Learning History from Novels

Americans have a provincial view of the world. It’s just a fact of our general psychology. A lot of us can’t find Iraq on a map. Educated people don’t know that India is the world’s largest democracy, or think the Japanese regularly “save face” by committing ritual suicide.


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So it’s not surprising, really, that I had no idea the Nigerian Civil War existed until I read Chimamanda Adichie’s novel “Half of a Yellow Sun.” I didn’t know what Biafra was. I didn’t know that a horrific genocide was perpetuated against the Igbo ethnic group. I didn’t know the Igbo ethnic group existed at all. I didn’t know how complicated Nigeria was.

I didn’t know those things, because I had only one narrative of Nigeria in my mind, the same narrative that most Americans have: “Africa.” Africa is one big place. All the people from it are “Africans.” Never mind that calling an American “North American” would be ludicrous to us. There are wars there, a lot. There is corruption. Bad things happen. Sometimes good Americans adopt babies from there, or refugee families are sponsored by the local parish.

And that’s it. That’s Africa.


So learning about these events is shameful. I found it a humbling experience. This whole complicated world out there, and I just had this simple little story in my mind about it. I was unspeakably wrong.

That’s why novels are so unbelievably important. They teach us about other stories. We learn about events of power, glory, and grotesqueness. We discover things.

With every novel we read, the world gets a little bigger. A little less simple. A little more beautiful, and a little uglier.

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