you learned to read and write, you wouldn’t want to focus on every detail of your life at the time, because it wouldn’t be useful to let the reader know that you learned to read at about the same time you visited Santa, or lost your first tooth, unless those details help you to tell your story.
Additionally, it is important to understand that there are many different types of literacy narratives. For example, you could explore a theme of empowerment through literacy; one example would be Malcolm X’s essay “Literacy Behind Bars” where he explores the freeing aspects of literacy. Or a literacy narrative could cover becoming literate in a new culture. Literacy can also pertain to learning a new language. If you are unsure whether your story of literacy follows your teacher’s guidelines, set some time aside before or after class to meet with your teacher. Or visit your teacher during their office hours and pitch your ideas.
Literacy Narrative Essay Example
A literacy narrative recounts a formative experience or experiences with reading and/or writing. As long as the event you write about was a meaningful part of the learning process and enough time has elapsed for substantive reflection, then you can pick a more recent experience, like this sample literacy narrative illustrates.
My College Education
The first class I went to in college was philosophy, and it changed my life forever. Our first assignment was to write a short response paper to the Albert Camus essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I was extremely nervous about the assignment as well as college. However, through all the confusion in philosophy class, many of my questions about life were answered.
I entered college intending to earn a degree in engineering. I always liked the way mathematics had right and wrong answers. I understood the logic and was very good at it. So when I received my first philosophy assignment that asked me to write my interpretation of the Camus essay, I was instantly confused. What is the right way to do this assignment, I wondered? I was nervous about writing an incorrect interpretation and did not want to fail my first assignment. Even more troubling was that the professor refused to give us any guidelines on what he was looking for; he gave us total freedom. He simply said, “I want to see what you come up with.”
Full of anxiety, I first set out to read Camus’s essay several times to make sure I really knew what was it was about. I did my best to take careful notes. Yet even after I took all these notes and knew the essay inside and out, I still did not know the right answer. What was my interpretation? I could think of a million different ways to interpret the essay, but which one was my professor looking for? In math class, I was used to examples and explanations of solutions. This assignment gave me nothing; I was completely on my own to come up with my individual interpretation.
Next, when I sat down to write, the words just did not come to me. My notes and ideas were all present, but the words were lost. I decided to try every prewriting strategy I could find. I brainstormed, made idea maps, and even wrote an outline. Eventually, after a lot of stress, my ideas became more organized and the words fell on the page. I had my interpretation of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and I had my main reasons for interpreting the essay. I remember being unsure of myself, wondering if what I was saying made sense, or if I was even on the right track. Through all the uncertainty, I continued writing the best I could. I finished the conclusion paragraph, had my spouse proofread it for errors, and turned it in the next day simply hoping for the best.
Then, a week or two later, came judgment day. The professor gave our papers back to us with grades and comments. I remember feeling simultaneously afraid and eager to get the paper back in my hands. It turned out, however, that I had nothing to worry about. The professor assigned me an A on the paper, and his notes suggested that I wrote an effective essay overall. He wrote that my reading of the essay was original and that my thoughts were well organized. My relief and newfound confidence upon reading his comments could not be overstated.
What I learned through this process extended well beyond how to write a college paper. I learned to be open to new challenges. I never expected to enjoy a philosophy class and always expected to be a math and science person. This class and assignment, however, gave me the self-confidence, critical-thinking skills, and courage to try a new career path. I left engineering and went on to study law and eventually became a lawyer. More important, that class and paper helped me understand education differently. Instead of seeing college as a direct stepping stone to a career, I learned to see college as a place to first learn and then seek a career or enhance an existing career. By giving me the space to express my own interpretation and to argue for my own values, my philosophy class taught me the importance of education for education’s sake. That realization continues to pay dividends every day.
Brainstorming Literacy Narrative Ideas
You may receive an assignment prompt that asks you to write from your memory, recapturing the experience of reading a special book or text from your childhood or adolescence. Think of this as a chance to recapture something significant from your past, to explore its importance, and to reconstruct it in writing for others to appreciate.
Certain books we’ve read live in our memories. When we first read these books or when they were read to us, they spoke to us in some important way. They may still speak to us. Find a book that played an important role in your life when you were a child or an adolescent. Why was it important? What was it like to read this book? Did you read it on your own or did someone read it to you? If someone read it to you, who was it, and what was the experience like? Is there a connection between this book and learning to read on your own? Re-read the book. (If it is long, like Little Women, for example, it is all right to skim it, although you may find yourself re-reading certain parts.)
