Building bridges through stories

Suroor Alikhan

Stories are an integral part of our lives. They shape us and are the way in which we remember, turning our lives into narratives. As children, we are raised on fables and fairy tales that teach us how to navigate the world, for example, by telling us to be careful about trusting strangers.

As we get older, stories continue to teach us about the world, but in a different way. They introduce us to new realms, to people who are different from us. This is vital because books create a sense of empathy, of being able to understand what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Given the polarized times we live in, such stories are particularly important. They are able to forge links where none exist.

In a 2006 TED Talk, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the danger of a single story, of seeing the world through a single perspective. Like Adichie and many others, I grew up mostly on English literature – and English meant British, not literature in English. Although the books I read did teach me about other places and times – and I do treasure the stories – they gave me a single perspective. It was the equivalent of never hearing what it was like for the man Robinson Crusoe referred to as Man Friday. What was his real name? What did he think of the situation he found himself in?

In 2012, Ann Morgan, a British woman, realized that although she was a voracious reader, her reading was limited mostly to British, American, and Canadian writers with maybe a few South African and Indian ones. She was appalled enough by this realization to systematically read a book from every country in the world, something she continues to do. It changed her profoundly.

I had started on a similar journey many years ago, but fairly sporadically; for example, by buying a book from a country I visited. But that left out large parts of the world, places I knew very little about. Inspired by Ann’s example, a friend suggested we take up her challenge, and so a group of us set out to read the world. Parallel to the group challenge, I also set myself a similar one.

I began by drawing up a list of countries, basing it on the United Nations member states, and adding Taiwan (a country not recognized by the UN), Palestine, Tibet, and Western Sahara, and splitting up the UK into its four constituent parts to make it more interesting. Books could include any genre. The only rule I set was that the author had to be from the country.

The next step was to find the books. For some countries, I was spoiled for choice, while for others, I had to do a bit of research online, and find books that were actually available. I am limited by the fact that I do not read e-books, but on the other hand, I do occasionally read in French and Spanish, which has helped. Social media was also useful: a fellow bibliophile from Grenada I “met” on Twitter suggested Jacob Ross, a Grenadian writer, and Cherie Jones, a writer from Barbados.

The result has been eye-opening and extremely rewarding. I became a part of lives that I would otherwise know nothing about. How else would I have learned what it is like to be a young Bedouin girl in Mauritania looking for her illegitimate child (Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s The Desert and the Drum), or a slave woman in Jamaica in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women)? I read about the lives of people in Madagascar (Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields) and Samoa (Albert Wendt’s Leaves of the Banyan Tree) and their history. The countries I have read about are no longer strange and unknown places. I may only know a little about them, but through my reading, they have ceased to be unfamiliar.

This is particularly important in the world we live in today, a world where we point fingers at the “other”, dismissing them and their concerns, a world in which we are entrenched in the “rightness” of our own beliefs. The truth is that the “other” is not so different from us. But that is something we will never realize unless we make the effort to listen to them and try to understand them. Literature can help us do this; unlock the cages that we have barricaded ourselves inside.

The reading I did for the challenge brought this home to me. To illustrate this, let me sum up the plots of a few of the books I read in single sentences. A woman tries to build bridges with her estranged son. A young boy goes looking for his missing older brother. Two widows have to stave off their greedy relatives. An old woman fights a legal battle for her land.

Reducing the books to their basic plots reveals their common humanity. These are universal stories. But these particular stories come from all over the world: the woman trying to reach her son lives in Trinidad (Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love); the young boy is travelling around Brunei, looking for his brother (K.H. Lim’s Written in Black); the two widows live in a village in the Central African Republic (Adrienne Yabouza’s Co-Wives, Co-Widows); and the woman fighting for her land is from Caracas, Venezuela, in the 1700s (Ana Teresa Torres’s Doña Inés Versus Oblivion).

As I said, these are universal stories, but the books are set firmly in a particular time and place. By drawing us into the lives of these people, they point out the commonalities as well as the differences between us; and because we acknowledge the commonalities, we also accept the differences.

Reading the world has also given me different perspectives on stories I thought I knew. By narrating the Spanish conquest of the Americas from the point of view of a Moroccan slave, Laila Lalami provides a narrative that is different to the one we may be familiar with (The Moor’s Account). Or take a story set in a basti near Mumbai, places that most of us are familiar with in a superficial way. Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line takes us into the lives of the children of the basti and gives us a real sense of how they live.

I believe the sooner we can introduce children or young people to literature, the better; especially literature that centres on a place, a community, or written in a language that is unfamiliar to them. Although we live in a world that seems to reject differences, the fact is that we are also seeing more translated literature than ever before, especially into English – whether from foreign or Indian languages – as well as more small publishers that bring out books that might not be taken up by the larger ones. There is more diversity in the sort of books we are exposed to.

There are many ways to take advantage of this. Classes in literature are an obvious one, but also, why not tie literature with geography? Pick a country or place that the children are studying and assign them a book from that place. There are all kinds of genres to choose from, whether it is literature, poetry, or even non-fiction, for example, memoirs.

We are shaped by what we read. We may be given books by our parents or friends, but the books that we are assigned in the classroom are the ones that we study in detail, and read over and over again. These are the books that often stay with us and if we’re lucky, start us on a path of reading. Which is why it is vital that children are exposed to diverse narratives in class.

There are some useful websites that can help in finding books and authors from around the world. For example, Words Without Borders (wordswithoutborders.org), World Literature Today (www.worldliteraturetoday.org), Ann Morgan’s blog, A Year of Reading the World (ayearofreadingtheworld.com) and my own blog, Talking About Books (talking-about-books.com), where you can find write-ups about all the books I have mentioned here.

I have always felt that the greatest gift you can give a child is the gift of reading, and the more varied the readings are, the better. They open up the child’s mind to infinite possibilities, helping them understand the world better, and creating a sense of tolerance and empathy.

And in today’s world, we need that space – the quiet thoughtfulness and open-mindedness you can get through a book. We need to be building bridges, not walls. And books are a wonderful and accessible way of doing that.

The author has worked in communications at the United Nations in Geneva and other international organizations for over three decades. She is now retired and runs a book blog called Talking About Books. Suroor also reviews travel books by women for the website Women on the Road. She can be reached at suroora@hotmail.com.

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