Building empathy with emotional fiction

An argument for the power of storytelling as an emotional transporter.

A silver lining amidst the unrest of the pandemic and high-profile social injustices of the past year has been the boon for anti-racist works. When it comes to books, I’ve seen many nonfiction lists detailing worthwhile academic endeavors, personal memoirs, biographies, histories, and so on related to identity, racism, anti-racism, and other intersectional social justice issues. I, too, have found great value in these books, but I often find even more value in works of fiction on the same subject matter. Compared to nonfiction, quality fiction skillfully “shows, not tells” messages, lessons, and character perspectives. Compared to visual media, fiction forces readers to work their imaginations further to picture environments and give voices to characters. Compared to visual and audio media, fiction–and books in general–forces readers to set the pace at which they consume the given medium: do I read faster or slower, reread that part, bookmark that part, highlight that part? Fiction, then, makes someone a more active participant in its consumption.

While we can read in a group, it often is a solitary activity between you and the work itself. I feel like I am establishing a relationship with a book when I open it, one that typically lasts several hours over the span of weeks or months–because I’m a slow reader who often consumes other things at the same time!–and one I can rekindle if I so choose. I can further enhance my understanding of the work by talking with other people about their “relationships” with the same work, reading others’ reviews, consuming other media inspired by that work, or rereading the work at a different time in my life.

Relationships with people are their own precious treasures and sources of wisdom and knowledge, and indeed, people themselves (and other living things) are the reason for empathy itself. But let’s face it: pandemic or not, connecting with people is hard and demands resources from the other party for the relationship to be fruitful. Unlike people, fiction (and other media) welcomes me all the time, on my time–there is no energy I need to worry about draining, no time I need to schedule, no serendipitous encounter for which I should wait, no language barrier (given the work is in a language I understand) or slang through which I need to sift in real time, no trust I need to initially build, etc. In this globalized, Internet-powered, library-abundant (I hope!) time, fiction from diverse perspectives is all the more accessible for many people and is often free or cheap.

Especially given reading’s solitary, reflective nature that exercise’s one’s imagination, fiction that emotionally “transports” me has been integral to my empathy development. Along with other media and deep connections with people from diverse backgrounds, fiction gives me a unique vehicle through which I can have an intimate, shared perspective with a protagonist or environment on human, experiential terms. With nonfiction I am told facts of things that already happened or are happening, or have the impulse to picture an established historical figure or group or modern person(s) being described; with fiction, if written in a way that carries my emotions, I have the greater inclination to imagine myself in the protagonist’s shoes or a particular environment–critical exercises to cultivating one’s empathy. These fictional environments or situations often aspire to be the future, warn us of the future, or propose an alternative or oft-overlooked reality to the present or past. There is something magical to “what could have been” or “could be”, especially within characters different from me or environments to which I’ve had little exposure. Nothing beats real-world experiences in terms of understanding or immersing oneself in them, but fiction allows us to experience imagined scenarios we would otherwise never experience at all–and a lack of imagination or understanding of others’ scenarios contributes to lack of empathy for others. To dehumanize others or minimize their struggles, we often (consciously or unconsciously) start with thoughts such as, “How could they do such a terrible thing or live that way?” or “I don’t have that problem, so can how they?” In addition to other means, immersing ourselves in their perspective for a concerted time via fiction helps us empathize a little better.

Given my affinity for emotionally transporting fiction, the close of Black History Month, and the start of Women’s History Month, I present my own list of emotionally-transporting fiction books to celebrate women authors–especially Black and other women authors of color–for folks to understand others, quell biases, and promote anti-racism, feminism, and social justice for all. In the same spirit as the months themselves, it is important to highlight women authors of color as they are often forgotten, less famous, or rarer due to various historical barriers–and consequently, their perspectives are less understood.

