I’ve been walking around with this subject in my head for ages. Empathy makes it harder to hate, easier to care. That matters more to me than anything else.
One of the reasons I give for the importance of reading is that it helps children to develop greater empathy. I explain that this is the ability to use their imagination to occupy another’s shoes. For World Poetry Day last year, I recited – perhaps vainly – a poem that I wrote:
Let me wear your hands and hair,
ease myself into your legs and
slip your arms and shoulders on,
button up your chest and pull your face.
Let me use your eyes to check
that everything’s in place, flex
your muscles, flick your tongue
across your teeth and speak.
For then – and only then –
can I begin to understand
what being you is really like.
Angie Thomas wrote a great book, The Hate U Give. I heard her talking about it in Waterstones Piccadilly, at the UK launch. She is so clear about what she wants to convey, about how #BlackLivesMatter. I would argue that this book gives the reader a more shocking, more powerful insight into what it’s like to be a young person of colour in a car, seeing flashing blue lights behind you, than newspaper articles or TV reports. I will never walk in those shoes but, with well-written literature, I can occupy them imaginatively.
Like most people, I listened with horror to the stories of migrants whose boats capsized in the Mediterranean. But the facts can eventually numb us. Take Hasan’s story:
Syrian doctor Hasan Yousef Wahid is a survivor of the Lampedusa shipwreck in October 2013. After receiving death threats in Libya, and being denied safe access to Egypt, Tunisia and Malta, Hasan felt he had no choice but to take to the sea. Tragically, Hasan’s four young daughters disappeared during the shipwreck. ‘We are hanging on to the hope that we will find our children. All we want is to find our daughters, either dead or alive.’ (Amnesty International, 27 January 2020)
I’m writing a book. It’s an angry one, but it’s also a love story. One of the two central characters will act, I hope, as an imaginative portkey for readers. After following him for 90,000 words, they will find themselves alone in the sea, kicking as hard as they can to keep their heads above the water, hearing the cries of others around them and then, even worse, hearing nothing but the sea.
I can no longer feel the sand under my feet. In fact, I can hardly feel anything. I had fought for the highest part of the sandbank, as if dying last was a privilege for the strongest of us.
I must keep kicking, my dear zvi, for a while longer, though I know the end is near. It is so cold, but at least the cries have stopped.
Here’s an authorial intention: I want my readers to feel.