Beware of assigning Detroit a 'single story'

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“Do they say ‘gal’ in Detroit?”

That’s what Riva asked me as we drove through Nairobi’s astonishing traffic. A native of the city and a lawyer, Riva guides the direction of KenyaImagine.com, an online magazine. We’d just met for coffee to talk about how I will move forward in facilitating writing workshops with teenagers, which in turn could create content for the site.

“Huh?” I asked. Before answering, Riva pointed out a castle built on a hill along James Gichuru Road, a relic of a British settler with a curious sense of self-grandeur. The castle is now a refugee administrative center; Kenya welcomes many thousands of people escaping terror in their home countries.

“You say ‘gal’ a lot,” Riva finally replied. “’You said ‘I’m just moved in with two gals’ and I wondered if that was a Detroit thing.”

I laughed. A Detroit thing? It’s not, of course; that linguistic tic is my own.

But the question got me thinking about representation—and what I’m not asked about. To the many fascinating people I’ve met during my first two weeks in Kenya, I’ve explained that I come from Detroit. Some of them know the city, others remember it when I follow up with a moniker—“Motown,” “Motor City”—and to others, my mention is the first they’ve heard of it. One man, a creative writing professor at the University of Nairobi, related Detroit to its proximity to Chicago, which in turn brought up enthusiastic mention of President Barack Obama. It wasn’t the first time Kenyans asked my opinion of my president, and affirmed their own warm feelings towards him. If Nairobi bookshops are any indication, Obama is the nation’s most popular author.

Regardless of their familiarity with Detroit, I’ve become acutely aware that I am perhaps the only representative of the city that many Kenyans have encountered. And that in turn makes me realize all that makes me an exception to most Detroiters. I’m not a native of the city—I moved there in 2007. My life in Detroit spans only ten percent of my life (I’m 30 years old). Also, I’m white. I’m single. I’m only casually into electronic music. I say words like ‘gal.’

I want to explain this to Riva and the rest, lest they form a skewed impression of the Detroit: “… but I’m originally from a little town on Lake Michigan.” I’m anxious about carrying the weight of representing the city. But then: I’m reminded of a brilliant talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on ‘the danger of the single story.’ (Find it at www.ted.com). When we force a single story upon a place—Detroit, or, say, Africa—when we ascribe it a single narrative, a simple summation about who lives there and what they’re like, we come up with a dishonest view of that place. We call variations on the single story ‘exceptions’—so that I’m an exception to most Detroiters, an outlier. Curiously, when people back home ask about Nairobi, I’m tempted to emphasize how the city is an exception to the ‘single story’ they often have about Africa: I tell them about extraordinary cafes (serving local coffee and tea!), exploding urban development, the universities, the national museum, and the delicious food.

But this language of exceptions ultimately validates the single story, rather than cultivating a more honest story—one of multiplicities, of possibilities, of a place being many things, many stories, at once.

I’ve come to Nairobi to write and teach about stories. Here, then, is a good place to start: This gal isn’t making any caveats about where she comes from.

This article was published in the February 14, 2011 edition of The Detroit Free Press. Reprinted with permission.