A chance posting by a friend on Facebook led to some reflection about this place where I am and how I am approaching it. And a dose of recognition.
“Quick, tell me, what are you reading right now and do you like it?” she asked.
“Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m loving it,” came my reply.
Soon after, my friend replied that she too enjoyed that book, and had I seen Adichie’s TED talk? I may find it relates to where I am now, she wrote. No, I had not. I tracked it down. I watched it. I felt the cold creep of recognition. I feel compelled to share this.
Adichie is a Nigerian author who writes novels about Nigerians, the kinds of people she has known growing up in her academic family. Her book Half of a Yellow Sun gives much insight into the cultural and political history of Nigeria, while seemingly depicting the stories of individual characters going about their lives. Americanah is the story of a Nigerian woman who has left behind her family and friends to study in the US and later returns home, and along the way learns a lot about the way people perceive race and difference, at least as of my reading, midway through the book.
Her short lecture is about “the danger of the single story”—basically the danger of reducing one place or one people into one consistent story. In it she speaks about the misconceptions her first college roommate had in the US about her, and realizing that her roommate had a “single story” of Africa—that it was backwards, dangerous, wartorn, people were starving or had AIDS, and those coming from there would never be able to speak beautiful English, or know how to use a stove, or be at all like her, a white American, in any way. Pop culture and literature can feed us one story of a place.
Adichie said she is not immune to this problem, and that when she first went to Mexico, she was surprised at the people she met—because she said had only absorbed one side of the story, that of the illegal immigrant, in which all Mexicans are reduced to those trying to break across the border and “fleece” the American health care system. She was startled to see Mexicans who did not at all fit into that single story. And she was ashamed that she had not taken the time to hear more sides of the story.
Here I am in Germany. There is a single overriding story of Germany for Americans that is one of the most overwhelming single stories there is: that of Nazi Germany. So much literature has been given over to this period of time that it can seem as if 1933-1945 was the only time that mattered in Germany. Recent examples of books and movies that have reinforced that time period for me, just to name a few, include: The Book Thief, The Reader, Life is Beautiful, and Schindler’s List.
One of the books I read just before we came to Berlin was The Boys in the Boat, the story of the winning crew team from the University of Washington who triumphed in the 8+ race in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in the years leading up to World War II, when repressions against Jews were being imposed. The book was a gift, it was about rowing, it was about Berlin, all of which were good reasons to read it. But the book reinforced that single story—that Berlin was the site of so much repression, the seat of a fascist government. The win of the ragtag American rowers against Hitler’s favored athletes was turned a bit simplistically into a battle of good over evil. (There were also incredible passages about ‘swing’ and direct quotes from George Pocock that made it well worth reading).
There is of course another single story of Germany, less understood by Americans, or at least this American, that being the Allies’ division of Berlin into four zones, American, French, British and Soviet, Americans portrayed as liberating heroes; the eventual construction of the Wall, the Cold War, and later, Reunification. And there is the simplistic depiction of Communism as evil, a notion fed since my youth, the most significant symbol being “The Iron Curtain.” In my experience this is less covered in literature, though of course there are some examples. The film The Lives of Others most recently fed into my ideas about life in East Berlin.
Almost lost to us is the older single story of Germany, that of Das Volk der Dichter und Denker—the nation of poets and philosophers. My friend Mel was the one to remind me that this was the single story of Germany before the wars, that of the country of Kant and Hegel and Wittgenstein, Einstein, Nietzsche, and so many more. Composers, poets, artists, philosophers. Mel reminded me that in Little Women Jo’s husband, Professor Baer, represents that single story—the poor but kindly, thoughtful professor. But for Americans, this view of Germany has been scuttled under the rug in favor of the more visceral and more recent story of Nazi Germany, with its seemingly clear lines of black and white, good and evil, perpetrators and victims.
I will never forget receiving a letter from a German friend a year or so after graduating from college; she was a foreign student at my college in Pennsylvania. In her letter she explained that she was so relieved to have learned more about her own family history and to know that her grandparents had not been involved in any wrong doings during World War II. The tone of her letter made it clear that she was relieved to be able to distance herself from this single story that dominates American thinking, and she wanted very much to tell me and her other American friends that she herself was not personally tainted by the war’s broad brush. I felt like I did not deserve this letter; I did not see how any apology was needed, yet she had felt compelled to sit down and write it. Had I somehow made her feel that she needed to justify her own family’s actions all those years ago? The letter felt so out of the blue that I didn’t turn the question back to myself at the time, but I can’t help but do so now.
I feel the single story rise up in me every so often. I walk around Berlin and encounter three-dimensional humans in all their goodness and their foibles; I recognize how very similar they are to me even if their language is different. I know that we have so much in common, and I see that life in Germany today is remarkably similar to life in the US in most ways and has much to teach us about being more sustainable.
But the stolpersteine truly catch my heart every time; seeing the brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk saying so-and-so lived in this building and died in Auschwitz threaten to make me gag. They cast a pall on my mood whenever I see them. I had a conversation with a German friend in Kreuzberg about this, and I told her that it’s hard for me to leave behind the spectre of World War II and all that happened in this very city. She said that as a German she doesn’t see it in the same way; it’s part of their history, yes, just as slavery is part of the US’s history, or our battles over land with Native Americans. It happened, it’s part of your history, you need to know it, but you have so many other stories about your own world that day in, day out, most people are not dwelling in that one negative space of what once happened here.
I can tell that I am still in the process of integrating the Spielberg film and compelling novels I’ve read that so vividly bring to life the horrors and personal tragedies of the Nazi era, but after thinking about Adichie’s words, and those of my German friend, I recognize the need to let them die down a bit in my mind so as to make room for the more complex reality of Berlin and its residents today. Let the 1930s and 40s be one story among many, and not the single story.