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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A Poem a Day Challenge

Last Friday, Joyce Carol Oates read her poetry at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago.. To be honest, I didn’t know Oates was a poet. I knew her more for her short stories (specifically “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) and the novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (which I took out from the library recently but have not had a chance to begin).

As a writer, I tend to introduce myself as the writer who writes everything but poetry. I write fiction, nonfiction and drama. End of story.

But I’m coming to realize that the end of the story, is really just the beginning. I wound up sitting next to a woman at the reading who said she had spent the last three years writing a poem a day. That struck me as feasible and a simple way to gain comfortability in a genre where I have the least experience.

As I pursue female authors this year, I’m extending my own reach as an author and I encourage you to do the same.

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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: 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!

Hide Your Gays

I never thought I would fall into the Hide Your Gays trope. Yet I’m writing interactive children’s books for a public broadcasting station and when I wanted to create a lesbian school teacher I felt I had to ask permission in my character notes.

Can we have a queer relationship? PLEASE??

My boss is openly gay and the other woman I work for is hugely liberal and they responded to my note saying, yes, but the company would never allow it. Children’s books + Public Broadcasting does not equal queer characters. We compromised that the teacher would be in a queer relationship but that we would never see her partner and it would be our little Easter egg.

I am ashamed that I felt the need to ask if creating a queer character was okay. These books are small and over half the information I draw up for these character will never see the light of one my stories. I would never think to ask if it’ okay to have her be vegetarian or that she has 2 brothers. But the moment we breach the topic of sexuality, the rules change. Hurdles spring up. I need to justify my decisions and get permission.

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So long as queer characters are hidden in the recesses of authors’ minds we won’t see changes to queer stereotypes in the media or in real life. Queer children won’t have queer role models and the heteronormative culture we live in will continue to prosper as the culture. It’s a step that I created this queer character, but it’s not a step in the right direction because queerness is still considered subversive and unsuitable for children.

Be a Good Ally

I took a five-and-a-half hour bus ride out of Istanbul to get to the Gallipoli peninsula.

For those five-and-a-half hours, I had a long conversation with a man also studying abroad through the same program as myself. We had talked a bit before, but had never had the time to just sit and get to know each other. He’s an environmental engineer and I’m a writer, but we talked far more about real world issues we were each trying to solve through our chosen profession.

He knew about racial profiling and understood that racism is still alive today. He knew that when I was canvassing over the past summer, it must have been more difficult for me to be walking around as a woman. I told him it was worse for the canvassers of color who were stopped by the police. He was sympathetic and understood that he has privilege as a straight, white, cisgender man.

But, though he said he supported gay marriage, he would not actively pursue the issue because:

 it wasn’t his issue.

By this point in our conversation, I had explained how I do not believe American governments on any level (from local to national) are actually committed to making positive change. I told him that I wanted to use my creative writing to write better media representations of women, people of color, the queer community and any intersection or variation of the above. He was receptive to my ideas and was clearly considering his own opinions on the matter because he told me he wished he were more informed and could give a stronger opinion.

This is why his response that certain issues were not his issues floored me. By all accounts he was an ally. Not just to the queer community, but to the feminist community and to people of color. He understood that oppression is a contemporary issue that needs to be immediately addressed. So how can he see the problems of the world, know people who are affected by these problems and still believe he is only obligated to care about his issues?

His issues are environmental. I respect that. The earth needs an ally too. However, he is not a good ally.

Being a good ally is more than acknowledging issues exist. It is more than saying you support gay marriage or women’s rights. You can say all you want, but if in the end you won’t do anything because you believe you are somehow exempt from responsibility toward helping people who are not your own, you do not understand what an ally is.

The reason I believe American governments are not moving toward equality is because my friend’s reasoning is the norm. Progressive people are saying they support gay rights, anti-racist policies and gender and sexual equality for women but they are not doing anything about it. And if the people on the ground aren’t doing anything about it, how will our government know we are serious about what we say?

