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Fiction as a Tool for Empathy

Dear Weave Community,

In our Community Hour dialogue this week, we were talking about how our political divisions play out in our small towns and rural communities. Another weaver was interested that my step-father is reluctant to share his political affiliation, because he values his relationships with other farmers who vote differently. I mentioned how in my parents' town, the one thing that opened dialogue was when I shared my novel, Sweet Burden of Crossing, at the library to spark conversation about interracial friendship. Mary Ellen, an  89-year-old woman, talked about working at the Woolworth's counter as a young woman and learning from her Black customer about enforced segregation.  The customer has asked for coke in a to-go cup, but Mary Ellen served it to her in a glass. "I can't have that," the customer said. "I'm not allowed to sit here with you." Mary Ellen responded, "Of course, you can sit here with me."

It's heart-warming when these stories surface from talks and readings with book clubs.  In his book,  Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention--and How to Think Deeply Again, author Johann Hari tells about a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Raymond Mar, who studies the impact reading has on our consciousness. With his mentor, he did a three-state process to measure how good readers were at capturing the subtle signals that reveal another person's emotional state and the ability to read social cues. When they got their results, it was clear: the more novels you read, the better you are at reading other people's emotions. Reading non-fiction books, by contrast, had no effect on your empathy.

Now consider this: between 2008 and 2016, the market for novels fell by 40 percent.  In one year, 2011 paperback fiction sales collapsed by 26 percent.

There are very few books on interracial friendship, but all kinds of non-fiction books about anti-racism to engage our intellect. What then happens to our hearts?

As a fellow weaver, I humbly invite you to read my work. Perhaps it might spark some interesting dialogue in your own community. In this era of Zoom, I can easily join you anywhere around the country/world to talk about its themes which include:

  • What it means to honorβ€”and find reciprocityβ€”in a relationship with someone whose ancestors and family live with historical trauma and marginalization.
  • The day-to-day things that allow women to deepen their friendship, born on a Twin Cities college campus.
  • How our historical blindness to suffering still impacts and hurts both descendants of people who were enslaved and whites today.
  • The challenges current teachers-in-training face as they piece together our authentic cultural history.
  • How this blindness leads to the sanctioned incarceration of innocent and caring people.
  • What it means to have a friendship before cell phones and racial justice terminology such as white privilege.

It would bring me joy to help surface these dialogues in your own community.

Yours in weaving solidarity,

Kate Towle

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Kate, your book looks fascinating. Might you share a bit of the story about writing it? Is it based on your own experience?

Yes, @Michael Skoler, my book closely parallels my life (though I take fictional liberties), especially my relationship with my father and the lessons he taught me about interracial friendship and building community.  My father was ahead of his time, making it seem commonplace to be the only white family working alongside the Black community to nurture relationships and bringing me to the local prison for concerts which I greatly enjoyed.

One special story that emerged as I was writing the book was discovering that my father was friends with the late Congressman Tom Railsback (who served eight terms in the United States House of Representatives from 1967 to 1983 for Illinois's 19th congressional district). He had written a letter to my father congratulating him on his promotion within the Social Security Administration. When I googled his name, I learned that he was the Republican congressman who cobbled together the bipartisan commission to impeach Nixon!  I wrote to him only to discover that his daughter works in the Minneapolis Public Schools as a social worker, and she and I had been in protest together at the district headquarters just weeks before he called me. She and I met to talk about our fathers, and I learned that they were working together on immigrant rights! 

Interestingly, my brother who passed away in Sept., had deep respect for David Brooks and said that if my father had lived, that's how he would probably be. Maybe that had something to do with my paying deeper attention to David's articles and books, including Second Mountain, in which he name the role of community weaver (a term I'd already been applying to myself).

I'm very convinced that it was my father's example that has led to my own work for trauma-informed and culturally-relevant peace education with organizations and schools.  My book puts us in the embodied experience of a woman who wishes to understand our racial history and do her part to nurture an interracial friendship.  And yes, I'm writing from my own real experiences!

All my best,

Kate

Kate Towle
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