In your essay, use the book as a springboard for your writing by focusing on an insight (a discovery) you have made about the book. Be sure to cite passages and tell the effect they had on you. As you shape your drafts, give attention to organization, the way you build your story. Decide what the reader needs to know in the beginning, and think about the order the events happened and how much to tell the reader at each point. Give attention also to the pictures you create: try to reconstruct key moments by showing what happened rather than merely telling that it happened. Dialogue and scene descriptions often help to make those moments come alive. Finally, give careful thought to the story’s theme or controlling idea.
A literacy narrative is a genre of creative writing that focuses specifically on a person’s personal experience with literacy. Another genre of creative writing you may be asked to write in English 1110 is a memoir. The textbook Rhetoric and Composition describes memoirs as a form of creative writing, a first-person autobiographical text that records a writer’s reaction to important events in his or her life. This is different from an autobiography. Influential people, such as former U. S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, often write lengthy autobiographies depicting the many critical events of their lives and careers. But every writer has experienced a few critical events that will be of interest to people who do not know them. These individual events are great topics for memoir.
According to Greg Martin, professor at UNM, when a person creates a memoir, the writer is examining a specific time in his/her life, and a very specific relationship–a relationship to a person or idea. The memoir must be larger than the writer in that an outside reader could relate to themes or universal meaning in the text.
How to Write a Memoir
You don’t have to be nearing the end of your life to write a memoir. A book-length memoir can cover your lifetime, but it had better be focused on some aspect of your persona, which is how you characterize yourself in memoir. So even two hundred pages of memoir needs focus.
Focus is central to any genre of writing–academic essays, business letters, memoirs, and so on. For this course, when you write a memoir, focus is even more important. Since you only have two to three pages to tell a story from your life, your persona (that is, you characterized on the page) should focus on a universal meaning you would like to relay to the reader and a relationship between you and something larger than yourself–a relationship to a person, an activity, a struggle. Pick a short time period, or maybe even a moment, for this course’s assignment, and focus on relaying to the audience what made that event in your life special, important, life-changing
If you are assigned a memoir in class, you will want to ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the story I want to tell?
- Why do I want to tell it?
- How could an outside reader relate to what I write?
The third point above is important because you always want to think about the reader when you write. If you are writing a personal narrative, you aren’t just writing about yourself. You’re writing about the human experience, and what it means to live inside your body and your mind at this particular moment in time.
Here’s an example of how a reader can relate to a narrative. Think about a children’s story, take Cinderella for example. She’s a nice, young lady; she’s so nice that even small animals are drawn to her. They know she won’t hurt them, but her family is mean, and they don’t see that she is special and beautiful.
Have you ever experienced or known someone who was not understood by a parental figure? Have you ever snuck out at night to go to a party, especially if there was a super-hot host or hostess who invited you? Have you experienced being double-crossed? Have you ever been forced to do chores you didn’t want to do? Cinderella experienced all these struggles and the story compels the reader to connect with the audience.
On many levels, this children’s story is relatable to an outside audience. Yes, it is fiction, and the fantastical elements might make it seem like an ordinary person couldn’t identify with the story; however, the specific details allow the reader to be immersed in the story and identify with the protagonist.
In this vein, you will write memoir. The way to create a more human and relatable story is to write specific details, and reflect on the story and what it means to you now. Professor Greg Martin at UNM has said that one of the most important parts of writing memoir is reflection. Reflection is you looking back on the events that you are describing and making sense of them.
Reflection in memoir is similar to interpreting and analyzing evidence in an academic essay. When you read the Analytical Writing chapters in this textbook, you will notice that interpreting evidence and making sense of statistics or facts is important. The same goes for writing memoir. You have to write about why the situation you have narrated is important or universal–how does it relate to the reader? What did you learn? What can we learn? However, you don’t want to sound so dogmatic when you begin the reflection area of an essay because the reader will have his/her own interpretation of the events you describe. And that’s the hard part about memoir–once you create a piece of art and present it to an audience, the audience will have a different interpretation from what you have created. And that’s fine. It’s part of the process of creating art–writing is art. Creative writing should be lyrical, and lecturing never sounds pretty. You can reflect by using other craft features like imagery and metaphor to help you create the meaning, theme, or universal wisdom in your story. But it’s up to the reader to decide on meaning.
