By Elizabeth DiEmanuele
One of the greatest abilities we exercise when reading is empathy. When we read great literature, we experience the thoughts and insights of someone other than ourselves. In our growing world where people are becoming more globally aware and connected, empathy is becoming all the more important. Whether it be our gender, culture, race, religion, or even just our upbringing, learning to understand others can take work. For this reason, I have compiled together a short list of novels from varying cultures and societies to inspire and prompt a personal understanding of others.
- Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1982)
Challenging every reader’s perception of the self and culture, Dictee is an autobiography that tells the story of many women. Some of these women include the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Persephone, the author’s mother and the author herself. Through using many modes of creation, including different languages, bi-directional text, and images, Cha creates a complex work that that escapes the confines of self-identity. In exchange, the novel becomes a powerful collage of culture and memory.
- Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
This chilling novel is dedicated to the 60 million Africans and their descendants who died in the slave trade. Inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, Morrison’s protagonist, kills her daughter, Beloved, and attempts to kill her other children when a group of men try to send her and her family back to the Kentucky plantation. Now, in her new home she shares with her daughter, Denver, the spirit of Beloved haunts them. It is a story that deals with memory, choices, and the uncontainable past for those affected by slavery.
- 1949, David French (1989)
David French takes on a unique perspective through his Mercer family saga. Focusing on a group of individuals from Newfoundland, this series explores many of the cultural difficulties that Newfoundlanders experienced during the years approaching Confederation. French’s play, 1949, takes place on the day of Confederation and focuses on multiple Newfoundlander generations in conflict. With many comedic moments, this inspiring and thoughtful play offers an important Canadian perspective that is often forgotten.
- Fronteras Americanas, Guillermo Verdecchia (1993)
In Fronteras Americanas, Verdecchia plays two different personalities. The first is himself. In this role he tells stories of his life and the struggles of being an Argentine-Canadian, that is, someone who is caught between two identities and homelands. The other is a Latin-American stereotype named Wideload, who is more comedic and perhaps even cartoonish. As the play continues, the audience becomes exposed to societal constructs surrounding Latin-Americans, as well as the difficulty of being an individual who identifies with two completely separate cultures.
- Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King (1993)
“There are no truths. Only stories.”
This novel is set in the First Nations Blackfoot community in Alberta, Canada. All of the characters are looking for a way to make sense of Native American tradition and the modern world. Using a blend of oral and written tradition, Green Grass, Running Water juxtaposes Western societal norms with First Nations beliefs and ways of living. It is a satire that blends together these two cultures.
- Scarlet Feather, Maeve Binchy (2000)
Maeve Binchy creates another story that is rich with the culture of contemporary Ireland. Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather begin their catering business together and through their connections, their lives become complicated. From taking care of two children to planning a wedding for Cathy’s sister, Tom and Cathy’s lives are full of chaos and connections. Scarlet Feather offers a bittersweet picture of Ireland now, much different from the classically dim political circumstances of Joyce’s Dubliners.
- Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden (2001)
Canadian historical fiction rarely offers a narrative that considers the crucial role played by the First Nations people. Recognizing this discrepancy, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road is a First World War account that is told through two Cree narratives: Xavier’s experiences in battle and Niska’s experiences at Moose Factory. As these two characters journey home, their memories of the war and the home front become stories of pain and healing that offer a unique perspective regarding Canada’s complicated history. In turn, their narratives also become ways of giving voice to Indigenous war heroes who were left unrecognized, unaccounted for, and forgotten.
- Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
As a Bildungsroman and family saga, Middlesex follows the impact of a mutated gene back three generations. At the same time, Middlesex tells the story of a hermaphrodite who changes her identity as Calliope to a “he”—Cal. These two chronicled tales become connected through history and genetics. Addressing themes such as rebirth, gender identity, and the American Dream, this novel works through many of the obstacles and struggles for those who are part of intersex communities.
- The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill (2007)
“Many times during that long journey, I was terrified beyond description, yet somehow my mind remained intact. Men and women the age of my parents lost their minds on that journey.”
Lawrence Hill’s novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo. As a free woman, she tells the story of how she and her people were captured and sold into slavery. Juxtaposing her personal life is the document, The Book of Negroes. This document was kept by the British navy and contained a list African people who were given the right to flee to Canada. In bringing together the moving personal story of Aminata with the rigid history that is The Book of Negroes, Hill makes known Canada’s shocking role in the slave trade.
- The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
Adiga’s darkly humorous novel, The White Tiger, is narrated by Balram Halwai, a village boy. Halwai writes a letter explaining how he went from a poor boy to a successful entrepreneur. Following his journey as a chauffeur in Delhi to Bangalore, where he kills his master, Adiga’s work examines Indian culture, such as religion, caste, corruption, and poverty through his protagonist’s first-hand accounts of his experiences.
Please let us know what other novels offer this special perspective on the world. We appreciate your feedback :).