Selective Empathy: Stories and the Power of Narrative

Photo: Daniel Tellman / Flickr
Photo: Daniel Tellman / Flickr

Societies venerate their storytellers almost as much as the stories. We talk about the wonders that stories can create, the ways they can change the world for the better.

Human beings tell stories. This is a fact. Every society, however differently organized and structured, whether founded on the values of matriarchy or patriarchy, whether agricultural, sea-going, peaceful, or warmongering, tells stories. We know this because anthropologists tell us so. Anthropologists, historians (what are historians but storytellers themselves?), and archaeologists, who have traced the origin of stories as far back as human life. The first written story to have been found is the Epic of Gilgamesh, produced sometime between 2150 and 1400 bc in cuneiform on fragments of tablets and unearthed in the sands of what is now Syria.

From epic legends like Gilgamesh to anecdotes, we tell each other stories every day: “Guess what happened?” Typically my seven-year-old son’s first words when he dashes through the door at the day’s end. A woman is late for lunch with a friend, she sits down, she says: “Just listen to the day I’ve had . . .” A man at a bar leans across to another man: “So I was driving down the freeway . . .” And so it goes. Storytelling is a symbiotic process, an exchange between teller and listener, between writer and reader. It is the way my son shares the highs and lows of his day, the way the woman who is late encourages her friend’s sympathy rather than irritation, how the man at the bar extends the hand of friendship.

It is easy to revere stories for all that they do. Today I know how it might have felt like to live under apartheid from Can Themba, how daily life unfolds during the civil war in Lebanon from Rabih Alameddine, sense the fear and courage of the enslaved from Colson Whitehead. Through books I can travel across distance, space, and time. I can imagine what it is like to be a man, or an elderly person, or recapture the experience of youth. It helps me understand the worlds of other people. Indeed, the link between reading fiction and empathy has been well established, most recently by researchers at the New School who have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. More than that, reading literary fiction—and interestingly the same doesn’t go for nonfiction or genre fiction such as romances or thrillers—actually changes people’s behavior.

Literary fiction focuses on the psychology of characters and their relationships. The characters in literary fiction are as real as a writer can make them, as full of the conflicts and flaws as any one of us. Literary fiction seeks to ask questions rather than provide answers. The outcome may not be predictable. The New School research shows that literary fiction prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Reading frees the reader from the constraints of the self, from our own prejudices and assumptions. Reading makes you a more highly functioning person. In other words—reading makes you a better person.

For all these reasons we cherish stories and we cherish those who write them. Societies venerate their storytellers almost as much as the stories. We talk about the wonders that stories can create, the ways they can change the world for the better. We do not talk about the pain stories can inflict and the damage they can do.

Societies venerate their storytellers almost as much as the stories. We talk about the wonders that stories can create, the ways they can change the world for the better.

When I was six one of my children’s books contained a poem about a little black boy, a blackamoor, who was being teased for the color of his skin by three white boys. A wizard who was also a giant heard them and picked up the horrid white boys and dipped them in black ink so that now they were black. I tried to figure it out, insofar as a six-year-old is capable. The giant wizard punished the cruel white boys. That seemed only right. But their punishment was to become black. That made no sense to me.

I grew up between Sierra Leone in West Africa and Britain in the 1970s. In Sierra Leone, I borrowed books from the British Council Library. I read Jack London and I read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t know London was apparently an enthusiastic eugenicist who thought that people of color, especially those of mixed blood, were biologically inferior. I liked dogs and I liked wolves and so I read White Fang and Call of the Wild. I did not critique his portrayals of Native American life; I would not have been able to. Even after making a documentary about him for the BBC, I’m not sure, as with so many writers, to what extent London’s ideology penetrated his writing, but I can tell you this—that the human heroes portrayed in White Fang and Call of the Wild are all white men; it is they who conquer the wilderness, they who show compassion to mistreated beasts, they who put the world to rights. I read Huckleberry Finn. I loved his adventures. I was what was then called a tomboy and saw myself in Huck. The word “nigger,” which appeared several times on each page, did not bother me, for I did not know that I was a nigger, for the reason that until then nobody had called me that name. I did not see myself as black or white, not because I was of mixed heritage, but because I simply did not see the world or myself in racial terms.

And then, when I was six, the political instabilities of Sierra Leone obliged my family to leave and go to live in London. And over the following years I learned the power of the word nigger, how it would be wielded against me and all the damage it could do.

Frantz Fanon wrote of the comic books of the 1950s and their corrosive effect on the psyche. “In the magazines the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as often as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary ‘who faces the danger of being eaten by wicked Negroes.’ I shall be told that this is hardly important, but only because those who say it have not given much thought to the role of such magazines.”

Toni Morrison has defined what she calls Africanism, both akin and different to Said’s Orientalism, in her own words: “the denotative and connotative blackness that African people have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.”

Fanon thought the unending negative portrayals of people of color damaged the psyche of colonized people, producing a sense of their own inferiority. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian Nobel laureate, took a more robust view of reading European depictions of Africa as a growing boy: “I don’t think I ever believed those things were true, but I met a great many people who did. This is ‘the black man’s burden.’ All Africans meeting a European who has never met an African before must first break through the preconceptions, reinforced by news reports and articles, of Africa as a place of unending misery.”

Probably the truth lies somewhere in between, depending on the circumstances in which a person is raised. In West Africa we were colonized but never settled, unlike Algeria where Fanon worked and wrote. How white people saw us had a lesser psychological impact, being at a distance. Did I ever think the portrayals I read of Africans and people of color were true? Certainly they didn’t square with my own experience of growing up in West Africa. But perhaps as a child I accepted them as true in some other version of reality, unlived by me, but somehow coexisting.

To see oneself only ever reflected through the eyes of another is to view the self through a distorting lens. This has to be true. In my teenage years the awareness grew that even if I did not see myself in the many depictions of black people that surrounded me, a great many people did. And if you had told me that challenging, overturning one at a time, those false narratives would become my life’s work, as it has become the life’s work of every one of us not born at the center, persistently viewed as “other” to a presumed norm, either because of race or gender, sexuality or disability, I would certainly have disbelieved you.

As a writer I devote myself to the task, in part because to be a good writer makes it unavoidable, and because, as I have said, I believe profoundly that stories matter.

As a writer I devote myself to the task, in part because to be a good writer makes it unavoidable, and because, as I have said, I believe profoundly that stories matter. “To poison a nation, poison its stories,” says Ben Okri.

A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art. . . . The true storyteller suffers the chaos and the madness, the nightmare, resolves it all, sees clearly, and guides you surely through the fragmentation and the shifting world. . . . Stories can change an age, turn an era round.

Or as James Baldwin said: “You write in order to change the world . . . if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”


Taking the Center

A few years back the promotional department of a publishing company sent me a book in the hope that I would review or endorse it. The writer was a psychologist who had been born in France in 1937, whose parents had been deported to the concentration camps and never returned. At the age of seven he joined the French Resistance as a runner, carrying messages back and forth across enemy lines. The book was called Resilience, the writer Boris Cyrulnik already a psychologist of great renown; this was my first introduction to him. I’d been sent the book because of my own work describing traumatic events and their impact in my memoir that describes the political upheavals of 1970s Sierra Leone, and in The Memory of Love, a novel set two decades later during the civil war. I read Resilience from cover to cover, and it struck me that every word Boris Cyrulnik said was true.

Cyrulnik is a world-renowned expert in PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, one who has been critical of many in his own profession whom he accuses of subscribing to a kind of psychological determinism in their handling of people who have endured trauma, acting “like car mechanics,” in his words, in their ideas of cause and effect. In his theories of resilience Cyrulnik has described how traumatic events can be framed by the narrative given to them, in ways that might exacerbate or mitigate those events. The narrative or context given for suffering is what determines survival; the feeling of selfhood is shaped by the gaze of others, namely the emotional reactions of people and of the culture around them. Cyrulnik found that, among children who survived the Nazi occupation of France, those who had, like him, joined the Resistance suffered the lowest levels of postwar depression. “Did these children join the resistance because they were already more resilient?” he writes. “Or did their narrative identity, or the stories they rehearsed in their heads after the war—‘I am the boy who at the age of eight, stood up to the German army’—give them a feeling of selfhood that had more in common with a hero than a victim?”

Cyrulnik thought it was the latter and argued that people’s ability to frame their own narratives was vital to their own sense of self. In the war years, for example, he wrote, sacrifice and going without were seen positively. Today, when the measure of happiness is personal wealth, success, and fulfillment, we discuss sacrifice only in terms of victimhood. Cyrulnik devoted his career to freeing children who had experienced trauma from the narrative of damage, and thereby of inferiority, to which a wider society would have condemned them.

Writers from all minority groups, and women writers, and those from colonized nations—all of us who have been spoken for, instead of listened to, have had to seize our own narratives.

It’s not hard to see the link between Cyrulnik’s theories of resilience and storytelling in wider society. The power of the story lies in the hands of the storyteller. “The true storyteller suffers the chaos and the madness, the nightmare, resolves it all, sees clearly, and guides you surely through the fragmentation and the shifting world,” said Okri. And to do so the storyteller must take control of the narrative. Writers from all minority groups, and women writers, and those from colonized nations—all of us who have been spoken for, instead of listened to, have had to seize our own narratives. In the case of African writers, to look back over the span of the last sixty years is to see the unbroken arc of a joint creative endeavor, one that has been in the main unspoken, a collective consciousness fueled by a collective outrage, one that would deny the Western gaze.

For the generation of African writers who came of age at the same time as their countries, this return to the center meant literally writing Africans into existence. For Chinua Achebe, writing Things Fall Apart meant challenging Conrad’s portrayal of grunting, nonverbal Africans in Heart of Darkness, giving his characters the interior lives and relationships, conflicts and flaws that the New School research into reading insisted was the basis of the creation of empathy, the very agency and subjectivity that Conrad had denied to them. For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o it meant retrieving his Kikuyu language, the language he had been beaten for speaking as a child undergoing colonial instruction. To this day he writes his novels first in Kikuyu and only thereafter translates them himself into English.

“I began to write because I did not see myself in literature, and I wanted to see myself there,” said Tsitsi Dangarembga, the Zimbabwean novelist. The same might have been said by Mariama Bâ, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Miriam Tlali.

We have had to write ourselves into existence, to place ourselves at the center of the narrative. At the same time the willful amnesia of a dominant culture that would rather forget its historical transgressions must be challenged. Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer, has described the portrayal of the Vietnam War by the Hollywood movie machine and American writers as “the only time history has been written by the losers,” and which has consistently portrayed Americans as the true victims of the war, overlooking the three million Vietnamese dead.

Lost narratives must be retrieved, those that have been omitted replaced. We must continually repeat ourselves: Binyavanga Wainaina’s scorching satirical essay on the way in which some Western writers persist in portraying Africans: “How to Write about Africa,” now a YouTube video featuring Djimon Hounsou; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” viewed two and a half million times.

Each generation of writers of African heritage builds on the foundations of the generation that went before. Not only have we taken back our stories and continue to do so, to place ourselves at the center of the narrative, but now we reverse the gaze. In The Memory of Love, my novel set in postwar Sierra Leone, a British psychologist arrives to help the war-afflicted. At first the reader sees the country through his eyes. I created Adrian Lockhart. And I also created Kai Mansaray, a young Sierra Leonian surgeon, who offers the reader a different way of seeing. Through Kai’s eyes we see the country, its past and its secrets, the nuances to which Adrian is not privy, and we see Adrian, his assumptions, his preconceptions, and his mistakes.

We take back our stories, we take the center, we reverse the gaze, and we transgress boundaries, setting our narratives beyond the spaces we have been allocated. Teju Cole’s Open City takes place in the streets of New York, Dinaw Mengestu’s Children of the Revolution is set in a district of Washington undergoing gentrification, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas, Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. all feature African characters viewing the West through the prism of their own experience. My own The Hired Man, set in Croatia, written in the voice of a Croatian man and using the framework of an African war as a lens through which to view a Balkan one—imagining what it might be to be the “other.”

In November 2016 I attended the National Book Awards in New York. Three out of the four winners were men of color. Congressman John Lewis, who won for his young-adult book The March, which tells of the 1963 civil rights march on Selma, spoke of growing up in rural Alabama, going to the library at the age of sixteen to get a library card, and being refused because the library was whites only. A note of triumph, accompanied that evening by a note of warning, from Cornelius Eady, one of the founders of Cave Canem, the collective of poets of color. One week on from the recent election he told the room of writers and publishers: “Right now, as we speak, uptown there are people in a building that are trying to write a narrative about who we are, and who we are supposed to be and what to do about us. When you lose that story or you . . . allow that narrative to be taken from you, bad things happen. It is our job and our duty to make sure we get to write our own story, the fullness of who we are . . . in our own language.”

Who could have imagined Eady’s words would be so prophetic? Months later and the phrases “alternative facts” and “fake news” have come to dominate media debates. What once was mainly relegated to academic and artistic discourse has entered the mainstream. If the rhetoric feels dangerous, it’s because the stakes are high. The battle begins with control of the narrative. But resilience—the prerequisite to winning the battle—comes from the forging of an independent narrative identity. In other words, knowing your own story and telling it to yourself. And resilience wins the war.

Georgetown University

Photo: Johnathan Ring

Aminatta Forna (OBE) is a prizewinning novelist, memoirist, and essayist. She is currently Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University and professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. Her latest novel, Happiness (Grove), will be published in March 2018.