Teaching Empathy

“I’m not an empathetic person,” my brother said.

I saw my brother for the first time in nearly a year at Thanksgiving. We were discussing the Syrian refugees coming to America and he said he would not let any of them into this country because it’s their problem not ours. He shrugged and said, “I’m not an empathetic person.”

I do not understand.

How is it possible to be a human being and not be able to put yourself in the position of another human being? I’m wondering if empathy can be taught. For myself, I did not grow up empathetic and my world view was limited and circling around myself. I’m working on becoming a better person.

As an educator, I’ve learned to ask questions because a student should learn an idea on their own and not be fed my opinion (which can be wrong or misleading). But I’m not a teacher all the time and don’t want to be. I don’t always have students and the power that puts me in charge just because I’m out of college and the students are in high school does not make me qualified to teach empathy.

I think writing helps create empathy. I think that if you can imagine yourself as a character born out of your head, you can understand another human being, or at least know a few steps in the right direction.

I think reading helps create empathy. I can only hope to read more broadly about the experiences of those who I am not, whether through gender, sexuality, religion, class, ability or nationality. There is much to learn and billions of lives with stories which may or may not ever be told.

Please send me any thoughts on how best to become more empathetic. How do you teach empathy? Thank you for your thoughts.

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Books By Women: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Instead of a blurb on the back of my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle  (originally published in 1962), Penguin Classics instead included the opening lines of the novel:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had […] I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

And because I have a soft spot for female protagonists, especially female protagonists who talk about the weird and the bizarre as if it were normal, I had to buy this book. Yet, it is probably one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. It is at once a mystery novel (what exactly happened to Mary Katherine’s family?) as well as a study of a town, mob mentality and forgiveness.

It’s a Shirley Jackson novel.

That name didn’t mean anything to me either when I bought the book, but Johnathon Lethem explains in the introduction that most people have read Shirley Jackson and just don’t know it. Shirley Jackson wrote the short story “The Lottery.”

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle has the same fantastic use of a small town setting to create a world and a culture, and the same suspenseful build up, allowed to grow that much larger in a novel, than is possible in a short story.

Yet, I’m not sure if I enjoyed it. I would recommend it for its weirdness without expressly being speculative fiction and because Shirley Jackson is a brilliant writer who can write on similar themes across her work and still have them nuanced and fresh. But I’m not sure I enjoyed the novel. I would have to read it again and see if the characters struck me more intensely the second time, or if the plot holds a greater resonance than on the first read.

It’s definitely worth reading, but I’d be interested to know if you come away with the same odd longing for something more that you’re not quite sure how to describe.

Keep on reading! Up next: The New Jim Crow.

Books By Women: No One Belongs Here More than You

I want this book title tattooed on my arm.

No One Belongs Here More Than You

indexI want to remember Miranda July’s collection of short stories for the rest of my life because this was the book I needed to read. Every story is a testament to loneliness and the struggle toward self love. I found No One Belongs Here More Than You at a Barnes and Noble when I convinced myself, even after reading the first story, that I was not going to buy this book. I was not going to buy this book. I was moving to Chicago in two weeks. Why did I need one more book?

I should have bought the book, but it was an incredible accident that I found a copy at the local library and it was the last book I read while I was still in Georgia.

Nearly all the stories were narrated in the first person and most of them were narrated by female characters. These people are flawed, as deeply flawed in numerous and terrifying understandable ways. The woman who falls asleep while her neighbor has a seizure. The teenage lesbian runaway who works at a Peep Show. The woman asleep with her boyfriend who hears someone coming up the stairs.

Miranda July describes our world with such honesty that the weird and the off kilter I look for in speculative fiction was laid bare in the human mind and the normal progressions of our day to day lives.

This was the best book I have read all summer and I will keep you updated on if I get that tattoo. Because more than the literary merit of Miranda July’s work, the title speaks to an essential feminist concept: you belong in this space (and every space); you have value; your words have meaning. 

I can’t wait to see more from Miranda July who is talented not only as a fiction writer, but also as an artist, screenwriter and film maker. To get a sense of who she is as a person, check out the website for the book here.

