“Selective Empathy: Stories and the Power of Narrative”, Aminatta Forna on World Literature Today

Old man sitting at the door of a fortified Church
Daniel Tellman - The last storyteller, on Flickr

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In this essay she wrote for World Literature Today, Aminatta Forna reflects on the power of storytelling. On the one hand, reading helps us understand the worlds of other people. “Indeed, the link between reading fiction and empathy has been well established, most recently by researchers at the New School who have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling”. Moreover, it actually changes people’s behaviors. “Reading frees the reader from the constraints of the self, from our own prejudices and assumptions. Reading makes you a more highly functioning person. In other words—reading makes you a better person”. On the other hand, books also reflect, in Toni Morrison’s words, an “entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about [African people]”. A distorting lens that affects how oneself is seen, reflected through the eyes of another. Challenging, overturning one at a time, those false narratives became her life’s work, “as it has become the life’s work of every one of us not born at the center, persistently viewed as ‘other’ to a presumed norm, either because of race or gender, sexuality or disability”, she explains, “in part because to be a good writer makes it unavoidable, and because, as I have said, I believe profoundly that stories matter”.

Read Forna’s text on World Literature Today.