Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Khaled Hosseini, reading fiction, and empathy

by Derek Spencer

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has just released his third book, And the Mountains Echoed. In this recent interview on the public radio program Here & Now, Hosseini discusses his experience in returning to Afghanistan for the first time in 27 years.

In the interview, Hosseini talks about his reluctance to ask native Afghans about their experiences in the years since he emigrated to the United States. He's reluctant because he doesn't feel that it's his place or his right to ask these strangers about what were likely very painful experiences simply because he and those strangers share a home country. A very thoughtful kind of restraint.

And that made me think about The Kite Runner and its portrayal of everyday Afghans, and how Hosseini has, in the words of the interviewer, "humanize[d] the people who are in the shadows of our headlines here in the United States, make us look closer at their faces, make us wonder what their stories are."

And then that made me think of news items describing recent scientific studies that suggest a link between reading fiction and increased empathy. Here's a link to one:

PLOS ONE: How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy?

A link between reading fiction and increased capacity for empathy makes sense to me. Fiction can help us envision the struggle of the individual against his or her issues, whether physical, emotional, or political. It can help us imagine a character's specific joys, desires, needs, and frustrations. It can help us realize that many experiences are common to us all, whether we're separated by five miles or five thousand. And in realizing that we share these thoughts, motivations, and feelings with peoples of disparate cultures, aren't we then better equipped to identify with these people? To honor their humanity as we would wish ours to be honored?

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House.

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