Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Limited Mind Sets

One of the topics discussed on #LitChat last year - a most interesting twitter chat for writers - was the use of stereotypes in literature. During our discussion, someone shared this video of the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, who gave a brilliant talk about "The Danger of a Single Story" that inspired this reflection. All quotes below are hers.

Her speech relates to our LitChat topic, because a stereotype is basically a simplified view of someone or something. It's natural that we mentally categorize in our minds people we've just met and things we're hearing about, tasting, or smelling for the first time. The problem is when this categorization process becomes a barrier to absorb new impressions and information on that person or thing.

For instance, when Adichie tells the tale of her going to the US to study at the university; when her roommate pitied her without having ever met her, thinking that Adichie was unable to understand the functioning of a stove because she had come from Africa.

What does her experience tell us? That her roommate had had some previous information about Africa, and had taken the rest for granted. This is what Adichie calls a single story (about Africa) and I call a limited mind set.

Now, let's come clean here. When you think of Africa, which is the first image that comes to mind? Poverty? Famish? Exquisite landscapes? "Primitive societies"? Rape? All the above?

"But, that's all true," you say. In a way it may be, but is it all that there is to know about Africa and its people?
...if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, incomprehensible people fighting sensless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreign.
You know what bugs me the most? How precise she is when talking about the kind, white savior.

When we have a limited mind set, we usually believe that our point of view is the best for everyone, regardless their cultural background and life experience (and our own too). Sometimes, without even realizing we think ourselves superior from someone else. Are we? Superior?

When talking about her roommate she adds:

In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her [the roommate] in any way; no possibility of feelings more complex than pity; no possibility of a connection as human equals.

This touched me deeply. Adichie summarized in that sentence how the "superior" heart sees people through the limit of its pity. The pitied people become less than human, like Locke's imaginative impression of the Africans back in the XIV century.

I love this anecdote Adichie mentions on the talking:
A student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I'd just read an American novel called American Psycho, and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.
So, as writers we have the privilege (and the obligation) of seeing our stories from many points of view. We may choose to tell them from a single one, but we know what goes in the heart of each of our characters.

When I read books filled with cultural impressions, especially when they feel alien to me so diverse they are, I also feel privileged. Have you ever had close contact with the Chinese culture? What about the Japanese, the Iranian, or the Pakistani cultures?

This cultural diversity, the astounding difference in which people (even from the same cultural background) see the world, reason and deal with their own feelings and the other people's feelings, is fascinating to me.

I have learned so much from stories that portrait intensely the character's minds and hearts that I like to think that, through them, I've expanded my view of the world, or my mind set if you will.

This is what good stories do; they enrapt the reader, projecting in our heart the character's emotions, transforming a reading into a life experience. We suffer with the characters when they fall, we rejoice when they succeed, love, and are loved. And then we learn, as if their lives were ours.

I won't extend more this post; if you've read this far I'm sure you have much in mind to digest, so I'll leave you with a final reflection:
Stories matter.

And please feel free to share your opinion. I'd love to hear it.

Note: The impressive picture of a Zimbabwe sunset was taken by Steve Evans, and I found it here. The touching picture of the African child I found here.


  1. This post is right on the spot. Stories matter, and if they (and their characters) are well construted, they can change the way you see lots of things...

  2. Awesome, awesome post!

    Limited mind sets drive me batty! Why can't people just see people? Why do there have to be qualifying factors involved? Kids don't do this until they learn it from adults.

    As writers we have the power to improve people's perspectives. I hope we use it.

  3. Yeah Ali, all I want is that my stories will matter this way some day. ;D

    Hey Jemi, glad you liked the post! :D You see, despite we being perhaps a bit more open minded than other people, we too are limited by our personal experiences and the cultural environment we were raised. It's incredibly annoying, but we're all limited in a way!

    But I think you're right when you say that adulthood is a key point. That's why I try to feed my inner child frequently, heh.

  4. Wonderful post! Very thoughtful, and very true!

    It reminds me of a few years ago, when a family from Texas was transferred by some oil company up to Calgary, in western Canada, for a few years. The woman of the family told us that she had been reluctant for her husband to accept the transfer, at first, because she didn't know if she could live without hot and cold running water.

    And we still, even now, get Americans driving up her in July, asking us where the snow is because they hoped to ski.

    It isn't just Africa that people have stereotypes about, is it?

    I really like the comment that when we have a stereotype, it limits our ability to learn more details about a person.