Next on my list: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Happy reading!

Books By Women: Dreaming in Cuban

After reading The Lady Matador’s HotelI knew I needed to explore more of Cristina Garcia’s work. Dreaming in Cuban (1992) was Garcia’s first novel, but you would never be able to tell by the flowing language, intricate pacing and point of view. The novel follows three generations of women exploring their relationship to each other, their Cuban identity and heritage, as well as the bias of perspective.

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This was a perfect choice to read during my year of Books by Women because most of the main characters are female and each experiences life, love and politics in a vastly different way than the other women of her family. Celia del Pino, the oldest of the women, supports the Cuban Revolution and is bound by her communist beliefs just as much as by her experience in a mental institution, away from her husband and daughter, Lourdes.

Lourdes hates Cuba and communism and moves to the United States with her husband to open a bakery. What I loved about Lourdes is that she is described as obese, but a beautiful and sexual being. Her weight holds no bearing on her sexuality or her sexual desires. As usual, Garcia writes female sexuality as natural, intimate and for the woman’s pleasure not the male gaze. There is a time in the novel where Lourdes loses weight through vigorous exercise and not eating for months and I felt awful for her, no matter how gorgeous she looked in her trim white suit for Thanksgiving. It felt like a character I loved for who she was withered away. When she finally starts eating again, she does so with such immense pleasure and might that I loved her more and more with each bite and each button that snapped from her suit. I loved the way Garcia rejected fat shaming and the novel is an excellent source of body positivity.

After Lourdes, Celia gives birth to Felicia. Through Felicia, Garcia takes a second look at the trope of women and madness through Felicia’s abusive relationship with her husband and the odd ways she loves her children.

The novel is told through third person present tense, but at times we see first person narration through the eyes of the youngest generation. As readers we learn Felicia’s story through third person and then through first person through the eyes of her twin daughters, and then again through the eyes of her son. This narrative switch comes into play throughout the novel, with first person narration by Lourdes’ daughter, Pilar, a punk artist. The switch in perspective happens only occasionally but is never jarring. Reading the novel as a writer, I marveled at Garcia’s use of perspective to tell a nuanced story of the lives of three generations of women: Celia, Lourdes and Felicia, and Pilar.

I would definitely recommend this novel, especially to readers interested in Latina authors and Cuban history. Because the novel is mainly historical fiction, Garcia fleshes out the story with historical details of Cuba during the Cold War and beautiful details of Cuban culture including foods and traditions. Dreaming in Cuban did not disappoint and her writing style foreshadows the incredibly work she would later do for The Lady Matador’s Hotel. 

Next up: No One Belongs Here More than You, by Miranda July. The summer’s almost over, but keep reading!

Books By Women: Love in a Torn Land Joanna of Kurdistan

A little over a year ago now I studied abroad in Istanbul, Turkey and current Turkish politics is my historical niche. My last semester in college I completed independent research on Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political parties and Turkey’s cultural genocide of the country’s Kurdish populations. Briefly summarized, Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group with a majority of Kurds located in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurds have been systematically discriminated against and outright killed based on their ethnicity, with Saddam Hussein bombarding Iraqi Kurdistan with chemical attacks in 1988 in the Anfal campaign. There is no separate state of Kurdistan. For extensive information on abuses against Kurds, please check out the Kurdish Human Rights Project.

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My research into pro-Kurdish political parties and the knowledge I’ve sought to join the movement for Kurdish rights globally has led me to begin a historical fiction novel set in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1990s and my research for this novel led me to the book: Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan: The True Story of a Freedom Fighter’s Escape from Iraqi Vengeance. joanna of Kurdistan

I’m not sure how to describe this book. On the one hand, it’s a biography, written by Jean Sasson, who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and has written multiple books through interviews with Middle Eastern women. But the book is narrated in first person from Joanna’s perspective. The writing reads as if it were a transcript compiled from the various interviews with Joanna, but to be honest I’m not sure how it was written. I’ve contacted Sasson to ask and hope to hear from her soon.

