The first time I heard the phrase “a single story” was in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story. She describes growing up in Nigeria reading literature that focused centrally, if not entirely, on white, usually European, characters. Through her love of reading and books she was “accidentally” indoctrinated with the notion that there is a single story to be told, or worth telling. And it was not her own.
Writers from Palmeri to Friere to Smitherman have all talked about the colonizing effect that “proper English” and the prioritization of alphabetic texts can have in our classrooms and beyond, and Adichie gives us a very concrete example of the almost imperialistic impact novels and literature had on her and certainly others. (Adichie is a renowned author, so I don’t believe she means to completely denigrate the written word—certainly that is not my goal, either.) It is worth recognizing that for centuries, though, certain voices have tended to proliferate and dominate our written English language. Other voices have been speaking, writing, composing, but they have not garnered the same acclaim or value or attention. (If we talk about “getting away from” or “diversifying” the canon, we all know what we mean, because we all know—even if we speak of it euphemistically—whose voices have been traditionally privileged.)
I encountered the phrase “single story” again in Jay David Bolter’s piece, Alone and Together in the Electronic Bazaar. There he writes that what we have with the advent of online writing, digital media, and “hypertext,” is “not a single, organized, regulated community, but a collection of communal interest groups held together by lines of association that cross and recross” (12). We are able, through our globalized technological communities, to not only value a variety of voices and perspectives, but somehow still to form communities and to find our voice in relation to others’. “Hypertext implies a new sense of community, a new tolerance for multiple and even conflicting narratives,” he continues on page 17. “As a strategy for writing, hypertext can contribute to building communities, but—” (and here he offers what he seems to feel is a bit of a caveat) “—the communities it builds will be less cohesive than the ones what we have known.” Here, Bolter is acknowledging a possible downside, though I believe it is full of upside. This new sense of community may naturally bring with it a feeling of less belonging, the group being “less cohesive,” especially for some people or some groups. I think “less cohesive” could also be read, though, as “less insular.” While I can see where Bolter is coming from and that losing that sense of immense comfort that comes from a single, “relatable” narrative for some would feel like a loss of community (or nationality, or whatnot… Please see: Donald Trump), I also do not feel that multiple voices, various narratives, and perhaps even points of conflict and tension weaken a community. Instead, I feel this presents an opportunity to build even stronger, more understanding, and more inclusive communities, as well as recognizing the already inherent fact of our realities that we belong to multiple communities to begin with (speaking to the idea of various group identities and intersections we all are born into and embrace or eschew as we grow). In fact, precisely because many of us contain multitudes, a community or communities that embrace all of these aspects of selfhood may feel more cohesive.
Bolter acknowledges the reality of multiple communities and does encourage us to embrace this new conception of writing as community-building, and that the challenges it presents are also immense opportunities for growth. “We should always try to speak of communities in the plural. We must resist the pull of a single story; and this is not easy to do” (Bolter, 17). He urges us to embrace the inclusion of new and many voices, recognizing the advantage of many stories, which Adichie speaks of. Online media and the proliferation of a variety of story-sharing platforms (think of everything from blogs to YouTube to StoryCorps) mean that more than ever we are able to listen to individual voices and communities, and that we—inclusive of every "I" and every "we"—are able to take agency over our narratives and claim a space at the literary table, among others. This presents the wonderful (and, yes, occasionally challenging) opportunity to communicate more dynamically and fully within our own communities, but also to speak across divides, to tell our truths and listen carefully to others so that we may better understand ourselves and those around us. As Bolter notes in the final page of his essay, “In a world of electronic writing, each community must realize that its story cannot subsume and control the stories of other communities. Electronic reading and writing means, above all, holding things in suspension, deferring conclusions, resisting closure.”