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The Stories We Are Told

It wasn’t until high school that I realized I’d been looking at the world backwards.

My anthropology teacher projected on the whiteboard a map from a Chinese textbook. There was China, in the middle. For the first time in my life, I had to look for my own country. The sight was unexpectedly jarring – if China could be in the center, then could not also be Russia? Or England? Or Israel? My goodness, what would it mean for the rest of us if Australia were in the middle?

Over time I have come to connect this idea of a subjective vision with other perceptions, questioning how things are presented to me, the picture I am being shown, the story I am being told.

Stories have been a deep love of mine since I was seven. I learned to read late, so I read as though I were making up for lost time. The people in the stories became my friends. Their lives provided me access to the world beyond my small life: I could bunk with hired hands in the American south, go to a girls’ school in France, and travel in a horse-drawn carriage with people who say words like “tête-à-tête.”

I know I am not the only person who finds that stories have a way of sticking. They expanded my vision of the world and the people in it, of the many types of lives there are. The impact of stories is immeasurable, and I began to ask myself about the implications of that, of a story’s ability to shape us and our perceptions.

In 2009, the author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED Talk titled, “The danger of a single story.” In it she tells a story of her own, of a trip made to Mexico. At the time, there was much talk in the U.S. regarding immigration, of immigrants crossing our borders to deplete our resources and compete for our jobs, taking things that are ours without providing much of anything in return, like leeches on waterfowl.

And so it was that Adichie ventured into that Mexican city and found when she looked at the very human scene before her, of men smoking and people laughing and everyone going about their business and lives, she felt surprise at how familiar it all was. And then she felt shame.

“I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind,” she says. “The abject immigrant.”

She carried with her the stories she had been fed, and these stories were inadequate.

It is easy to find ourselves within the confines of a single vision of all things “other” — particularly in America, where so many of the world’s stories are produced but tell of things that feel distant and strange. These incomplete stories are what fuel the stereotypes and prejudices we hear so much about. In them, the real people, the whole people — wives, fathers, children, grandparents — are lost to the “abject.”

There is no single story of an immigrant or a refugee, of heartache or war, just as there is no single story of any human being or human experience. It is only by exposing ourselves to the vast variety of stories that we open ourselves up to more than just the stereotypes and the two-dimensional. Breaking free of these confines opens us to the empathy, understanding, friendship, community, and love that can be brought about when we truly engage with other people. People who are just like us in their human spirit but who have something new and utterly theirs to show us, to offer us.

There is no single story of an immigrant or a refugee, of heartache or war, just as there is no single story of any human being or human experience.

“Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,” says Adichie, “but stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize.”

This is why complete stories must be told and must be read, to expose not only one vision of the world, but all of them.

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