Good books transport us to another world and time, introducing us to an array of characters we might never meet in real life. I need this form of escape more than ever today. Novels give us an insight into a stranger’s mind and the opportunity to discover their fears, hopes and desires. When we forget ourselves in a story, by attempting to understand the feelings and experiences of a particular protagonist, we inevitably shift focus from our own problems. By empathising with others, I believe, we better know ourselves.
Often I’m drawn to a story because I identify with the main protagonist – I share similar concerns and knowledge – or I aspire to be like them. As a child, I was desperate to catch up with my older siblings and always read books with sensible older characters. As a teenager I yearned for love and Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Thomas Hardy filled my shelves. In my twenties, I rejected that mirror – I stopped reading books with characters I could easily identify with and started reading novels that opened a window onto new and unfamiliar worlds.
When the news is relentlessly bad it can be difficult to process, but books generally offer a way in. To truly understand the plight of girls in Nigeria kidnapped by Boko Haram, I turned to Edna O’Brien’s novel, Girl. How could I possibly know what it was like to be a young schoolgirl in Nigeria, kidnapped at gunpoint, raped repeatedly and forced to endure the horror of becoming a slave of Jihadi fighters? Incredibly, in her eighties O’Brien visited Nigeria to research her subject and to interview some of the traumatised girls who had escaped their brutal captors. She put herself in their shoes and used her imagination. Because of her consummate skill as a novelist, O’Brien doesn’t turn off her reader – she allows us to empathise with the plight of her young heroine, Maryam; to read every painful detail about what happened to girls like her and to come away better informed and, more importantly, understanding what they went through.
When asked by the acclaimed war correspondent Christina Lamb (author of Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women) in the Times why she wanted to write a novel about the girls’ abduction, O’Brien responded: “Reportage can’t always give the full narrative… I could have written a piece, but it wouldn’t have got into what TS Eliot called the dark embryo, that connection to the unconscious…In the end, what I want from a book, as a reader and a writer, is feeling…opinions are two a penny.” She also observed: “Why do I write these dreadful things? Why do we read, why do we write? We read to know each other better, to know worlds we don’t know of. We need to be bestirred from our own corner into more dangerous corners.”
Another novel set in Nigeria is Abi Daré’s astonishing debut, The Girl With the Louding Voice, about the brutal rape and illegal marriage of a minor and her subsequent trafficking as an unpaid housemaid. The young protagonist, Adunni, speaks a distinctive Pidgin English which allows us to empathise with her youth, naivety, hopes and fears, and sometimes irrational decisions. Like O’Brien, Daré highlights societal ills in a way that is neither preachy nor delivered in didactic language. As Chibundu Onuzo observed in the Guardian: Daré’s story “joins a long and fine tradition of issue-led novels that have sparked conversations resulting in social change.” Despite her chilling subject, Daré succeeds in delivering a heart-warming ending.
Sara Collins’ timely debut, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, confronts Britain’s colonial past. Collins writes about a slave woman’s journey from a Jamaican sugar plantation to prison in Georgian London, presenting it as a gothic novel with an ill-fated lesbian love story at its heart. Collins says she was reluctant to write a conventional narrative about a woman who had been a slave: “Historically, slave narratives were written with an agenda: to inform white readers about the terrible suffering endured by slaves, and thereby persuade them to the abolitionist cause. It’s the kind of writing that tells you what happened to a person, but not much about who they were…unless we’re careful in the way we write about slavery now, we risk getting stuck in the same mode as those early chroniclers, reducing our characters to stereotypes from whom no one expects anything other than suffering… unless our characters reflect humanity in all its forms, good as well as bad, we risk dehumanising them all over again.”
Last year I interviewed Candice Carty-Williams in London. One young woman in the audience put up her hand. She was crying as she told us that this was the first time she had recognised herself in a novel. If you want to know what it feels like to be a young, single black woman dealing with prejudice today, Carty-Williams’ Queenie, marketed as the “black Bridget Jones”, is a good place to start. Queenie’s story forcefully brings home some of the ways racism manifests itself. Carty-Williams encourages us to empathise with Queenie’s experiences and admire her courage in confronting those who abuse or undermine her. Her novel is also indicative of a welcome move away from cosy female characters like Bridget Jones. Authors are increasingly challenging us to empathise with more troubled, damaged heroines, like Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, who is definitely not completely fine, and the OCD afflicted Sarah Green in Sarah Heywood’s The Cactus.
