Current Nieman fellow Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono recently pointed out this striking TED talk from July, in which Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks on the danger of letting one narrative define other people or places.

Adichie describes her own middle-class family’s servant in Nigeria and how her mother consistently characterized his family by its poverty. She felt pity for him, but then was surprised to discover one day that his mother made beautiful baskets. It had never occurred to her that they would be capable of making anything.

She extends the parallel to literature (that it is a Western phenomenon), to her American college roommate’s expectations about her (that she wouldn’t be able to speak English and would listen to tribal music) and her own mistaken impression of Mexicans (whom she had known of primarily through reading stories about illegal immigration).

She notes how impressionable and vulnerable we can be in the face of a story, and suggests that hearing only the dominant narrative cannot help but generate stereotypes.

Adichie’s words might find particular relevance for narrative reporters using the power of storytelling to portray another place or culture. And they bring to mind a comment that National Geographic reporter Tom O’Neill recently made in an interview on why he sometimes chooses not to focus on a single character in his narrative stories:

My experience from reading stories about one character is that they’re compelling, but sometimes they feel depopulated if the story is dealing with bigger issues. Of course it’s the skill of the writer to bring in the bigger issues. But if you’re doing something in Indonesia, and you find one person, the reader can feel like they didn’t get a sense of the larger experience.

The danger of the single story in narrative journalism doesn’t just involve whether to follow one subject or three; it can also rear its head in the portrayal of an entire country. In his Narrative Matters essay from this year, novelist Alexander McCall Smith writes about wondering how much of the AIDS crisis to include in his The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which he knew might help frame readers’ impressions of Botswana and Africa:

For me, as a novelist whose books—not as part of any concerted plan on my part—have been viewed as an introduction to a previously not very well-known country, the issue has been this: what should I say about AIDS? What role should AIDS play in a fictional account of the life of a country in the throes of the illness? Is writing about Botswana without mentioning the AIDS pandemic like writing about London during the Blitz without mentioning the fact that bombs were going off?

Ultimately, of course, no novelist or reporter can assume responsibility for fully representing a people or culture through a single story or even a series. But Adiche’s words might recommend that we know enough history to be aware of what came before, and not to simply reinforce the story that’s already out there.

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,” says Adichie, “but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

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