Both scientific studies and literary luminaries tell us that reading literary fiction can make us more empathetic. Inhabiting the worlds of novels and short stories can help us step out of our own personal lives and into another’s and back again—leaving us more understanding than we were before of experiences beyond our own.
But can it make us more understanding of issues beyond our own, too? Can we, as we come to the end of 2015 surrounded at once by near-constant images of calamity and best-of books lists, become more empathetic or politically aware by supplementing the news articles and white papers with a piece of fiction?
The answer, according to some of the authors who are writing about real-world issues in fictional stories, is that we can try.
The authors, for their part, have dealt with a wide variety of subjects with which we readers can use fiction as a vehicle for examining geopolitical conflict—and, perhaps, learn what it might mean to be geopolitically empathetic in the process.
New America Middle East fellow Zaha Hassan is addressing the plight of Palestinians in her upcoming novel Die Standing Like Trees. An international lawyer by training, Hassan recently wrote that she chose to use literature to explore this topic so that “those observing events unfolding in Palestine/Israel can imagine the humanity in the very real stories of Palestinians and the context of their struggle for freedom and self-determination.” Similarly, Anthony Marra brought the wars in Chechnya to an American audience in his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno (disclaimer: both made the author of this article cry). In Ghost Fleet, August Cole and New America Strategist Peter Singer use the novel form to imagine World War III. And writer Xiaolu Guo uses her books to explore “the issue of exile, the issue of complex relation between art and politics, and how artists try to survive in a political environment” (this, according to Guo in an email). The list goes on. But, between the titles, the question remains: How do writers bring the geopolitical to fictional life?
Some draw upon personal or professional experiences of their own. Hassan wrote of her mother’s Palestinian generation, while Singer spent years as a consultant for the U.S. military and intelligence community. But both had written far more non-fiction about their subjects before beginning their novelistic ventures. Singer wrote a novel (as opposed to an article, or an essay, or any other kind of book) because he was interested in exploring not only what a World War III would look like, but also what it would actually be and feel like. He said in an interview for this article that, though he had done Hollywood consulting, fiction writing was different from his other endeavors. He noted that the fiction writer must focus not just on what’s important, but also on what’s interesting—and that the introduction of characters of his own imagination made editing infinitely more difficult, not only because, in his war thriller, “you could cut one sentence and throw off everything four scenes later,” but also because the characters “are your creations,” and therefore painful to destroy.
While Singer had expert knowledge prior to writing his book (including its 374 endnotes), other authors had to be students of their subjects before they could be scribes. Marra, an American, recalled in a Skype interview for this piece that he “arrived in Russia in 2007. I was 22. I lived down the street from a military cadet academy and I would see these military cadets marching … seeing these teenagers march past this conflict they might one day join … What separated them? It was, of course, Chechnya.” Four or five years later, he said, he set about trying to find a novel in English set in wartime Chechnya. When he couldn’t find one, he wrote the book that he wanted to read.
As an American, Marra had to educate himself on the subject of Chechnya specifically and Russia more broadly—and know that he was doing the same for his audience. “I had to write it knowing that 99 percent of [the novel’s] readers would have no familiarity with the history of Chechnya … I suppose I know that at no point have I ever claimed that I'm an expert. There are people who have devoted their lives to studying this. They're the ones I list in my bibliography. I was in no way giving voice to a people. I was concerned with about a dozen characters.”
To inform while entertaining: That’s the balance that Singer described as “useful fiction.” A good novel that deals with geopolitical issues well, Singer stressed, must meet both terms. This informational element is a distinguishing feature of geopolitical literature.
None of this is to say that novels can—or should—replace white papers or news articles. According to Marra, “Nothing kills fiction more quickly than realizing you're getting a history lesson. I was much less interested in politics at the level of the Kremlin, the decisions made by rebel commanders. I was much more interested in how those decisions play many, many miles away.” And, as Singer pointed, out, the risk of crossing the line between art and advocacy and losing an audience in the process is not unique to literature—he noted that the lukewarm response to war movies that politicized opposition to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Green Zone, was likely linked to the reality that people don’t turn to art for advocacy. “It can’t just be whatever nonfiction point you’re trying to make,” he said. Or, as Guo put it in an email interview, “I think fiction is one of the best ways to explore politics and our problematic reality … But for me, emotion and characters are the first things in a story, without genuine characters and artistic narrative the rest [doesn’t] work.”
So, how do writers examine geopolitics through fiction and help readers do the same? Some write about what they know. Some educate themselves about what they don’t. They place their prose in a well-researched time and place. They create a painstakingly studied context for their creations. And then they hold themselves to the same standards as any other literary author: They create stories and fill them with characters with whom readers can live and feel, if only for a little while.
Because, in the end, if writers are able to render fiction useful in exploring geopolitics, it is because geopolitics is ultimately made up of humans, and fiction is a uniquely effective platform for exploring humanity. It doesn’t turn the personal into the geopolitical, but it can move the political back into the pathos of the personal.
And while Guo said that “any art form” can be used to explore political issues, as long as “an artist really has something genuine to say,” Marra seemed to think fiction uniquely up to the empathetic task.
“The real beauty and miracle of fiction,” he said, “is that it lets us walk in someone else's shoes. It drops us through the Earth and next to people I would never otherwise meet. I read the newspaper and [I] read about numbers. How many people were killed here, how many people were displaced there? It's hard to feel much for a number. But you can feel an enormous amount for people, for individuals, when you hear their stories. There's no form of creating, nurturing, fostering that sort of care for strangers quite like a novel as a vehicle for empathy.” He paused, then concluded, as though finishing a particularly powerful chapter on Chechnya, “It's unparalleled.”