The stories we tell matter. The stories we choose to hear also matter.
We tell stories to shed light on the human experience, or a perspective on the world around us. Even those stories that take a fantasy land as their setting or animals as their characters tell us something about being, what it means to exist.
Stories can be vehicles for moral education, showing us the rise and fall of certain characters as their value systems and circumstances intersect to produce their fates. They illuminate locales that may be unfamiliar to the reader, taking them outside of their own tiny world for a few hours. They ask the reader to imagine life as someone else, with a different set of obstacles and opportunities ahead of them.
Stories help us practice feeling, and the ones we know define the borders of our understanding of the human experience. In this way, stories have the great potential to generate empathy.
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I cannot be certain of how many books I read growing up. But I can tell you that I read constantly, everywhere and all the time. In dimly-lit back seats on a ten-minute car ride home from the park. On the front lawn during summer vacation while sitting in a plastic lawn chair. Nestled against the window of the school bus in the early morning.
There have been hundreds of titles that have passed through my hands, maybe a thousand. I am thankful for each of the stories, and the care that the authors took to bring them into the world.
Gratitude aside, I want to comment on a systemic gap in the immense world of literature. The vast majority of books I read growing up did not have characters that looked or sounded like my family, or most of the people that I knew. I met few characters that spoke several languages, had names that sounded foreign to their peers and yet natural to them, and had attachments to a land other than the one they found themselves born in.
What I am trying to say, in a clunky and imprecise way, is this:
There are not enough stories that explore the complexity of identity in flux, between lands, cultures, and languages.
Or maybe there are plenty of these stories, but we choose collectively not to hear them as much. Sometimes literary spheres declare them too ‘niche’ to appeal to a broad audience. Or we as readers select a different title, thinking, I won’t be able to relate to this. We would prefer a character with a simpler identity so that we can just focus on the story.
We might think to ourselves, I don’t want to read about the (insert race/ethnicity/nationality, add a hyphen and American) experience. As though that one book is supposed to represent an entire racial or ethnic category, instead of one perspective therein. And maybe the author wasn’t trying to be representative at all; they were just trying to tell a story, but with faces and voices that are more familiar to them.
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I noticed this gap my junior year of high school, after picking up a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I had chosen it on a whim; it was set on the featured fiction table at Barnes and Noble. I felt something after reading the first few stories.
Here were characters that grew up in the United States and yet had networks of relations and loved ones across oceans. These people occasionally crept into the neatly ordered lives of the protagonists and reminded them of the multitudes they contain.
Here were the very human struggles of miscommunication, faded love and infidelity, depression and alcoholism; interwoven with the experience of reconciling worlds. Some characters lived at the cultural and linguistic margins of the new land they found themselves in. Other characters were born in this land and lived much of their lives in the mainstream. And yet, there were still scenarios where they found themselves marked as ‘different’ from their peers.
I did not take the stories as comprehensively representative of the South Asian-American experience. I don’t think it is fair to hold Jhumpa Lahiri accountable for describing the range of lives that can be contained within a category of identity. For me, these stories were beautiful in the way that they illuminated the little corners where identity hides.
The way she told her stories resonated with me. I like to imagine her stories like a bedroom: The drama between characters was the focal point, their story occupying the central space of the room. And yet, heritage and identity were in the background, in the crevices between walls, often out of sight but still very real. For in the end, these corners constitute the foundation of a room. They keep the walls from falling in on themselves.
Let us tell more stories like this. Let us read more stories like this. Let us keep expanding the notion of what it means to be human in this increasingly complicated, border-crossing, border-collapsing world.