Empathy and Point of View – Stepping Outside of Your Cultural Identity as a Writer

30 day blog challenge – day 4


Last night, I went to see Sue Monk Kidd discuss her new novel, The Invention of Wings, at an event from Georgia Center for the Book. This was part of my New Year’s resolution to go to more literary events (readings, panels, book signings, etc.) in my attempt to be more active in the Atlanta literary community of readers and writers and book lovers alike.

The event was awesome. I haven’t actually read any books by Sue Monk Kidd (although The Secret Life of Bees has been on my to-read list for a while), but my mom is a huge fan so she and I drove down to Decatur to hear her discuss her latest novel.

The Invention of Wings is an historical novel that deals with slavery and the abolitionist movement through the lens of exploring the life of the first female abolitionist in a partly imagined, partly factual account. In exploring themes of slavery, it seems that the book compares the slavery of African Americans and the oppression of women. It sounded like an incredibly interesting read, and the passages Sue Monk Kidd read were beautiful. (This has now maybe surpassed The Secret Life of Bees on my to-read list…)

One of the things that struck me most about her talk was when she talked about empathy and how throughout history, empathy is basically the cure for oppression and what I like to call “othering.” (We totally threw that word around a lot in undergrad English major classes.) I would argue that being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing how we are all connected as human beings is the only real way to defeat racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism, oppression, etc. etc. Sue Monk Kidd said in her discussion that one of the most powerful things about literature is that it helps us to connect with others by reading about life from a different perspective – putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

In this novel, one of her point of view characters is an enslaved girl. Me and my mom were talking in the car about how writers are often criticized for the way they write characters of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. This made me think about how sometimes (like with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch as my mom pointed out) reviewers/critics just seem SHOCKED when female writers write really good male characters. It also makes me think of this quote from George R.R. Martin when George Stroumboulopoulos said to him in an interview, “There’s one thing that’s interesting about your books. I noticed that you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from?” and George R.R. Martin replied, “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”

I personally think you should be able to write characters of any gender, race, age, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. regardless of who you are personally as long as you do the research that is required and you really try to make that voice genuine and not just a caricature or stereotype. (Although I have not personally branched out of the white female narrator much in my own fiction work. I plan to eventually, though!) I think one of the coolest things about being a writer is that you are able to experience empathy and putting yourself in someone else’s perspective in a more active way than the reader, which allows the reader to eventually share in that. Others, however, think writers should just “stick with what they know” and somehow seem to be offended when they don’t. What do you think?

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  1. Pingback: Four Ways an English Degree Will Help You In Any Job | Sara Crawford's Writing Blog

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