The Danger of a Single Story – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I have to admit to a mixed impression of TED Talks. Some of them seem more flash than substance. But then there are talks like this one, which is at once funny, real and moving. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was kind enough to gift to the world the fantastic novel Americanah, owns the stage in delivering this moving talk.

The talk is called “The Danger of a Single Story” and in it, she discusses the limited worldview we create for ourselves when we only have only one narrative for a culture. Frankly, she says this better than I ever could, so I’m simply going to post my favorite excerpt below, but I encourage you to watch the whole talk. It’s absolutely worth the 18 minutes.

“All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story….

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.”

Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

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Like Water for Chocolate, the first novel by Laura Esquivel starts with onions and a birth. Chopping onions, that bring about a wave of tears. This opening is apt because the entirety of the novel weaves together food and emotions.

For me, this is actually a re-reading. My copy is a stolen one, taken from a beach house my family stayed in one spring, probably after I’d finished all the mystery novels I’d brought down with me. I’m not sure why I grabbed it. Maybe I gravitated toward the cheery cover, or perhaps the moderate size. Still, I’m glad I did. Because once I started reading, I was fully sucked in.

Like Water for Chocolate was my first intro to magical realism, now one of my favorite storytelling tools. Tita de la Graza, our passionate protagonist, finds her home in the kitchen of her family’s large Mexican ranch. Nurtured by the stove from a young age, she connects with flavors and food in a way that most people only dream of. She also wins the heart of Pedro Muzquiz, a boy from their neighborhood and is heartbroken when she is told by her mother that they can never wed, due to the family tradition of the youngest daughter having to stay home and take care of her mother as she ages.

Pedro, unable to bear the idea of being separate from Tita, marries her sister Rosura instead, turning the ranch into a hotbed of love, lust, jealousy and heartache.

Tita’s haven is her kitchen and her artistry is in cooking, so the food she makes is imbued with the emotions she feels. Heartbroken, and her cake will make you sick. Lustful, and her meal causes one of her sisters to run away with a rebel.

Like_Water_for_Chocolate_(Book_Cover)No – the story is not particularly realistic. The emotions are sweeping and devastating in their fury, the love is steadfast and unchanging…and I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to make hundreds of partygoers sick just because you were sad when you made the cake batter.

The rich emotions give the novel a timeless, mythic feeling.

Nonetheless, Esquivel uses these grand, almost operatic turns of phrase to tug at the reader’s heart. For don’t we all know that feeling?

I had been meaning to reread this book for years (tellingly, unlike so many others, this one has never been donated or lent away). The setting and culture, particularly the food, are undeniably impactful on the story, but overall it’s a story about love, longing and the confounding ties and responsibilities that come with family: universal feelings, to be sure.

 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I’ve passed this book before. It’s one of those intellectual best-sellers that sits on tables in the front of bookstores. I’ve picked it up, perused the pages, moved on. Somehow it really never held my attention. But after the enthusiastic recommendations of both a coworker and cousin, I finally picked it up. I’m so glad.

Anne Fadiman has a thoughtful tone that illustrates intense experiences without resorting to hyperbole and reviews historical events without devolving into a textbook. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down focuses on the journey of the Lees, a Hmong family that is resettled in Merced as refugees. When one of their children is diagnosed with epilepsy, the miscommunication between them and their Western doctors leads to tragedy and heartache.

In between chapters about the Hmong’s struggle, Fadiman reviews the turbulent and often tragic history of the Hmong people. Fadiman does not spell out any overt conclusions; her tone remains nonjudgmental and descriptive instead of preaching.

Nonetheless, the historical context paints a picture of an independent people. Additionally, Fadiman demonstrates how the qualities that allowed the Hmong to thrive in hostile environments backfire when thrown into the context of the American medical system. On the other side, while the doctors operate with the best of intentions, their inability to communicate with the Lees cause much of their hard-work to be in vain.

The indisputable takeaway is that without mutual understanding, our best intentions may go to waste.

Anne Fadiman’s descriptive and well-wrought book was one of the highlights of my non-fiction reading. Definitely recommended. Thought-provoking and engaging.