If you want to better understand the Brexit divide, Amanda Craig’s two novels The Lie of the Land and The Golden Rule, set in Devon and Cornwall respectively are remarkably perceptive. Craig is skilled at taking the pulse of a nation and expressing its essence in her fiction. She did this to tremendous effect in Hearts and Minds, which focused on human trafficking and migrant lives in London, while The Lie of the Land spotlights Brexit. Craig deftly explores the cultural clash between city and country and sympathetically reflects some of the reasons that huge swathes of the rural working class voted to leave the European Union. She writes astutely about rural poverty and how quickly resentment builds among the disenfranchised. Out of work mothers struggle to bring up their children and local women are bewildered to find themselves in competition with young Polish workers for poorly paid jobs in the local pie factory. In The Golden Rule she turns her forensic eye onto the lives of millennials, the rent generation and sexual harassment in the workplace. I came away from both novels feeling energised by Craig’s ability to create characters we can empathise with even though we don’t necessarily like them.
A subject close to my heart is the ways fiction can temper the negative rhetoric surrounding migrants and asylum seekers. Last year, Christy Lefteri’s novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, born out of her time working as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens proved to be a bestseller. It describes the flight from war-torn Syria of Nuri and his blind wife Afra and Lefteri explores trauma, broken dreams, love and loss. This year, The Stray Cats of Homs by journalist Eva Nour, translated by Agnes Broomé, is another novel that deserves similar success for helping readers comprehend the brutality of the Syrian conflict, its victims and our shared humanity. Based on a true story, Nour writes under a pseudonym. She was inspired to write her novel after meeting and falling in love with the real ‘Sami’, the novel’s Syrian protagonist who was granted asylum in France in 2015. Today the couple live together in Paris. Nour observes: “All major events in the novel are based on reality and are seen through Sami’s eyes, but several characters and situations are fictitious. I believe fiction can often bring us closer to the truth, and in Sami’s case the fiction was a necessity and prerequisite for publishing this book.” We are aware of her presence throughout the novel. She provides a brief narrative commentary between sections reminding us that real events have been filtered through fiction in order to make them bearable to read. At one point, she asks Sami: “I’m at the outer edge of this narrative, far out on the periphery. What right do I have to speak with your voice and bear witness for you? Only the right you grant me. What is told here has grown like an ongoing conversation, a plait we pull ever tighter with threads of four languages. We break off and start over, then we cry and carry on…I inherit your nightmares and memories without knowing how to put them down, if not on paper.”
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, a lyrical family saga, is also inspired by the author’s own experience. Her compassionate exploration of multi-generational trauma serves as a clear-eyed account of Việt Nam’s harrowing past and includes the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the ensuing famine, the disastrous land reform of the 1950s and the Việt Nam war. Her characters become refugees in their own country. Nguyễn brilliantly illustrates how reading allows her young heroine, Hương, to empathise with the ‘enemy’ and help her to appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the sacredness of “a normal day where we could just cook, eat, talk and laugh.” Books and poetry teach Hương compassion and strengthen her resolve to become a poet while we, as readers, empathise with the plight of Hương and her family through reading the novel.
Finally, a current topic: why do desperate people leave France and attempt the dangerous journey across the Channel to England? I’d recommend Breach, a terrific collection of short stories researched and written by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes and published in 2016 by the powerhouse indie publisher, Peirene Press. As well as encompassing the lives of refugees and migrants – some minors – desperate to leave the makeshift camps in Calais, to forge new lives from themselves in safety, the collection also offers the perspectives of volunteers, French residents and smugglers.
If refugees are safe in France (or Germany for that matter), why do they want to come to Britain? Usually it’s because they have family here or because they speak English. The story, ‘Oranges in the River’ beautifully illuminates this dilemma for one character in just one, short paragraph:
“In UK, he figures, it will take him six months to brush up his English and get a job. But in Germany, starting over, four years to learn the language? Five? He doesn’t have the time. He must begin his interrupted life.”
This description of someone yearning to resume an ‘interrupted life’ stays with me longer than a 5-minute news report on European refugee camps. It makes me understand why someone wants to resume an interrupted life in the UK (where they have relatives or speak the language) rather than another European country.
What I love about all these books is their ability to tackle difficult issues – race, prejudice, gender, class, sexuality, refugees, slavery and more – to challenge readers to think differently, to feel another’s life and perhaps, through empathy, to soften hearts, encourage debate and inspire social change.
You can watch our panel, Writing Through Adversity, with three people, Henry Fraser, Freya Lewis and Ella Dove, who have all had to face major life-altering challenges, and Christie Watson who has spent her career in nursing and writes about the Courage to care. All three have found creative and writing pursuits have helped them, and you can hear their stories and how writing has helped.
Lucy Popescu is a writer and arts critic with a background in human rights. She worked with the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers, for over 20 years. She is currently chair of the Authors’ Club and administers its Best First Novel Award. Her anthology, A Country to Call Home, focuses on the experiences of young refugees, and was selected to be part of the Empathy Collection 2020. She also compiled and edited A Country of Refuge, a collection of writing on refugees and asylum seekers by some of Britain and Ireland’s finest writers. She was Granada’s youngest published author in 1982 with Pony Holiday Book. Her late mother, the children’s author Christine Pullein-Thompson, taught her the importance of empathy towards animals as well as humans.
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