I've been reading a book of essays that has me thinking about aspects of fiction that I've never thought about. In one of the essays, the author (Neil Gaiman) talks about how fiction builds the capacity for empathy. That when one is watching television or a film, they are watching things happen to people. While in fiction, on the other hand, one is seeing things first hand through the eyes of another: A person, a place, an environment and a world that the reader has created in their own mind though the words of the author. He asserts that there is something fundamentally different about this experience, and that it aids in building empathy.
It makes sense to me. I'll have to think on this more.
It gets complicated when one thinks of imagination and what informs it. (White supremacy, capitalism, etc.) Even with books that quite clearly describe a character, a person will imagine them how they choose. (Here, I'm thinking of all of that backlash against the first Hunger Games film when a character described as having dark skin was portrayed by a black actress. So many of the white readers were hellbent on erasure. They acted surprised and/or mad and/or disappointed that this character was portrayed by a black actress.) And so, if reading builds the capacity for empathy, does it still only build capacity for empathy with the limits of what and who a person can or will imagine?
What is it that white readers, in particular, can do to develop an empathy that is not white centered?
Who is taught and who one chooses to read is never an innocent thing. It is the reason I stopped reading cis, heterosexual, U.S.-born, middle and upper class white men when I was in high school. There are times I stick my toes into their stories, but even with these men I choose men who write literature that has been stigmatized at times. (Here I'm thinking of the four Stephen King books I have ever read.) I can't bring myself to read the bullshit parade of cis, straight, white U.S. dudes (who are usually alcoholics and BORRR-RINNNNG as they recount their adventures) because I feel like it's rotting my brain. Their stories are the stories imposed on fucking everyone. If you're choking and saying things like "But some of them are really good writers!", I say, "Who fucking cares? I'm tired of hearing them."
I made a decision a long time ago in my reading that corresponds to everything else: That the closer you get to listening to, hearing, reading, believing and supporting poor, non-U.S. born, non-English-as-a-first-language, disabled, transwomen of color, the closer you are going to get to understanding what the fuck is going on in this country and in this world. And this has a direct impact on imagination, on empathy, and following, on the world itself.
It may be a soapbox that I'm on. I don't care. Rather, it's precisely because I do care: The next time you reach for the book of a cis, straight, temporarily able bodied U.S. born white guy, do yourself, your imagination, your brain and the world a favor and pick something else.
[Take a three minutes to read this bad ass and enjoyable bit having to do with art and artists by Teresita Fernandez, here. ]
(image from Street Etiquette's mood board)