The writing didn’t have a lot of details which would have drawn me into Joanna’s story of growing up in Baghdad, marrying a Peshmerga Kurdish freedom fighter and surviving the Anfal Campaign. Hers is a story of survival, but I had difficulty investing myself because the writing didn’t put me into the scene. I can’t blame either Sasson or Joanna for this. Sasson explains in an interview on her website, that while speaking with Joanna, Joanna was often too traumatized to provide details, making the writing process far more difficult.

The book provided me with some of the cultural and historical information I need for my own project and it’s a great start for readers interested in modern Middle Eastern history who may not have a strong background.  As you read, you learn about Kurds, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and many details people living in the west don’t have access to or wouldn’t think to ask about. And even if you know some of the facts already as I did, having a human perspective is far more compelling and real than all the statistics and academic research you could ever compile.

I’ll keep you updated if I hear back from Sasson! In the mean time, keep reading.

Up next: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia.

Books By Women: The Lady Matador’s Hotel

Suki Palacios is a half-Mexican, half-Japanese female bull fighter. Cristina Garcia‘s novel only gets more intriguing from there. The story chronicles the lives of a cast of strangers (or near strangers) for the few days they all live in an unnamed Hispanic country’s most expensive hotel. The country has recently come out of a long and violent civil war.

Won Kim is a failing Korean businessman, at the hotel with his pregnant mistress. Aura is an ex-guerilla, no working as a waitress in the hotel’s restaurant. Gertrudis is a German international adoption lawyer. Martin is a colonel behind gross acts of violence during the civil war. Ricardo is a poet who, along with his wife, are adopting a baby girl.

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I first read this novel for a course I was tutoring and couldn’t devote the time to it I wanted. I was in the middle of taking my own college courses. When I made the commitment to read books by women for a year, this was on my list as one of the few books I planned to reread.

There are a four things which automatically make this book stand out as an inclusive feminist text.

1. Suki owns her sexuality.

As I’ve noticed as a trend in Garcia’s work (I’ve since read Dreaming in Cuban and will post on it shortly), her female characters do not shy away from sex or taking their own pleasure. For Suki, this means that part of her ritual before a bull fight is to find a male stranger with handsome feet she has sex with. In the novel, he pleasure her in a beautiful jarring scene between Suki and a man from room service.

Throughout the novel, all the male characters want to have sex with her, but Suki is always the one in control of how she uses her body. Better yet, there is no rape or coerced sexuality at all in the text.

2. Garcia plays with gender roles. 

Each character subverts or works from a gender stereotype. Suki, for all her beauty, competes in the masculine world of bull fighting. Won Kim wants nothing more than to study butterflies. Ricardo desires to be a great father, but no one trusts him because he’s male. Martin is the epitome of masculinity and we watch it consume his thoughts and violent desires. Although there are no queer, trans or gender divergent characters, Garcia purposely uproots our ideas about simple gender roles.

3.  Aura.

Aura’s my favorite. Garcia plays on gender expectations (again) when “the ex-guerilla” turns out to be female. Her plot arc, one of the most action based in the novel, is a revenge story which does not rely a gun in a female character’s hand for her to be strong. Her strength comes from her morality and her decisions. As Aura seeks revenge for her brother’s murder she has to really consider the consequences of jumping back into a life where she is a murderer: a life she gave up and does not want.

4. Aura. 

Aura provides the magical realism of the novel, adding just enough magic and mystery that I was engaged with both the characters and the world. Is Aura really speaking to her dead brother on the roof of the hotel? Maybe. Probably. But maybe not.

Garcia is the master of this in-between, ambiguous space. What I love the most is that, like Suki’s mixed heritage, everyone is more than one piece of  their identity. Everyone is messy and struggling. Without straying into dark plots that could never reach a happy ending or even a conclusion, Garcia takes each individual’s struggle seriously even the despicable characters we want to hate. Writing this humanity for even the darkest and most awful characters is what makes this novel a must-read.

Up next feminist nonfiction essays: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Keep reading!

Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

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The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!