It is our responsibility to read painful books

Information is everywhere, overflowing from our phones and iPads, clogging up the internet and hijacking our free time. However, amid all of this information, a couple of years ago, my friend was surprised that to learn his girlfriend had never heard of Hitler, while I remember an educator explaining to me that it was, until recently, possible for students to reach their senior years of secondary school with little knowledge of the Holocaust. Surely, if we are awash with information, there are some things we should know. And not just know, but understand.

Reading The Underground Railroad recently, I was struck by the potency of the stories of pain within, and the way they provided a vivid reminder of a period of history that should be not be forgotten. The award-winning book about slavery in America might be a work of fiction, and some would say, science-fiction, but as such, didn’t just tell me facts, but made the history personal. While reading about the secret ‘railroad’ of escape from slavery, I found myself pausing at various points, struggling to read on, such was the violence and brutality of the slaves’ experience. I had been taught about the history of slavery, but this fictional account was different.

Many books similarly expose the horrors of war and human cruelty, providing later generations with a window into experiences of extraordinary pain. But why would we want to expose ourselves to tragedy, albeit at a safe distance?

Some answer to that question might lie in a conversation I had recently with a friend of Jewish descent who told of years she had spent chasing stories about the Holocaust, believing that not to do so would be disrespectful of the memory of her forebears, some of whom had died in Europe in World War II.

This admission made me think about my own tendency to read such stories, from Primo Levi’s books to Charlotte Gray. In reading these books about wartime experiences, I feel I am not just acknowledging, but also gaining some understanding, of the lived realities of those who have endured terrible experiences.

In Regeneration, Pat Barker introduces readers to an entirely different experience of World War I to the one that is familiar to many. The story is set in a psychiatric hospital, detailing the mental toll the war took on soldiers. It made a familiar topic unfamiliar, providing insight into a different reality of battle, continuing long after the fighting ended.

Like those books about the world wars, The Secret River exposes one writer’s interpretation of the reality of another time of horror and violence. The story about Europeans’ arrival in Australia not only has the potential to open minds, but in doing so, help inform opinion on some of today’s national discussions and debates.

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence also illuminated the reality of pain and suffering experienced by Indigenous Australians, by telling one story of the Stolen Generation. While history lessons might help teach the facts of the time, it is difficult to gain any real understanding of the people involved without delving into the more in-depth and personal narrative offered in fiction.

Writer Jane Yolen explained the part that fiction could play in presenting readers with a deeper sense of history,

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory. A storyteller can attempt to tell the human tale, can make a galaxy out of the chaos, can point to the fact that some people survived even as most people died. And can remind us that the swallows still sing around the smokestacks.”

In this way, the stories can be a tribute to the survivors, as well as a memorial to those who did not. Many of the authors who produce these books write with the express aim of ensuring readers ‘feel’ the reality of the time through the characters.

Writer Hannah Kent said she wrote Burial Rites, about an Icelandic woman who was executed for her role in a crime, to expose the truth of the time and the challenges faced by such a woman, in place of other, limited, representations in historical records.

The Underground Railroad author Colson Whitehead said he constructed his book to take in various shameful episodes to reveal the reality of America’s history to its people.

“Being able to play with time and different historical episodes allows me to, hopefully, tell a different story of America than the one it tells itself.”

It aimed to change people’s comfortable perceptions, taking them to a less certain, but more enlightened, place. I, for one, cannot forget some of the images it contains.

Not everyone is happy with the rendering of history in fiction, particularly when written by someone of a different race, generation or religion to the one that suffered. In Australia, earlier in the year, there was discussion about cultural appropriation, and whether some stories should be told from the outside. Similarly, there is a long history of criticism of the fictional accounts of the Holocaust. These arguments are valid and lead to further questions of who is responsible for recording the experience of some among many.

Other people question the need to expose younger readers to the horror of war, genocide and other world events, potentially impacting on their own mental health, and whether fiction is the medium for real tragedy or suffering to be explored and interpreted.

However, I feel that these books, if approached with care, can open readers’ eyes to a personal reality, although, admittedly, not the whole reality, of a time and place that is difficult for facts and figures to do. Books, and fiction in particular, can be a vehicle for transmitting experience through the ages, whether of love, joy or pain, and it is crucial to our future that these histories are known and understood.

Fiction can be a pleasure. It can relax, comfort and move us, but unlike so much other information we are exposed to, it also show us the horror that is the lived reality for some. Reading about it is the least we can do.

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