Reading About The Us In Them
I've been wandering in quite a few different worlds recently. I've been to Algeria through the pen of Yasmina Khadra, Jerusalem and other parts of Israel via a trio of different jewish viewpoints. On top of that I've been given a tour of ancient Byzantium and modern day Georgia, and not once did I have to leave the comfort of my home or even use a time machine.
Like a tourist I've come back from each trip and reported to everyone on how successful the tour was, or whether it was one you may want to avoid taking in the future. Obviously I would have preferred going to these various places on my own, wandering the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, hiking through caverns in the Caucasus or examining the casbah of Algiers. But since that's not possible I've been seeing them through the eyes of some great writers.
For the past two years I've been reviewing numerous books and have had the good fortune to interview some of the authors who have created them. But on reviewing the lists of books that I've written about I noticed that with very few exceptions I haven't looked beyond my own culture's writers.
Aside from the books of Ashok Banker and a couple of Native American authors, the biggest cultural gap I've crossed is on occasion trying to understand the Glasgow dialect of Christopher Brookmyre's characters. Even that hasn't been too much of a leap for me as I've some Scottish ancestry.
So when the opportunity presented itself, via a rather circuitous route (the woman who arranged my interview with Guy Kay, Deborah Meghnagi, is also a senior editor at Toby Press who have been generously supplying me with the majority of my review copies this month) to explore works by authors from other cultural backgrounds I hesitated only briefly. The only thing I don't understand is why hadn't I done this ages ago?
The opportunity has always been there from any one of the various publishers I have contacts with to request works by people from outside North America and England but I've never been willing to make the effort. There's all sort of excuses I can make, but even to my own ears they sound pretty lame. To be honest I'm still not even sure if I can articulate it beyond saying they made me nervous.
In particular I'm referring to books by authors from the Middle East, Jewish and Muslim alike. I didn't think I could be comfortable if either side's strident nationalism were a direct characteristic of the books. I'm so used to the rhetoric that's published in our press that it made me think literature from that part of the world couldn't help be a reflection of those headlines.
Now obviously I can't speak for the books that I've not read, and I'm only familiar with the work of five writers, one Muslim and four Jews, from that region, but none of them makes use of their stories to do anything but write about their own people. Any rhetoric was reserved for characters in specific instances where it made sense, and wasn't the purpose for the books.
Instead, I read books that were just like books I would read by any other author, but they dealt with the realities of different peoples in places I knew nothing about. I learned enough about Algeria and her people to make you wonder what the rest of the world has been doing while this country has been hanging on by its finger nails for decades.
I learned that there is no definitive version of the Torah and that not all Jewish people are happy living in Israel for reasons that would have never even occurred to me. I learned more about what it means to have been a survivor of the Holocaust and how deeply it affects the generations that live with that heritage.
I learned universal truths about faith and about human nature. I read about the depths of human depravity and the heights of kindness and respect. In short I read books that contained themes that could be read in any book by any author but told from the perspective of a different faith and a different culture.
Like those great lines in Shakespeare's play The Merchant Of Venice where Shylock says "If you cut him does not a Jew bleed" speaks to the fact that underneath everything we are all affected by the same things, so too have the books that I've been reading. We all mourn when a loved one dies; we all celebrate when something wonderful happens, and we are all made pensive by things beyond our comprehension.
There is no denying that the rhetoric we read in the newspapers exists, one only needs to read about the latest suicide bomb reports or the air strikes in retaliation to know that. But it is important to know that the other side exists, the human side. The side where people go about their live shopping for food, going to work and living their lives in much the same manner as people do the world over.
I'm not going to pretend that you will come away from reading any book by an author from another culture understanding that world completely – can you say that about reading any book set in our society? But what it will do is remind you that there are individuals there who are as different from each other as the individuals here in our world.
Books make it obvious that the world cannot be easily divided up into us and them, too many of them are like us and too many of us are like them. Reading won't bridge all the gaps between the cultures, but it will make it obvious the gap is lot less of a gulf than any of us or them thought.