Actually, it was my youngest child, Ellie (6), who most wanted to go. She had seen a picture of one of Steger’s sculptures on the postcard that the gallery mailed out and instantly fell in love with it. Looking at it, displayed to the left, I can see why it drew her interest: it looks like some kind of weird Seussian fairy tale castle, doesn't it?
On the drive up, I thought I heard my oldest son, Stephen (11), say that he wanted to "bury someone someday.”
My ears immediately perked up. He was seated right behind me and because I was driving, I couldn’t turn around. “You want to bury someone?”
Stephen laughed. When he was a baby, my wife and I used to call him “Laughing Boy,” for he had such an infectious laugh, a trait he has luckily not outgrown. “Not bury someone. I want to marry someone someday.”
This relieved me greatly. Not that I’m ready to contemplate the inevitable crushes and heartaches that will come once he begins dating, but at least he wasn’t turning pre-maturely Goth; I need not fear him taking it upon himself to shovel bodies into the earth.
Sebastian, my nine-year-old, started making yuck-y sounds. The idea of love and marriage are, right now, totally abhorrent to him—which is funny, because if you’d watch him around other children, you will see immediately what a flirt he can be with the girls.
And Ellie? What were her thoughts on marriage?
“I want to be a mommy when I grow up,” Ellie said, repeating her oft-cited desire. She just adores her mommy and wants to be just like Alison when she grows up.
One of the boys then told Ellie that, to be a mommy, she'd first have to marry someone, which I guess is their pre-teen understanding of the world. Judging from her reaction, this disappointed her.
“Are you a king?”
I had no idea where this conversation was going, especially because I’d like to think that even a six-year-old would recognize our lifestyle was far from regal.
“No, Ellie. I'm a Daddy.”
Ellie sighed. “No, Daddy. I meant, were you a king before you got married?”
“No, Ellie. I never was a king.”
What followed was a long-ish silence.
Then Ellie said, "Whoopsie."
It took me a moment to figure out why Ellie assumed I was a king—at her age, all the romance and love stories she hears are about kings and queens, princesses & princes. I doubt she even realized that, occasionally, non-royals fall in love and get hitched.
I wonder about the dangers of not exposing her, even at her early age, to different story lines, to different possibilities.
While at AWP, I had dinner one night with a couple of friends in Adams Morgan. Among the things we talked about was Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on “The Dangers of the Single Story.”
What Adichie means by “single story” is the propensity for a single stereotype to emerge from all the stories we read, see, or tell about a particular place or people. The single story, or stereotype, allows readers to think they “know” a subject or person, but at best are only half-truths.
Consider how Africa is portrayed in Western literature, movies, and popular culture.
Then consider how you would respond if, as an American on your first day at college, you discover that you have an African roommate.
Adichie, a Nigerian, was that African roommate. She says,
My American roommate was shocked. 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 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, had a default position toward me as an African with 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.
Her roommate’s reaction shocked Adichie. In Nigeria, where people drive cars and live in houses just as in this country, she grew up with middle class niceties and conveniences. Her family did not live in thatch huts or wore grass skirts or subsisted on whatever wild game they might be fortunate enough to spear.
Although she doesn’t say so in the TED talk, she ended up transferring to a different American university. As she spent more time in this country, she began to see why that roommate would have so misconstrued her: news, media, film, and books all portrayed the same vision of Africa.
If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew of Africa were from popular images, I too would think Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying from poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.
I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this Single Story.
Having no other storylines to rely upon, her roommate naturally assumed that there were no other storylines.
The other day, when writing a book review, I wrote that an author’s characters were “drifting fast into that most chronicled of fictional types: deadbeat alcoholic loser-hood.”
It’s always bothered me how prevalent the “deadbeat alcoholic loser” type is in American fiction. I admit: I’ve employed it in the past, largely because I had seen it so often that I just assumed it was what readers and editors expected in certain situations. Today, “deadbeat alcoholic loser” has just about reached the default mode for character representation in stories depicting unhappy family life.
Tolstoy wrote, famously, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Now though, I guess we don’t have the patience to see or portray the gradations of differences in our unhappy families.