Be a good ally and put action to your words. Do more than tell the world you won’t sit back and let bigotry continue. Stand up and don’t let bigotry continue.

Adulting: Small-talk and Silence

I was at a creative writing reading the other night at a professor of mine’s house. My friend and I are undergraduate creative writing majors and imagine the stiffness of our walks as we entered our professor’s homes and found a living room full of adults drinking beers from the bottle, cups of whisky in their hands perhaps and all of them clearly over 21. My friend and I are clearly the youngest of the bunch.

We engage in small talk with a hipster looking man in his early thirties, as a pixie of a woman goes off to get us cups of water with a wedge of lime. The man we speak of is a professor as well, in the middle of his PhD program in creative writing. We talk about where we’re all from, what my friend and I are majoring in and what we want to do with our degrees. We wind up talking about comic books and I know my knowledge is immediately dwarfed by this man.  He’s been reading since the ’80s. He names off writers and artists off the top of his head, pulling them out of his sleeves like a magic trick. A few other men join the conversation and under the eyes of these older men with their drinks in hand and their careers in my chosen field I feel smaller and younger than ever before.

I am a big proponent that not only can no one make you feel inferior without your consent, but that no one can make you feel anything without your consent. I was letting these men somehow bully me into silence without them even having to say one off-hand comment. I just knew my opinion was valued less. And yes, I know I can’t support this. I know I can’t, and won’t, blame this on the men in that room. It’s me and my gender socialization that tells me I need to put on a front to be “cool” and “confident” and above all not a feminist.

So, when the conversation breaks off and the men are clearly talking amongst themselves I sip my lime-water and refuse to sit down though the men in the conversation are all seated and have been for a few minutes. I listen. The men talk about the Juicy Brand of pants where the backside reads “JUICY.” The man who knows about comic books says he sees a woman wearing that and he automatically has no respect for her.

This is a man in higher education! This is a man who is dealing with women of all types and styles of dress every single day and he can sit there on the couch, drink his beer and generalize about his respect for “those women.” He knows his opinion will be safe. I feel the words biting at my tongue. Oh, I want to tell this man that he doesn’t know anything about a woman by her style of dress and that I find that comment offensive and derogatory.

I take a long sip of my water to keep myself silent. My only victory is that I don’t laugh or smile at his comment like the other men. I look at my friend who shrugs slightly and I don’t know what the means.

The reading hasn’t started yet and already I feel exhausted by the pressure to be “cool” and not a feminist.

The entire evening I felt like I was putting on a production. I had to at once appear a calm, collected adult (even as I told the man asking for donations for beer that I wasn’t old enough to drink). an up-and-coming young writer who wanted to get noticed, and someone who knew how to nod approvingly at whatever anyone else in the room said even if I disagreed. There was an unspoken rule not to rock the boat. I couldn’t be a feminist. I couldn’t voice any disagreements. Everyone around me had to right and knowledgeable about what they said to keep up the illusion surrounding the event of a young up-and-coming writers’ club. They were all in MFA’s or PhD programs. They were all in my field of study as writers themselves. I couldn’t rock the boat and challenge them, even on trivial matters.

No, I had to nod my head and mutter my agreement to keep up my end of the small-talk. When I did speak I asked various men I met (there were very few women at the event) about their professions. Their degrees. Their lives. I kept the focus off myself like a good-little girl.

Is this what adult life is like? Putting on a facade and smiling and nodding when your head is bursting with responses? I feel so confident in my feminism and then I step into the real world outside my college campus. The hardest thing about being a feminist is learning to speak up. As an adult, what I need the most in my life isn’t a fancy degree or published books to my name, but the strongest voice I can muster telling whoever I meet that I am a feminist. I am a woman who is unashamed of being a woman. And I don’t care who I am forced to have small-chat with, because retreating into silence is the worst harm I think I’ve ever caused my body.