Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A surreal, foreign experience showed me why fiction is important

Sometimes just one moment can change the way we look at things.

An eye-opening experience I had was stopping over at Tokyo Airport on the way to Heathrow, when I was 20 years old. As we walked through the long airport terminal, the only three Anglo-Saxon faces to be seen anywhere belonged to me and my parents. The rest of the vast crowd was comprised of Asian faces, Japanese specifically. There were thousands of pretty girls with glossy, jet-black hair, cute toddlers and smart-looking men. Undoubtedly, a stream of western tourists turn up in that international airport all the time, but at that moment, for as far as I could see, there was just us.

We were getting covert glances and sometimes smiles. Growing up as a fourth or fifth generation Australian in Adelaide, I had carried an unconscious sense that most people were like me. We were the 'common' type. Of course I'd been taught at school that the vast majority of the world was filled with other races, who had different coloured skins and spoke different languages. The dry facts and text book photos obviously hadn't made it sink in. Now, during that long walk with our suitcases through Tokyo Airport, I had my first experience of feeling 'foreign'. The world was a far bigger place than I'd ever imagined.

I sometimes remember my impressions of that day in 1990. It's healthy to think of ourselves from someone else's point of view for a change. I find it a good remedy for remembering that the world doesn't revolve around me. It's wise also to consider how easy it is for individuals to carry a sort of delusion of grandeur and self-importance. Although I am ME to myself, the crucial person in my life's story, I am an OTHER to everyone else on our planet, who are busy being the centre of their own stories. From this perspective, any special sense of entitlement has to be rejected.

It's the same for why fiction is a good medium to read and write. When people ask me why I write it, I've sometimes felt put on the spot, unable to come up with a reasonable sounding answer. I have an inner conviction that it's excellent and important, but a simple, "I've always enjoyed it," seemed a self-indulgent answer and certainly not acceptable. When I remember my impressions in Tokyo that day, I think it's all tied in with the reason why.

Fiction enables us to remove ourselves from our own egos and look at the world from the perspective of others. Studies I've read about have indicated that fiction readers really are higher on a measured empathy scale than non-fiction readers or non-readers. This doesn't surprise me. When we are reading a novel which switches from one character's point of view to that of another, we are filled with new ways of looking at the world. We may begin a story automatically endorsing one person's opinion and rejecting another, but when we read part of the story being told from the opposite point of view, it allows us the experience of entering a head which is totally different from where we might have expected to find ourselves.

It's so easy not to realise that all this is happening when we are simply reading a good story. What a great exercise for helping to understand and broadening our tolerance, even if just a little bit. This is what I often aim to do with characters who don't seem so lovable. In my opinion, being able to see a glimpse of the world from someone else's perpective, even just a flash, is well worth the effort a fiction writer may have to put in to provide this.


  1. I like what you have written, I do like reading and can identify with you.

  2. Thanks Geraldine. It was fun, in turn, to follow the olann crafts link and see the lovely creations you've been working on.

  3. I have not had an answer- even for myself!- for the "why write fiction" question. In the light of the world's need for Jesus, I wonder what I can hope to achieve with another novel! Thank you, Paula,for your perspective on it. Insightful.

  4. Paula, you're so right about writing fiction: the author gets to escape from herself & her world and focus on others' perspectives, feelings, and heart.

    Great post!

  5. Thanks, Paula, for the birthday greeting! Hard to believe that Logan is already 18 but, yes, Chad will be 18 in July. He would be able to vote this November IF there was an election (he can't wait to vote!) I hope your husband had a nice birthday. - Kate

  6. Hi ladies,
    Thanks very much for your comments. Yes, it's great to think that at the same time we're reading a good story, we're also exercising our empathy muscles.

  7. I like this perspective. It reminds me of a movie I saw long ago, Being John Malkovich. It was very surreal and involved people being able to crawl into John Malkovich's head and see the world through his eyes. That is what we are doing every time we pick up a work of fiction, especially a first person account.

    I wonder, I read something about imaginary friends a long time ago in a parenting magazine . It described different categories of imaginary friends and explained how children who typically became writers tended to not have an imaginary friend, but rather ran an inner narration of their adventures as they played. I know that was my way of playing. Perhaps this type of imaginary play helps us to better empathize and to illustrate that empathy? Because you would need someone who was good at putting themselves into another's shoes to connect a reader to the character.

    Sorry, just my random thoughts!

    Peace and Laughter!


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