International Writers Embodying Compassion

by    /  April 28, 2010  / 3 Comments

Last night, I attended a reading and panel with Christos Tsiolkas, Sofi Oksanen, and Tommy Wieringa sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh in partnership with Pen/America.

During the discussion, I was interested to hear that all three authors have previously worked in theater. Tsiolkas said his work in theater became part of his writing process; he tries to actually embody his characters when he writes in their voice.

“I’m sitting in a room all by myself thinking how would a 40-year-old woman sit in this room,” he said. “Then I’ll walk down the street and think, how would a 7-year-old child walk down the street.”

As he spoke, he shifted his body in imitation of their postures.

Reading these three writers’ work, I found myself embodying the characters as well. I flinched as Zara flinched in Purge; felt the heft of Hector’s confidence in my own shoulders as I read The Slap; and sensed the mower’s slow advancing blades, a knot tightening at the bottom of my throat, unable to tear my eyes away from the pages of Joe Speedboat.

Comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong defines compassion simply as the “ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to ‘experience with’ the other.”

Books give us an opportunity to practice the type of fellow-feeling that Armstrong sees as definitional to compassion. In other words, literature makes us better at caring for one another.

Even if reading a book doesn’t translate into direct and immediate action, it serves as an “antidote to those who would dehumanize us through war, deception, the logic of capital and the daily quotidian practice of cruelty and indifference,” in the words of Junot Diaz.

The fact that books remind us of our shared humanity with people who are profoundly different from us is what makes them so dangerous to dictators and so precious to us.

READ excerpts from all three authors’ works in our Literary Voices section.

Click here to read Elizabeth’s bio.

3 Comments on "International Writers Embodying Compassion"

  1. Jenny April 30, 2010 at 8:03 am ·

    This is such an important way to come at literature–in making it especially. When I was teaching, it was so difficult to get the majority of students to try to understand how others–especially unsavory characters in their stories–thought and felt, why they were moved to behave and act as they did. Most of the time, the stories were fictional reinterpretations of their own lives, attempts to get others to have compassion for them. Which isn’t a terrible thing to do, although it misses the point.

  2. Hottviawcow May 22, 2010 at 11:43 am ·

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


  3. admin May 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm ·

    Hey Christian,

    Thanks for reading and supporting our magazine and mission!

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