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Stories: the great instructor in empathy

January 26, 2020

We can never truly know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Not only from a personal perspective, but from a standpoint much larger than the one our individual bodies comprise.

 

In the last year, after taking on board a lot of the uncomfortable truths about the responsibilities of being a white person in a world built and continuing to operate on white privilege, I have gone out of my way to decolonize my bookshelf. Think of the last 5 books you chose to read – how many are narrated by people whose experiences, cultures, place in society are different from your own?

 

There is nothing like the power of storytelling – be it from the page or the screen – to build bridges of understanding between people. This understanding is capable of changing the way we view the world and our place in it. It shows us the ways in we are all inextricably linked.

 

I believe in the importance of listening to voices which have been historically silenced, ignored or undermined. Voices which, in my own life, I haven’t always given consideration to. While I can appreciate I don't belong to the world of many of these narratives, I also do. I will never be a poor black boy living under the oppressive roof of an abusive step father and evangelist preacher as I come to terms with being gay. But the circumstances of the central character in James Baldwin's Go Tell It to the Mountain, just like those of Baldwin himself, are the product of a world I also belong to, and we are all part of that world's story. I feel a responsibility to seek out these voices and perspectives to better inform myself of my own world, and my place in it. 

 

In addition to Baldwin's, I have sought out other celebrated voices that speak to the African experience and endurance, from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye to Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I read Celeste Ng’s popular novel Little Fires Everywhere which addresses the complicated topic of interracial adoption in America, picking apart the whole sticky scenario. I’ve read accounts of the First Nations experience which are still, even to this day, largely omitted from mainstream Canadian culture. Thomas King’s illustrated The Inconvenient Indian and Bev Sellars' recounting of her time in the toxic residential school system which only closed in 1996, in her They Called Me Number One. I have read the autobiography of comedic genius Mindy Kaling, who gives a unique perspective of thriving as a woman of colour in Hollywood in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? I devoured the telling of a gay man’s journey of discovery and self-acceptance in Jed Jenkins’ To Shake the Sleeping Self, and now I am reading the beautiful tale by Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

 

Vuong is a poet whose magic way with words is painted across every page of this book. It is a story laid out like one might put all their cards on the table, laying everything bare and making oneself vulnerable in a moment of bravery. It is a letter from a young immigrant man to his mother, with who he has had a troubled relationship his entire life. There is much I could say to recommend this book, but in the spirit of what I have written about above, I want to share with you the following section. Through speaking to his own experience and culture and position, he enables us to live that experience with him. Everyone has a story, but it's so easy to look at others dismissively, without even being conscious that we are doing it. Everyone is feeling things and dreaming things and living as hard as we are, I've never read something that so powerfully summed that up for me as this book.  

 

 

Excerpt from

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

By Ocean Vuong

 

Because I am your son, what I know of work I know equally of loss. And what I know of both I know of your hands. Their once supple contours I’ve never felt, the palms already callused and blistered long before I was born, then ruined further from three decades in factories and nail salons. Your hands are hideous – and I hate everything that made them that way. I hate how they are the wreck and reckoning of a dream.

 

What I know is that the nail salon is more than a place of work and workshop for beauty, it is also a place where our children are raised – a number of whom, like cousin Victor, will get asthma from years of breathing the noxious fumes into their still-developing lungs. The salon is also a kitchen where, in the back rooms, our women squat on the floor of huge woks that pop and sizzle over electric burners, cauldrons of phở simmer and steam up the cramped spaces with aromas of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, mint and cardamom mixing with formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, Pine-Sol, and bleach. A place where folklore, rumours, tall tales, and jokes from the old country are told, expanded, laughter erupting in the back rooms the size of rich people’s closets, then quickly lulled into an eerie, untouched quiet. It’s a makeshift classroom where we arrive, fresh off the boat, the plane, the depths, hoping the salon would be a temporary spot – until we got on our feet, or rather, until our jaws soften around English syllables – bend over workbooks at manicure desks, finishing homework for night-time ESL classes that cost a quarter of our wages.

 

I won’t stay here long, we might say. I’ll get a real job soon. But more often than not, sometimes within months, even weeks, we will walk back into the shop, heads lowered, our manicure drills inside paper bags tucked under our arms, and ask for our jobs back. And often the owner, out of pity or understanding or both, will simply nod at an empty desk – for there is always an empty desk. Because no one stays long enough and someone is always just gone. Because there are no salaries, or health care, or contracts,  the body being the only material to work with and work from. Having nothing, it becomes its own contract, a testimony of presence. We will do this for decades – until our lungs can no longer breathe without swelling, our livers hardening with chemicals – our joints brittle and inflamed from arthritis – stringing together a kind of life. A new immigrant, within two years, will come to know the salon is, in the end, a place where dreams become calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones – with or without citizenship – aching, toxic, and underpaid.

 

I hate and love your battered hands for what they can never be.

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