  • Acevedo, Elizabeth: The Poet X
    • This novel written as a collection of poems allows for a quick read, but the content often demands pause for reflection. Acevedo's background bleeds into her high school heroine's experiences as an Afro-Latina of Dominican descent grappling with her mother's devout Catholicism, her first boyfriend, and her rebellious thoughts manifested in the very poems the reader consumes.
  • Adichie, Ngozi Chimamanda: Americanah
    • Adichie's novel echoes experiences many non-white immigrants, especially Black and Nigerian immigrants, can relate to regarding micro-aggressions, belonging and not, and feeling Black for the first time, which her protagonist does not feel in Nigeria but has this identity thrust upon her in the U.S.
  • Allende, Isabel: Daughter of Fortune
    • This historical fiction tells the lesser-known perspectives of non-white actors in the California Gold Rush, including Mexican, Black, American Indigenous, and especially Chinese and Chilean men, women, and girls via the lens of a young Chilean-native girl adopted by an upper-middle class English family. She initially heads for California in search of her Chilean lover, but along the way questions her strange feelings with her Chinese companion (interracial relationships were not a big thing before), discovers the power of disguising herself as a man to get by, and befriends people from different social, economic, racial, ethnic, sexual, and cultural identities.
  • Butler, Octavia: The Patternist series
    • This four-novel series explores identity, mind control, and literal transformation, beginning in ancient Africa and spanning millennia. Part science and part historical fiction, these books meld issues of gender and race, the meaning of being human, the ethics of power and biomedical engineering, and the effects of power on people's characters.
  • Castillo, Elaine: America is Not the Heart
    • This novel spans three generations of Filipina American immigrants struggling to make it in the United States while holding onto their home country's roots, reconciling the rocky history between them, and reflecting on the sacrifices made along the way. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll wonder why the perspectives of the one of the largest immigrant groups here so intertwined with this country's history isn't better known.
  • Jemison, N.K.: The Inheritance Trilogy
    • This grand fantasy series follows a young woman thrust from her home town to a royal city to fight for her seat at the throne. Behind the veil of this world and its mythology is an allegory for enslavement and racism. This series upends many typical fantasy tropes in favor of a complex weave of power struggle, sex, love, and philosophy (and, yes, sword fights) behind a spunky, fierce female protagonist.
  • Kirino, Natsuo: Gurotesuku (Grotesque)
    • This novel, possibly the darkest of all in my list, delves into the twisted minds of a pair of half-Japanese, half-white sisters, one an unlikeable office worker and the other a gorgeous prostitute addicted to sex and her power over men. The mysterious murders of the latter sister and their mutual high school classmate seem to frame much of the novel, but in my opinion the more interesting mystery is within the corrupted yet sympathetic minds of the characters.
  • Liu, Marjorie and Takeda, Sana: Monstress
    • I am cheating a little here by including a visual medium--a comic / visual novel series--but it's worth it! This series takes place in an alternate steam punk matriarchal 1900s Asia full of myth, gore, and adorable cat scholars. Females of human and other species tend to rule, patriarchal language is flipped on its head, and a half-human, half-other young woman struggles to understand her family's past in order to control her innate powers and quell the conflict of the present.
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa: Interpreter of Maladies
    • Lahiri's work is a masterful collection of short stories that are like small windows into different Indian American people's lives, ranging in age, gender, marital status, education level, etc. Each phrase is so beautifully written, as if they were individual pieces of a mosaic--able to stand on their own but together form a masterpiece. Each story is powerfully heart-wrenching.
  • Senna, Danzy: Caucasia
    • Senna is a half-white, half-Black author who passes as white. Her identity shapes the teenage protagonist of her debut novel, whose also-biracial sister looks much more Black. This tension between the white-passing sister and more-clearly Black sister--especially from the perspective of the former--drives much of the novel set shortly after the civil rights movement, when miscegenation was legally and socially still in contention. What's especially interesting is the white-passing sister, unlike the "tragic mulatto" stereotype, laments not looking "Black enough."
  • Tan, Amy: The Valley of Amazement
    • This novel is an epic, often erotic and dark, tale of a white mother and her half-white, half-Chinese daughter (father estranged) at different eras of their lives, much of it taking place during the 1918 Influenza pandemic in China. It explores the intersectionality of whiteness, Chinese heritage, biracialism, the power dynamics and difficulties of the courtesan profession, and womanhood in a patriarchal world.
  • Thompson-Spires, Nafissa: Heads of the Colored People
    • This collection of short stories illuminates intraracial issues within the Black community: what it means to be "Black enough", the tension between African immigrants and descendants of enslaved Black Americans, light-skinned Black people, respectability politics, "oreos", mixed race heritage, and how all of these issues play out across young and old folks.

See also