Last night I attended a discussion at the Schomburg, a research library in Harlem that’s part of the NY Public Library. My favorite Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was headlining the panel along with Siddharta Deb (Indian cultural critic). Romain Bertrand (French historian), and Farah Griffin (African-American historian @ Columbia.) The event was facilitated by the not-so-new Director of the Schomburg, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a historian at Indiana University and a great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad.
Titled “Says Who? Writing from a Global Perspective”, the panel took as its starting point, Adichie’s widely watched Ted talk in 2009 about the danger of a single story. In that talk, she cautions us not to think that a single perspective that is put forward defines a person or a place. Last night Adichie took this point further by highlighting the power of story – alluding to Mandela’s claim that reading for him helped to bring the prison walls down. She also reminded us that it’s not hard to see how story telling – whose stories are told, when, how, from what angle – is largely shaped by power. Bertrand discussed how his work focuses on recovering the voices of those in Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Java (Indonesia), living at the edge, those who first encountered Europeans – voices that have been largely silenced. Deb highlighted the complexity of the “single” story emerging from India as an economic powerhouse on the rise. And yet 400 million still live off the land where financial prosperity and well-being is not part of their script. Griffin discussed the process of what she called “erasure”, the marginalization and silencing of 3 African-American women – Pearl Primus, Ann Petry and Mary Lou Williams – that she’s recently studied. While these women were well-regarded in their local communities and known in their time, their scope of influence has been undermined and all but erased within the historical cannon.
Nigerians were well represented in the audience if those who stood to ask questions at the end were any indication. Several young Nigerian-Americans even publicly claimed Adichie as their “Auntie.” She is well loved. One young man, a medical student en route to Nigeria for a month of training, wants to blog about his experiences and asked how he might go about doing so. Adichie, who admitted she’s never blogged in her life (though her character Ifemelu in Americanah is an avid blogger) is a big fan of blogging. She cautioned him not to conclude that what people are doing is “stupid” if its different from the way its done here but to ask lots of questions and be an avid observer.
Sound advice for all of us, whatever context we’re living in.