Here is a short sample memoir written by one of your English teachers. It was first published in Brain, Child, a mother’s magazine.
Forgetting the Class Snack
by Jennifer Schaller
I was reading over final papers from my semester of teaching and busy all day with conferences for my English classes; meanwhile, at my daughter’s Kindergarten class, fourteen children sat nervously waiting, bellies grumbling, as they stared daggers at my daughter, while chanting “We want Cheez-its! We want Cheez-its!” Eh, maybe it didn’t happen quite like that.
Regardless, each month at my daughter’s school, in alphabetical order, parents are required to bring a snack, and I am usually ready days in advance. Sometimes I add a cute and Pinterest-y flourish—name tags for each kid, or on St. Patrick’s Day, each carrot cupcake had green clovers I cut out and attached to toothpicks. It wasn’t the healthiest snack, but at least there were carrots and raisins in the mix.
Then one time I forgot.
I hadn’t checked my phone messages all morning, and in the afternoon, I had plenty: two from my daughter’s teacher and three from my husband who was confused—Jennifer always remembers snack, right? Upon reading the texts, I felt a familiar burning sensation run up my body—call it shame, humiliation, sadness. I’m pretty sure forgetting snack shouldn’t bring up a laundry list of self-defeating malevolence.
When I was a teenager, my mom forgot a lot, mostly me, a few times after school, and at least once, when I was a toddler, she forgot me, restrained in my car seat while she locked her keys in a running car to fetch something inside our house. I had nightmares for years afterward that I was in the backseat of a car rolling erratically downhill with no one at the wheel. For this reason, I vowed to never forget anything as a parent.
Then one time I forgot.
Who cares, right? Every parent forgets some things. But I care, mostly about my reaction—that burning sensation of shame. It worries me that I would feel like such a failure over something so minor. Sometimes I wish I had a doppelganger, a woman plump around her middle, soft in her thirties, who tries her best; she would be me but outside of me, there to let me feel for myself what I don’t feel: compassion. I would say out loud to her the things I think to myself, “How could you forget? How could you disappoint your daughter?” As my insults spiraled through the air, I’d hear my harsh tone. I’d understand why I need to quiet those voices.
I’m not completely sure of the difference between self-pity and self-sympathy. It’s a hard line to envision drawing for myself. I was always taught to suck things up: pity and pouting would get me nowhere. So I suck up the various blows life deals me, and that philosophy has certainly served me well, with a few exceptions, like when I forgot snack.
It’s sad that I could give more sympathy to doppelganger me than real me, the me who behaves more like a human than a super-mother. Real me doesn’t get my sympathy. I would like to feel for myself, even though it feels false and strange. I’ll try it:
Oh that Jennifer, she forgot her daughter’s snack. It’s understandable. Her semester does end in two weeks. One could see how she might forget. She’ll try harder next time. She will say everyone makes mistakes, even Mommy. She’ll realize the burning shame she feels is not something she wants to pass down. In place of sucking it up, she’ll keep striving for self-compassion, or self-sympathy, or even just the opposite of self-loathing.
First published here:
In this sample memoir, there is a protagonist with a problem–she’s a perfectionist. She wants to do everything right, but she can’t. When she is unable to achieve her own expectations, she feels self-loathing. These are some heavy issues, and they were all sparked by forgetting snack for her daughter’s kindergarten class. The story becomes focused, and the trouble begins when she realizes that she forgot snack–forgetting snack is also the inciting incident, the trouble in the story that opens up the gateway to reflection and discovery. The reflection in this memoir is not about Cheez-its; the reflection has to do with the protagonist reflecting on why she feels so terribly about forgetting the class snack.
When you begin writing your memoir for class, try to focus the story on some aspect of yourself, and then risk wisdom, as Professor Greg Martin used to say–say something about what happened, make sense of the events. Lastly, trust that when you tell your story and include conflict (something has to happen to somebody), create a protagonist with which the reader can identify, reflect on the events, and describe using plenty of detail, the reader will want to come along for the ride.
Sections of this chapter written by Jennifer Schaller. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
The Danger of a Single Story
I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.” I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.
I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples,
and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.
Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.
My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was.
And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.
What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren’t many of them available, and they weren’t quite as easy to find as the foreign books.
But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.
Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.
I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.
Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.
Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.
She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”
So, after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide’s family.
This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Lok, who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as “beasts who have no houses,” he writes, “They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts.”
Now, I’ve laughed every time I’ve read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Lok. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition