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Why Stories Can Save Us

I have this notion that if anything can save us from becoming our worst selves, it's stories. Not religion. Not laws. Not even our best attempts at ‘being good’. Only when we step into someone’s story are we able to understand them, to see ourselves reflected in them, and to begin bridging the divisions between us.

Watching the recent events involving violence against members of the Black community – including Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting and the recent killing of George Floyd by a police officer—and the divisiveness they reveal in our culture over race, it occurs to me that only true empathy for one another can diffuse the tension that mistrust, fear and hostility have created between us.

Brene Brown says, “You can’t hate up close,” and in this current season when the air between us feels charged with an almost palpable hate, we need to find ways to engage in conversations that are curious and open-hearted, informed and respectful. As a white woman, when I listen to the experiences of my black and brown friends, I see life through their eyes for a minute, and I’m grateful for the ways it helps me look at the world differently.

Next to actual friendships, books are the best way I know to learn the stories of people who don’t share my racial, religious or ethnic background.

Question is: do we reach for books featuring main characters (or from writers) who are different than us? Check your bookshelves. I’m guessing not so much. I can tell you that since my English major days at UC Berkeley, where classes like “African-American Poets” or “Asian-American Women Writers” were required for my undergraduate degree, I haven’t read nearly enough writers outside of white Europeans as I should.

Yes, it’s natural to be drawn to experiences that mirror some aspect of our own life. But it’s often the books that are outside of what’s familiar to me that end up being the richest and most memorable. It’s why my memories of my trip to Barcelona are more vivid than my trip to Lake Tahoe last year: both were beautiful and entertaining places, but in Barcelona I experienced new people, food, customs, language, that changed me, expanded me. I feel that way when I read stories that immerse me in worlds I’ve never been before:

-the deep south of the 1940’s (The Color Purple)

-begging on the streets of India (A Fine Balance)

-among the Taliban in Kabul (The Kite Runner)

-a boys’ reform school in 1960’s Tallahassee (The Nickel Boys)

-post Civil-War plantation (Beloved)

-a Korean farm in 1900 (Pachinko)

I could go on…

The point is, my understanding of these cultures is much more nuanced since experiencing them through characters I cared about. I felt their sorrow, joy, fear, and a hundred other human emotions we all share. It’s as though, in a way, I’ve been in those places with those characters. Any fear, mistrust, ignorance, or biases I may have had about ‘those kinds of people’ melted away when I learned their stories.

For goodness' sake, let’s challenge ourselves to seek out stories that help us develop more empathy for people whose experiences differ from ours. For me, that means reading more writers of color, from a point of view that isn’t Eurocentric. I need to see and hear and feel what the world is like through their voices. I’m guessing I have much to learn.

Here’s what’s on my current or to-read list:

Native (Kaitlin Curtice)

The Water Dancer (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong)

Sing, Unburied Sing (Jesmyn Ward)

What’s on yours?

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