The Power of Storytelling
During this year's International Literature Festival Dublin, Nigerian author and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche spoke at an event in the Convention Centre about her life, her work and her beliefs.
I first heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie after seeing one of her Ted Talks online, We Should All Be Feminists. I remember being struck by how openly she talked about her experiences and by how she could see how these experiences fit into a bigger picture. After I finished watching the video, I immediately watched it again. The message that we should all be feminists and recognise the inherent sexism in our society in order to change has stayed with me ever since.
The author, who grew up in Nigeria and now shares her time between there and America, has had her work translated into over thirty languages, has won counless awards and is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Also, Adiche's 2009 TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story is one of the most view TED Talks of all time.
It was incredible to hear from such an influential speaker, whose work is respected internationally, and to see just how ordinary and down to earth she really seemed. As she was interviewed by Sinéad Gleeson on stage, she chatted easily about her life, how she came to discover that she was a 'feminist' - as awful as it had sounded at first, and how she finds herself constantly learning.
One of the themes that Chimamanda discussed at the event was storytelling. While discussing feminism and the changes that are taking place within the feminist movement, she stressed how important it is that we speak of our own experiences and that we listen to those of others. She was asked whether white middle class women should be doing more to ensure that they share the stories of women of colour and other historically disenfranchised groups, or whether they should step aside and stop pursuing their issues because others have more challenges to face. She didn't think so. As she put it "The white woman has privilege because she’s white but she gets crap because she is a woman."
Chimamanda also read an excerpt from her new book Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, which is based on a letter that she wrote to her friend who had just had her first child, a daughter. Her friend had asked her how to raise her daughter as a feminist, and the response that that the writer and speaker gave was thoughtful and inspiring, focusing on the need to raise awareness of the need for feminism in this world.
What I found very interesting was that, when asked about whether issues relating to race or feminism made her more angry, she answered that it was feminism. She said that while people are aware of race issues, both today and in the past (whether or not they are addressing those issues appropriately), people aren't as quick to recognise that gender based issues also exist. She said "When we talk about racism every one gets it but with sexism I'm constantly asked to prove it."
This, I feel, is where the power of storytelling lies, and see how she utilises this power of hers. Through sharing her stories and experiences and through listening to others, many others, she has been able to reach a new level of empathy and understanding. There is nothing else as powerful and no way more effective at explaining something new than listening to someone speaking about their own lives, their own experiences. In effect, it's their reality.
The referendum on whether to remove the eighth amendment from the Irish constitution has shown just how powerful storytelling can be. The Facebook page In Her Shoes shares the stories of women who have been affected by the eighth amendment and the restrictive abortion laws in Ireland. No amount of statistics, rhetoric or theory could do what those stories do - illustrate a heartbreaking reality and the urgent need for change.
The event was both inspiring and thought provoking. As a speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is incredible, in the easy way that she spoke to a crowded auditorium as though she was chatting with a few friends. She said herself that night that she doesn't like when discussions about feminism or any other issue become to 'jargony,' because that removes the discussion from reality and what people's real and relevant experiences are. Stories themselves are powerful on their own.