On Literature, Politics, and Empathy

I once heard in a podcast that literature is the best vehicle for empathy. As a social science researcher, it is part of my job to design surveys, analyze data, conduct interviews and focus groups and try to understand our reality to find a way to improve our societies. In this day and age, to look for ways of strengthening a social pact that is now fragile and shattered. Yet no amount of scholarly research can be as powerful as a well told story.


What I am saying is far from novel. Pundits talk about the power of stories to inform beyond data, although we often stick with numbers and fail to connect with the people that matter.  “Thinking small,”in fact, can be the best way to understand something that is big. Thinking small is the notion that by focusing on what is individual, local, and within our sphere of influence, we can make sense of the story, empathize, and have a greater sense of agency, as opposed to the paralysis and powerlessness that we feel when we are faced with what seems like an unmanageable crisis. To provide a few examples, if we think about international affairs, we do not usually see much uproar in the face of Saudi Arabia’s actions, yet there was massive mobilization when activist Khashoggi was assassinated. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea claimed the lives of thousands, but few events gathered people´s attention as much as the death of Alan Kurdi. This is called the singularity effect.

Yet, how can we move past the singularity? Perhaps one of the possible answers is through complex stories delivered in the form of beautiful novels. Storytelling is incredibly powerful, and few authors do it as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I started the year reading her book Half of a Yellow Sun. Already a fan of hers, I had previously devouredPurple Hibiscusand also enjoyed Americanah.

Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of a series of characters during the Biafran war of independence in Nigeria. The story is told through the eyes of three characters. Ugwu, a houseboy, Richard, a British writer living in Nigeria/Biafra, and Olanna, a professor at Nsukka university. Each chapter develops the narrative iterating between characters. Displaying her literary prowess, Adichie tells a story that marries love, politics, family, and betrayal in a way that does not give more weight to one or another. It carries the reader with the story, it makes the reader empathize with the feelings and pressures that all experience. There is a powerful scene in which one of the characters engages in extremely disgusting behavior yet as the reader you understand how peer pressure led him to do what he did.

There is much talk now about lived experience. I have no desire to enter the debate and I would never question that there is nothing as compelling as experiencing something first-hand. But perhaps literature is the next best thing (although I am keeping my eyes open for virtual reality!).

Contact theory is a theory first developed in the fifties to study the effects of intergroup contact. The idea is that under certain conditions (equal status, common goals, intergroup cooperation, top-down support, and potential for friendship) contact between people of difference can decrease prejudice. Perhaps a good novel can achieve the same. Spending time with a novel, you can connect with characters that are extremely different to you, relate to their circumstances, and without having anything to lose in real life, feel invested in their success. Perhaps literature is contact theory via fiction.

It is my belief that we are now at a historical critical juncture. Empathy will be key in overcoming division and polarization. Empathy towards groups that have traditionally been discriminated against and empathy between people who hold different ideologies. I wish it were as easy and enjoyable as picking up a great book and getting lost in its pages, but in the meantime, I recommend to all to pick a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is fiction, but great fiction, fiction that shows you the complexities of love, human emotion, how flawed we are as people, and how politics fits into it all.






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