The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

I have long been a fan of TED. A TED talk distracts you for 18 minutes with a cool “idea worth spreading,” satisfying the yen for a distraction but somehow alleviating the guilt associated with procrastination: like a particularly toothsome snack unaccompanied by the guilt of empty calories. Like many of you, I’ve watched my share over the years, admiring the interlocutory skill, the messaging and the clarity of thought they often represent. And, while I have a few favorites, the one I have watched and recommended more often than any other is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story.

Adichie is a skilled writer, whose book Americanah numbers among my recent favorites. In The Danger of a Single Story, Adichie shares a cautionary tale – the negative power of literature (and in particular, the traditional Western canon) to weave uniform narratives about other cultures that distort and promote dangerous cultural misunderstanding. Through this “single story” tradition, literature can “open up new worlds” but can also concurrently “rob people of dignity,” dangerously emphasizing “how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Adichie begins her lesson close to home, with her childhood surprise that her family’s houseboy Fide – a boy whose story was one of extreme poverty – was in fact gifted with extreme creativity. The colorful baskets woven by his family were inconsistent with the image she had created based on the stories of pity and empathy pieced together by their relative circumstances. And she goes on to discuss the danger of deep and abiding cultural misunderstandings occasioned by single stories – whether Kipling’s description of the African as “half devil, half child” or the contemporary American narrative of a caricatured Mexican immigrant as an accurate representation of all that Mexico has to offer.

But what I find most compelling about Adichie’s message coincides with a theme that arises often in Books@Work: the strong element of surprise when single stories turn out to be wholly “incomplete.” Our participants register surprise at what co-workers say, whether the office worker who reads and appreciates history or the engineer who reads far more literature than his colleagues had ever imagined. Supervisors express surprise at the thoughtfulness of an employee, of the voice they do not hear in the daily rhythm of the workplace. And our participants often share both surprise and delight that their own perspectives or contributions can stop a professor in her tracks. As one participant exclaimed about discussing Milan Kundera’s challenging – but rewarding – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “Look at me, I can talk about European history with a professor.” Finally, our professors are delighted by the quality and the sophistication of the conversations, often among readers with little or no previous postsecondary education. As one professor shared just yesterday, “The conversations were as rich and varied as the ones I have in my classroom.”

I feel like a broken record when I say that we make a huge mistake of putting people in boxes, driven by the attributes that constitute a “single story.” The single story we see so often in Books@Work – the one we work so hard to overcome – is the tendency to assume we know what someone is capable of doing or thinking based on the role they play in the workplace or in the world. But as Adichie cautions, “create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Stories, Adichie explains, are about power: “how they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, and how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”

At Books@Work, we use written stories to help people tell their own stories, their multiple stories. “When we realize that that there is never a single story about any place,” or any person (if I might augment Adichie’s words), “we regain a kind of paradise.” 

A paradise at work? Pull up a chair, I have a story for you. . .

Further Reading: 

Celebrating Banned Books Week by Celebrating Diversity

A Better Book List: Classic Novels Worth Reading

A Text at Work: Two Poems for Labor Day

Image: Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, 1919-20, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

anksmith@thatcanbeme.org

Ann Kowal Smith is Executive Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work.