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Art, empathy and writing “the Other”

Image credit: Qwiklit [qwiklit.wordpress.com]
Image credit: Qwiklit [qwiklit.wordpress.com]
Image credit: Qwiklit [qwiklit.wordpress.com]
From ancient times, one of the most essential aspects which distinguished humans from animals is their ability to imagine a realm of experience beyond their own present, and thus to tell stories. In fiction, we have the potential to inhabit the mind and innermost psyche of those of a different gender, nationality or even an animal or a fantastical creature.

Nonetheless, along with the rise of the post-colonial, feminist and queer strands of literary criticism, the literary world has increasingly questioned what assumptions lie behind the perspectives given in its canonical texts. There has also been an increasingly popular argument against a sort of literary cultural appropriation: that of a member of a privileged societal group using the voice of a member of a marginalised group in their fiction.

Famous examples of this phenomenon include the decision of South African novelist J M Coetzee, in his work Foe, a counter-narrative to eighteenth-century novelist Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, to keep his character Friday, an African slave, graphically silenced, by stating that his tongue had been removed. In doing so, Coetzee creates a work which is intensely concerned with, as Patrick McGrath of The New York Times observed, “the linkage of language and power, the idea that those without voices cease to signify, figuratively and literally.”

Foe falls into line with the more general movement towards “writing back” to elitist power, as demonstrated in literature. Examples of this trend include Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, a re-working of Shakespeare’s Othello and Angela Carter’s feminist collections of fairy-tales, such as The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which turn the gendered conventions of traditional folklore on their heads.

Furthermore, as well as all the great literature that questioning authorial ownership of marginalised voices has produced, there are certainly some valid aspects to this argument. Some degree of personal experience is definitely essential when writing, and there is nothing more embarrassing than a work of fiction supposed to be, for example, set in another country, which is completely inauthentic, due to a lack of comprehension by the author. Though detailed research is possible, it could be argued that lived experience, family history and all the other elusive aspects which make up cultural identities can never be replicated; and although, for instance, a black man may not know what it is like to be a white one, just as much as the same is true vice versa, this kind of misrepresentation and erasure is infinitely more harmful when it is practiced against groups who already face unbalanced power dynamics borne of a history of oppression.

However, this argument should also be treated with caution. There are certainly logical inconsistencies here: for instance, male authors have for a very long time, with varying levels of success, been writing as women, and this is opposed far less than a white author writing as a person of colour, when both are equally ignorant of the personal experience of being their subject. Indeed, Martha Nussbaum, the liberal feminist literary theorist and philosopher, went further than this in arguing that the entire point of reading, writing and teaching literature is to learn how to have empathy with those who are different from us. This, she claims, can only be achieved through writing and reading about those with whom we might not get the opportunity to cross paths with in reality. Nussbaum, in her work Cultivating Humanity, wrote:

As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves… Disgust relies on moral obtuseness. It is possible to view another human being as a slimy slug or a piece of revolting trash only if one has never made a serious good-faith attempt to see the world through that person’s eyes or to experience that person’s feelings. Disgust imputes to the other a subhuman nature. How, by contrast, do we ever become able to see one another as human? Only through the exercise of imagination.

As with all things, the power to write about those whose skin we do not daily inhabit is a power which must be treated with restraint, dignity and taste, however that should not warn promising young authors off attempting to use words to reinforce our common humanity.