Students arrive in American schools from around the world, some as refugees fleeing conflict, violence, prejudice, or dire poverty, many with harrowing stories, and some from highly technologically advanced urban centers. While language and cultural differences can be challenging, this diversity in student populations offers everyone an opportunity to develop the capacity to experience the humanity of others.
Many times immigrant students are reticent about discussing their previous experiences, about being different, about integrating into a new world while retaining their identity. Teachers may not even know what questions to ask.
However, writers who speak from around the world can be these students’ voices. As in Kyung-Sook Shin’s best-selling novel in Korea, Please Look After Mother, readers wander the streets of ultramodern Seoul in search of a lost aging mother; but we find that her adult children, who enjoy the benefits of Seoul’s economic and technological prosperity, are also lost psychologically. Through the guidance of this Korean writer, readers can empathize with Korean immigrants who come from the most wired city in the world where K-pop culture is challenging traditional family values. Or readers tread the perilous divide between past and present in the dual worlds of immigrant students by reading Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge, a novel about a Vietnamese family who escapes the war but leaves grandfather behind.
For twelve years I have taught Reading Around the World, a staff development class for high school teachers. Having read 80 fiction and non-fiction works of world literature since the class began, attending teachers understand how this literature has instilled a sensitivity, an empathy, toward their foreign students and helped their entire class care about the world beyond their experiences.
Because American readers tend to choose familiar popular fiction and non-fiction over foreign literary fiction, our group remains small. We do not read from popular best seller lists –though Please Look After Mother sold over 1 million copies in Korea; we read books by authors from countries like Iran, Puerto Rico, and Brazil.
Research about Reading Literary Fiction
Recent research by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at The New School for Social Research has demonstrated through fMRI scans that there are significant outcomes to reading literary fiction over other literature, outcomes that my teachers who read around the world understand. The scans, which measure the amount of blood that flows to parts of the brain while engaged in specific activities, detected where in the brain the emotions toward others, or empathy, reside. These areas become active when the subjects read literary fiction, but not when they read popular fiction or non-fiction.
Literary fiction specifically develops our knowledge of others by relating to the humanity we share with the characters. Unlike popular fiction that confirms readers’ expectations, literary fiction challenges readers’ beliefs. Readers experiencing cognitive dissonance hold an internal conversation with the author, characters, and themselves to refine or confirm their beliefs, or to pursue new ideas in order to understand another’s point of view.
Unlike popular fiction that focuses on what happens next in the story, literary fiction is interested in what it is to be a human being. It prompts readers to search for implied meanings and to observe the world simultaneously through multiple perspectives, through the subjective experiences of a character, or through an unreliable narrator.
Because the inner lives of complex individuals are not overtly divulged in real life, readers must depend on multiple strategies to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters from their actions, dialog, and descriptions of body language. Developing these skills through reading literary fiction trains us to be sensitive and empathetic toward our encounters with real people. Fiction can prepare us to look others in the eye and listen to their stories. With each moral dilemma a character encounters, we can rehearse how we would act, think, and feel, and what others must feel. Life is not a dress rehearsal, but serious fiction is.
Because readers of popular fiction do not extend themselves into the humanity of the characters but only into the plot with like-minded characters, their reading does not foster empathy. The fMRI scans show that reading non-fiction, or not reading at all, provides the same results as reading popular fiction.
Readers of literary fiction from around the world understand these research results. In 2012 journalist Ann Morgan decided to read a book from each of the 195 countries recognized by the United Nations plus Taiwan because she realized she was reading only English-speaking authors. Readers of her blog provided her authors and titles from countries like Comoros, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, some works already in English, other short fiction translated for her.
Not simply travelogues, these works, she discovered, led her to “inhabiting the mental space of the storytellers.” With Bhutanese writer Kunzang Choden, she observed exotic temples as a local Buddhist would; she meandered through Mongolia’s Altai Mountains with a shepherd boy; she attended a religious festival in Myanmar guided by a transgender medium. She saw the world through the writers’ eyes, scrutinized the nitty-gritty of characters’ lives in other places. But especially these 196 works “opened my heart to the way people there feel.” Unlike reading news reports, she found herself connected to a world that was no longer exotic, but filled with all familiar emotions of fear, sorrow, and joy. “At its best, I learned, fiction makes the world real.” Readers searching for these experiences through literary fiction might peruse Ann Morgan’s 196-title list to begin their own journey.
As the research suggests, reading literary fiction is a tribute to expanding our humanity, to events that we may never encounter, and to experience what others think and feel. Literary fiction can transport us figuratively into someone else’s shoes—shoes worn by a character in a book, by the students in a classroom, or the person next to you. Without empathy, we have an incomplete picture of their humanity and our own.