  5. Hey there - so sorry I haven't found this blog before!

    Stereotyping is something we need to think about more as writers - Phyl is right that we do it in regard to all kinds of people (everyone who is not us, personally, in fact - even in relation to ourselves, perhaps? I know I often think of myself as "a depressive" or "a writer"). Writing about the unfamiliar can be either the very worst writing, or teh very best - the worst if it deal only in stereotypes, because it teaches us nothing new, merely enforces a mindset we already had; the best if it goes beyond stereotype because we actually learn something new from it. It's an interesting question, of course, whether a strangers to something, no matter how hard we try to get inside it, we can ever teach a truth about it to others?

    I can't resist commenting that the stereotype that always amazes me with Africa is the way people talk about it like it's a country :)

  6. Thank you for this post Mari. From our LitChat friendship, you know that I am a big proponent of expanding readers' views of "story." I believe I'm the one who brought the Adichie video into the discussion. My reading (and writing) philosophy, one that has served me my well, is that books should be windows that allow us to look out into the vastness of the world, not merely mirrors reflecting back only images of ourselves--lives like our own. But like most people, readers get stuck and sometimes need to be bumped out of their complacent easy chairs. Storytellers have an honored position in human history--we have been around since the beginning of time and are here, in every culture, in every generation, every age, because we are meant not only to keep our (all of humanity)lives'stories going, which we we do by sharing them, but also to help us make sense of the stuff of life by showing new perspectives or even old ones under a new light.

    The danger of the single story is one we all need beware of.

  7. Mari,

    Very good post! I wholeheartedly agree - limited mindset is what keeps us from connecting to others and it infects all relationships. It is the mindset of those that haven't advanced up the ladder to a global worldview. It is crucial to take more of our world citizens to this point through education. Our stories do matter!

  8. Loved this wonderful post! You're correct in observing in your comment above that, despite being a bit open minded, most of us are shaped by cultural environment and experiences.

    I remember a friend living in UK for a year saying goodbye to the next door neighbor at eve of his return to US. The neighbor thanked him for being kind and not like the "typical" Americans that she knew from her watching of the Jerry Springer show.

    Anyway, cultural diverse stories can only educate and open the world.

  9. This is gonna be a long one, so please bear with me, as I like to respond personally...

    Phyl, you're right on spot when saying that not only Africa is stereotyped. When you (people in general, I mean) think about Brazil, what comes to mind? Women, soccer, Amazon forest? It's the same all around the world!

    Indeed Dan, Adichie mentions in her speech that even in airports people talk about Africa as a country (yuk!). Also, great thinking that we create stereotypes of ourselves. I believe that our self-image influences on how we deal with internal and external stimuli. Don't you?

    Thanks so much Virginia and Donna, for sharing this wonderful video! I looked up on the transcripts of that LitChat, but couldn't find you. And yes, I'm all for new perspectives and giving people (who are willing to) a nice bump out of their complacency, as you put so well. :)

    Hey Anne! You know, what you said about relationships triggered something here. I was originally thinking on broad issues, but you and Dan brought the discussion to more, err, intimate matters (which is good!). A limited mind set can also harm our personal relationships, with ourselves and with our loved ones. That's why I try to see all situations from everyone's point of view. (Not that I succeed frequently in the afterwards action, but I do try, heh.)

    Hi Marisa, thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you liked the post. :) One form I found to avoid creating or maintaining cultural stereotypes is learning new languages (which I love!). When learning a language, we also have a close contact with the culture that feeds it. Wonderful experience!

  10. Mariana, you speak (write) truth. And, I appreciate your candor. It's time everyone came to the realization that we are first of all, "Citizens of the World" before any artificial (at best) criteria for division are considered. Personally, I do have opinions about people of other beliefs, culture or race (everyone does, that's why we have the "facility of thought") but I consciously refuse to allow these opinions (largely based on what you would call "stories") affect my perception of others. Every individual should be given a chance to prove himself as a human (an entity), then he could be assessed, NOT JUDGED! Keep up the good work.., you do have a "beautiful mind"!

  11. Wow, Eremi, your comment is really flattering... Thanks!

    I like the concept of Citizen of the World, although I'm aware that it's a difficult one to grasp for those who never lived, or even traveled, abroad.

    That's why my "mind broadening journey" begun with learning new languages, which is how I got to peek at other cultures; besides reading as much as I could, heh.

    I must disagree, however, with your statement that "Every individual should be given a chance to prove himself as a human". Perhaps the fact that we feel the need to prove ourselves shows how limited ours and other people's minds are?

    You're very kind, please stop by more often. :)

  12. Thanks for the link to my Twitter Chat post, Mariana. :-)

  13. You're more than welcome Debbie. It's an excellent post, and I visit it frequently. :)


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