In other people’s shoes

Gonzo Meets the Press # 8 May 26, 2011

Empathy is a good word to live by, Tom Krause has discovered, and may hold
the key to a humane solution to Australia’s asylum seeker problem.

Back in my days of teaching English last century at a high school in Sydney’s
western suburbs, I used to start the academic year by writing on the blackboard
the word “empathy,” and saying to the class: “This is what good fiction is all
It gave me the chance to ask the students why they read and what
novels they read and to tell them what empathy meant to me: Putting yourself
into other people’s shoes. To empathise with characters in novels means that you
feel what they feel and understand what makes them tick.
We talked about Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving and Charles Dickens and George
Johnston, and whatever was on the syllabus that year, including surprisingly in
1972, a semi-autobiographical novel by the African-American writer, James
Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about the family of an evangelist
in Harlem, where I had spent three years teaching in the late Sixties. Baldwin
had been a preacher in the famous black community in New York from the age of 14
to 17.
And later in the year, when I stood on top of my desk to read an
excerpt of the novel where the young preacher gives an important sermon at a
monster revival meeting, I urged the class to interject with exclamations like
“Amen, Brother” (think of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s grand and emotional
speeches), putting myself and the students into the shoes of the main character.
The word “empathy” came back to me on three occasions in the past week. On
Monday night, there were a couple of wonderful comments on the ABC’s Q &
’s Sydney Writers’ Festival special from American writer Michael
Cunningham, author of The Hours, a novel about 24 hours in the life of
Virginia Woolf, two female characters and her novel, Mrs Dalloway; and
British author Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for his
novel, The Finkler Question.
In response to a question on whether he had a responsibility as an author to contribute to the health of society,
Cunningham said: “Part of what the novelist is here to do is to remind us that
everybody is the hero of his or her own story. Part of what we’re here to do is
to promote the empathy that is inevitable from somebody who reads enough fiction
to go deeply into the lives of other people, which renders that reader, I like
to think, much less likely to think it’s a good idea to bomb the f—k out of some
other country.”
After saying the challenge in writing about Arnold Schwarzenegger would be to make him sympathetic, Jacobson added: “What’s
wonderful about Shakespeare is Shakespeare said here’s a man (Othello) who
murders his wife. This is what it’s like to be him. Isn’t it terrible to be him
and your imagination is expanded. That doesn’t mean you forgive him … but your
imagination is expanded in the act of understanding what it’s like to be
somebody else.”
On Saturday, I went to a session where Australian writer,
Chris Womersley, discussed his novel, Bereft, with interviewer Steven
Gale. The book is on the shortlist for the prestigious Miles Franklin prize.
It’s a gripping tale about a soldier returning from World War One to a New South
Wales country town to try to right a wrong about a crime of which he is falsely
accused – the murder of his sister ten years before.
Sitting by the window in the Bangarra Mezzanine at Walsh Bay on a perfect Sydney morning, I was again
drawn into the novel as Womersley read an excerpt about the soldier coming back
to a post-war, not-so-beautiful harbour city: “At North Head quarantine station,
he stood with the rest to be hosed down. After everything, the sight of naked
men still shocked him. Their unguarded selves were delicate, unwieldy creatures
beneath their uniforms. Skin so thin and pale. Hidden away. Armless, many of
them; legless; boys and men spattered with burn marks and coin-shaped scars. No
wonder so many millions of them died: men are nothing when thrown into the
machine of history.”
You can’t help but empathise with the main character, Quinn Walker, as he seeks exoneration from a heinous murder he didn’t commit in
the town of Flint (based on Hill End), where its residents are used to hiding
secrets and more concerned about the Spanish flu epidemic ravaging the
Womersley describes it as a ghost story and a love story. It’s a gothic novel, with the brooding landscape of rural New South Wales as one of
the main characters. One of his strengths is his ability to develop believable
characters out of people’s idiosyncrasies. Womersley told the packed venue: “No
one wants to read about boring people.” Bereft is not boring.
And back to television for my third encounter with empathy. Dr Graham Thom, the
refugee coordinator of Amnesty International Australia, was one of the guests on
Meet the Press last Sunday (May 22), where he voiced his opposition to
the Gillard government’s asylum seeker deal with Malaysia.  Amnesty does not
want asylum seekers sent to a country violating human rights and caning
refugees. Dr Thom has been to Malaysian detention centres he describes as
horrible places where “people are dying … of communicable diseases spread by
rats’ urine.” (Our detention centres have also been criticised by the Human
Rights Commission as places that breed high rates of self-harm and suicidal
When politicians say something must be done to stop asylum seekers risking their lives to come to Australia, the empathetic Dr Thom asks
questions that a novelist should be asking: “We have to work out what is the
alternative for them, then? Where are they going to go? Who is going to protect
Quinn Walker answers the question in Bereft when he confronts
the man who murdered his sister and is holding another young girl, Sadie, who
has befriended the soldier: “I came to protect Sadie Fox and to get justice for
my sister.”
We live in hope empathy may lead us to seek justice in our own backyard.
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press
program. His views are his own; always have been.



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