Is there some truth to the “deadbeat alcoholic loser” in American life? Yes. But is it the whole truth?
To bring back Adichie, we might also ask if it’s true that some Africans still live traditionally? Are there still senseless wars and poverty and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa? Do some Africans live in the veldt, away from the comforts of modern housing and Mariah Carey cassettes? The answer, of course, is yes.
But as Adichie says,
To insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that form me. The Single Story creates stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete: they make one story become the only story.
There are other stories, and it’s very important, it is just as important to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the Single Story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.
Adichie also makes it clear that “Single Stories” exist everywhere—even in Africa, “single stories” exist, casting uni-dimensional light on various communities.
Last week, via Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes blog, I came across this Paul Maliszewski take-down of Wells Tower in The Brooklyn Rail. Maliszewski takes issue with a number of things in Tower’s fiction and magazine journalism, including his use of metaphor and his piling on of description to create a false sense of character (isn’t that what realism is all about?). Athitakis does an excellent job analyzing Maliszewski’s charges, but what bothers Maliszewski most is the smug superiority that hangs over most of Tower’s nonfiction. Maliszewski writes,
However new these tales appear, they are in fact hidebound by rigid formulae, rules that all the phenoms of the magazine world, from Tower and [other writers], know well to abide. The first rule of magazine journalism is to entertain. The second is to detect the preconceptions of the editorial class and deliver on them. Every accomplished magazine writer satisfies expectations. Their writing, almost completely barren of original thought yet so rich in sensory detail, fits comfortably into a pre-existing view of the world. Such writing reflects, like a trick mirror, that things are just the way they’re believed to be. The problem is that this is not writing; it’s flattery.
Tower’s… persnickety modifiers [are] aimed not at rendering a careful portrait but rather at casting a harsh light on whoever gets caught in the author’s line of vision… [His] deep-left-field metaphors and other literary baubles are forged, not to clarify or enlighten but to put down and entertain.
Tower lets none of [his subjects] speak for themselves.
He waits to catch people at their worst and so sees little else… A woman—“probably toothless,” Tower says, “though I can’t tell for sure”—catches his eye and he unspools over 200 words about how she treats her child… What did this woman do to earn such casual cruelty? What did any of these people do? Aren’t they owed their power of speech, the dignity to say something on their behalf?
In effect, Maliszewski accuses Tower of being a hired gun who crafts whatever Single Stories his magazine editors wish to perpetuate. It’s a pretty damning charge, when you think of it, rife with intellectual dishonesty. Instead of say, training his assassin’s pen at Adichie’s Nigeria, his Harper’s and Washington Post Magazine editors have him investigate those who less conscientious people might refer to as “rednecks”—carnival workers and Florida Republicans. Tower returns from his safaris and tells the presumably liberal readership of those magazines what he thinks they want to hear—namely that “those people” are kinda weird and maybe not so nice.
I used to think that I was never victimized by the Single Story. Now, I’m not so sure. My parents were blue collar, both of them working in factories most of their lives. Some people in my life might easily be classified as “deadbeat alcoholic losers.” I could only imagine what someone could write about us.
And Ellie? What must she think of the world, knowing it so far mostly through the Single Story fairy tales, Disney films, and blessedly simple storybooks?
Once, I suppose, I believed in fairy tales. I’ve heard it said that, secretly, to some small degree, many young women want to be Cinderella—that good, honest girl who, after falling happily-ever-after in love with Prince Charming, is swept breathlessly from her mundane existence to live in splendid, regal fashion.
My secret? I once wanted to be Prince Charming. I wanted to be that wealthy, powerful, charming, and splendidly witty man who could sweep a woman off her feet, transforming her mundane life into a fantasy.
When I first met Alison, I knew instantly she was the woman I needed to marry. Yet we waited six years. She probably thought I never was going to propose. I waited so long because I knew I wasn’t Prince Charming—there was no way I thought myself capable of transforming her life as much as I thought she deserved. Though I might have been witty (at least she didn’t disabuse me of that notion), I wasn’t rich or powerful, or particularly charming. So I waited. And waited. It seemed like such a long time.