Tag Archives: Empathy

Empathy, memory, writing

IMG_3949Storytelling nurtures empathy. I’ve considered the link between them in a previous post, and during last weekend’s Perth Writers Festival it was a recurrent theme, especially in the Human Library sessions organised by the UK-based Empathy Museum.

I took part in one of these as a “living book,” the arrangement being that several people, one at a time, sat down with me for a few minutes each in the calm open-air setting of a tiered sunken garden and listened to a brief tale that I told informally about myself. Then they asked questions, made comments, and we talked on until my interlocutor’s allotted time expired and it was someone else’s turn to borrow me from the bookshelf (so to speak).

The general topic for the session in which I participated was “Age.” I talked about this with particular reference to the role of memory in my writing life. Narrating something orally, face-to-face with a listener, can quickly establish an empathetic relationship, but the medium of print makes this more complicated.

Although I’ve been a full-time writer for only a few years, the practice of shaping words creatively into stories, poems, and other literary forms has been a large part of my life since childhood. What I wrote when I was 8, 9, 10, had no connection with anything I’d experienced myself. There were stories about expeditions to distant planets and to Borneo jungles; about encounters with smugglers and with castle ghosts; about the adventures of highwaymen and pirates. And there were poems describing landscapes drawn dreamily from books, not from observation. Nothing wrong with any of that; in the early stages of learning to deploy language imaginatively, the content didn’t matter much.


But with the passage of years my writing has turned away from the merely fanciful towards empathetic realism, and in the process it has become inseparable from my remembering – the retrieval not only of personal memories that are uniquely mine but also of cultural memories that are a shared resource.

One reason why I attach increasing importance to memory is that some significant patterns in my experience have only become legible in retrospect. Looking back, I see things I didn’t see at the time. Another reason is that people and places once influential in my life are gradually disappearing. Some friends and family members have dropped away into darkness, beyond reach except in memory. Even some of the physical environments in which I grew up are now in ruins. As earthquakes have pulverised Christchurch, where I spent my most formative years,  the landmarks of childhood and youth survive only in my head and heart.

So my memories are increasingly valuable to me. Fragments from my past life occasionally find their way, transmuted, into what I write, infused with “emotion recollected in tranquility” (in Wordsworth’s phrase). And in a more extensive way I draw on memories that are not specifically my own but belong to bygone times. In recent years the focus of most of my writing has been on historical fiction. Why set my novels in the past? Because I want to retrieve certain historical realities that our contemporary culture has largely lost or repressed. I want to resuscitate the dead. I want to reveal things (often unpleasant things) that contributed to the contours of our own society, and keep them alive in cultural remembrance.

At its best, imaginary time travel through historical fiction is not an escapist withdrawal from pressing questions that confront us in our own world. Rather, it can show aspects of the present in a new light. For example, emotionally fraught migration stories dominate news reports, and it’s hard for us to step away from the headlines and images that dramatise the current plight of refugees, so that we can think about displacement as a recurrent and necessary feature of human history; but historical fiction can help us to understand this with a different kind of empathy. My first novel, The End of Longing, evokes the era when steamship and rail were rapidly opening up the world to ordinary travellers, and my third, The Mind’s Own Place, tells the linked stories of mid-19th-century migrants to Western Australia. Cross-national journeying takes many forms, with different meanings for those who undertake it voluntarily or involuntarily.

I’ve tried to show in my fiction that many such episodes are worth salvaging from oblivion because they provide not only cautionary tales and corrective reminders but also things to commemorate and cherish. I feel the same way about retrieving memories from the early decades of my own life and times.

Seriously good for you

It’s reported in The Guardian, so it must be true!


Reading serious (literary) fiction is better for you than reading popular fiction or non-fiction. Better, that is, in developing your capacity for empathy.


Formulaic thrillers or romance novels won’t do it for you, but stories by the likes of Anton Chekov or Don DeLillo or Tea Obreht can improve a reader’s understanding of other people’s emotions. That’s the main finding of an experimental study devised by psychologists at the New School of Social Research in New York and published recently in the prestigious international journal Science. Want to know more? Find out here.

This claim to have demonstrated scientifically the value of reading high-quality fiction may be new, but there’s nothing new, of course, about the belief that literature is seriously good for you. ‘The great instrument of moral good is the imagination’, declared English Romantic writer Percy Bysshe Shelley nearly two centuries ago in his rhapsodic essay A Defence of Poetry; ‘and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.’ By ‘poetry’ he meant all that we now call ‘literature.’

Since the heyday of Romanticism this concept of the imagination as an ethical instrument has become widely diffused through the teaching of English literature in schools and universities. The key to the value of literary experience, says Shelley, is is its capacity to enhance a reader’s empathy: ‘A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ To this end, ‘poetry…awakens and enlarges the mind’ (and Shelley insists that in this regard ‘the distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error’).

Is it true, then, that reading literary fiction can put us more feelingly in the shoes of other people than popular fiction or non-fiction can do? For me as a writer of literary fiction the belief may be self-serving, but I’m encouraged by the fact that some writers of non-fiction readily acknowledge that a novelist is able to go where they cannot. For example the Australian historian Cassandra Pybus has acknowledged what she calls ‘the limitations of history as a narrative form.’ She remarks:

Not even a master of the popular history genre, such as Simon Schama, can construct a past world as rich and satisfying as the parallel universe the novelist can imagine, nor create characters who are revealed to us in their most intimate and private thoughts. The historian remain tied to concrete evidence, which is patchy at best and never allows access to the workings of the human psyche.’

Does that settle the matter, then? What do you think?