By Emily Tamkin
Both scientific studies and literary luminaries tell us that reading literary fiction can make us more empathetic. Inhabiting the worlds of novels and short stories can help us step out of our own personal lives and into another’s and back again—leaving us more understanding than we were before of experiences beyond our own.
But can it make us more understanding of issues beyond our own too? Can we become more empathetic or politically aware by supplementing news articles and white papers with a piece of fiction?
The answer, according to some of the authors who are writing about real-world issues in fictional stories, is that we can try.
The authors, for their part, have dealt with a wide variety of subjects with which we readers can use fiction as a vehicle for examining geopolitical conflict—and, perhaps, learn what it might mean to be geopolitically empathetic in the process.
New America Middle East Fellow Zaha Hassan is addressing the plight of Palestinians in her upcoming novel Die Standing Like Trees. An international lawyer by training, Hassan recently wrote that she chose to use literature to explore this topic so that “those observing events unfolding in Palestine/Israel can imagine the humanity in the very real stories of Palestinians and the context of their struggle for freedom and self-determination.” Similarly, Anthony Marra brought the wars in Chechnya to an American audience in his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno (disclaimer: both made the author of this article cry). In Ghost Fleet, August Cole and New America Strategist Peter Singer use the novel form to imagine World War III. And writer Xiaolu Guo uses her books to explore “the issue of exile, the issue of complex relation between art and politics, and how artists try to survive in a political environment” (this according to Guo in an email). The list goes on. But, between the titles, the question remains: How do writers bring the geopolitical to fictional life?
Picture: Anneli Salo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons