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Taiye Selasi: On Emotions

Par Taiye Selasi
Publié par Marion Coste le 31/08/2015
"Empathy may be, above all others, the emotion that literature imposes upon us. As a reader and a writer I have yet to experience any bit of fiction that does not render me more empathetic. The change does not always last long, alas."
Taiye Selasi © Catherine Hélie
 
 
 Taiye Selasi, whose mother is Nigerian and whose father is Ghanaian, has written a highly successful first novel: Le Ravissement des innocents. After suffering a professional humiliation, Kweku, a respected surgeon in the United States, leaves his wife and children, forcing them to invent a life without him as best they can until a new crisis erupts. The characters lives and memories intertwine in this fascinating, disturbing novel that covers several generations and cultures, going back and forth between western Africa, New England, and New York.
 
 
Les éditions Christian Bourgois publieront prochainement un recueil en français des textes écrits à l'occasion des assises du roman.
 

 

How do writers succeed in submerging us in situations so unlike our own lives? I would argue that, as a reader, I have yet to encounter a situation in literature "unlike" my life. The demographic details may differ: Charlotte is a spider, I am a human; Teju Cole's narrators are men, I am a woman; many of Toni Morrison's characters are mothers, I am not. The list of things that I am not is long: white, male, a parent, a soldier, Chinese-speaking, South American, a witness to any war. And on. But what "submerges us" in literature is not merely our identification with demographic details--what Americans like to refer to as "relating to" a subject. If we wished to read only about people superficially like ourselves we would, I think, stick to our own diaries. We read and are submerged in--we lose ourselves in--stories of people seemingly unlike us, people who do not actually exist, because we know that they_ are_us.

We know that, as human beings, we are so very much like all other human beings, no matter how foreign they may at first appear. In literature we discover what Publius Terentius Afer knew all those centuries ago: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. "I am a human being, nothing human is alien to me." I weep when I read because I am reading about myself. I am reading about the rises and falls that can characterize a single life, about the very real business of being a human being. Still now, as an adult, I weep (and laugh and exult and despair) with characters precisely because not one is "so unlike" me. Even in the villains, the evil, the broken, the deeply depraved characters I find if not a trace of myself then the fully-bloomed flower of a seed that lives within me. And so, in reading literature I learn, as my marvelous editor Ann Godoff puts it, "how to live." I learn not only who I am but what I might become, what it is possible to be, to ee, to know, to survive. The emotions that I feel while reading are the emotions, each and every one, that I have felt or will come to feel while living.

So it is with the writing. I typed whole stretches of _Ghana Must Go _with silent tears streaming down my cheeks, my heart breaking for the human beings whose hopes I held in my hands. It is not so much that "I can relate to" my characters; I _am_ my characters. Even the most despicable, the unforgivable Uncle Femi: I, too, am a child who suffered for feeling that my parent loved my sibling more, who wished in some way to balance the scales, to avenge my childhood anguish. I most certainly would not take any action similar to his, but if I trace the feeling to its root--the flower to its seed--I find it there within me. Through writing I come to know intimately both the motives and consequences of actions I've taken, have seen taken, or have told myself I would never take. I come to feel empathy.

Empathy may be, above all others, the emotion that literature imposes upon us. As a reader and a writer I have yet to experience any bit of fiction that does not render me more empathetic. The change does not always last long, alas. Sometimes, while reading or writing, I become wholly empathetic with, say, a failed father--only to return the next week to resenting mine. But that little shift on the emotional landscape leaves its mark, changing emotional weather patterns over time. It is through emotion and not through intellect that literature pulls off its tricks. The implications extend beyond the personal. As James Baldwin has it, "You write in order to change the world. If you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it." I write to change the world, not by changing minds but feelings. I read to change my world, to play with my emotions.
 

Pour citer cette ressource :

Taiye Selasi, "Taiye Selasi: On Emotions", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), août 2015. Consulté le 13/11/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/taiye-selasi-on-emotions