Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Blast from the (recent) past: IFOA round table - Individual in Society

One of the best things about RA in a Day is that it usually coincides with the International Festival of Authors in Toronto in October. I was fortunate to be able to attend a round table about the Individual in Society with authors Lauren B. Davis, Johan Harstad and Bharati Mukherjee (swoon!) and the CBC's Carol Off. I also unfortunately saved this blog post as a draft months ago and forgot about it. Surprise!

This was one of those rare and wonderful round tables in which every speaker is equally erudite, interesting, and charming: Lauren B. Davis shared some deep thoughts about the idea of "us and them:" "There are two kinds of people – those of us who think there are just two kinds of people and those who don’t." Speaking about the craft of writing, she observed "no one thinks about the gardener; you just think about the flowers."

Bharati Mukherjee was a great speaker, although onstage and later at the signing I found her more aloof than I was hoping she would be. She spoke with great passion about uncovering the idea for her latest novel, The New Miss India. She was on the phone with a telemarketing agent, who she realised was Indian but who denied her nationality, providing Mukherjee with a fake biography, when she realised the “real” story she needed to give a voice to in her book was the young women who come from third- or fourth- tier cities in India to work in the new metropolis cities in places such as call centres. These women, she explained, "overthrew the tyrannical social models and demanded money and power. They broke with India's traditional fatalism” to become the new Miss Indias (as a complement to this observation, check out this recent article in the Globe and Mail by Stephanie Nolen, "You can unlock the potential of India’s most oppressed girls, but where are they going to use it?")

Carol Off then inquired if men had it easier in Indian society, but Mukherjee pointed out that either gender was "metaphorically murdering [their] past" in the new India. Farmers, for instance, were losing their farms due to IT growth, these “campuses of glass and steel towers,” as Mukherjee described them. Underlining the incredibly rapid development of Indian society and economy, Mukherjee reminded the audience that “women one generation before this wouldn’t have even dreamed the word ‘empowerment’.”

Johan Harstad was the only panelist I didn't know anything about. He has written a novel set in Norway about Bosnian refugees (apparently there are many in his home country). Describing the Bosnian wars as "the Vietnam of my generation," Harstad spoke movingly about empathy, perspective as a writer, and the development of a thesis in a novel. When asked by Off what questions his novel was intended to answer, Harstad replied that novels don’t answer the questions: “If I answer the question, that is an essay.” He and Lauren Davis then continued by observing that the reader must bring something to a novel. When he/she does this, it is a good sign: "it means we wrote something larger than ourselves!"

Many of the discussions during the round table centred around the idea of the novel helping to "teach" empathy. The Husband was getting twitchy, because his opinion is that it is engrained in us as human beings, not learnt; I would argue this is true in most cases (it's not ingrained in a sociopath, for instance), but to different degrees. This is a question explored in the works of Dr. Keith Oatley, Dr. Raymond Mar, and others.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I think while we are all born with the capacity to feel empathy, I suspect many of us have it trained out of us early on. So while it may be innate in all of us, it's not as developed in some compared to others.
    That's just my random opinion - no facts to back it up ;-)