We’re reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist in my World Literature class right now. Included in the brief Q&A at the back of our book is a comment from author Mohsin Hamid about why he writes: “I believe that the core skill of a novelist is empathy: the ability to imagine what someone else might feel.” After reading this quote, I’m pretty sure Hamid and I should be BFF. Empathy is perhaps my greatest pull as a reader and my greatest goal as an English professor (especially in classes like World Literature and South Asian Literature, which feature texts from places that most of my students will never visit). It’s why I’m engaged in Prison Shakespeare work and learning more about Prison Arts programs and why one of my favorite things to do in my job is sit in my office and help students with their problems.
I think reader empathy, too, is why it’s so hard sometimes to let a text or a character go after finishing a book and why sometimes we’re not sure how to react to a text or a situation. My boyfriend Jason and I have seen the recent movie version of RF, and I mentioned to him last weekend that I was teaching the book this week. He thought for a minute and then said slowly, “I enjoyed that movie. But…it was really hard to watch. It’s hard for me to see good people get put in really bad situations.” I thought about that for a moment, and then replied, “Yeah. But I think that’s real life.”
In contrast, I also realized recently that sometimes “real life” stories are too hard for me to empathize with. That same evening, I struggled as a viewer while watching The Wolf of Wall Street, despite everyone reminding me that it was Oscar-worthy. I admitted about 2/3 through, “I can’t connect with this character. I just can’t find anything redeemable about him or a way to justify his actions, even a little bit.” And Jason replied, “Maybe there really isn’t anything redemptive. That’s real life, too.”
So, maybe that’s what empathy is all about – “real life” situations and working through them…whether as a participant or as a reader or movie viewer experiencing things alongside a fictional character.