Fiction: Building Bridges Between Cultures

Some stories are truly important to tell.

Posted Jul 09, 2014

June 20th marked the 14th celebration of the World Refugee Day as noted by the United Nations. A host of celebrities and noteworthy figures made brief videos in commemoration of the day and to bring attention to the plight of refugees all over the world. In one of the videos, bestselling author of "Kite Runner" Khaled Hosseini opens with: “Let me tell you a story – the most urgent story of our times.”

This statement is particularly poignant in considering the impact fiction can have on intercultural relations. Story-telling is more than a pastime or simple entertainment. It is a means of communicating lessons, morals, information, and ideas. It is also a means of inspiring empathy, interest, and action.

Refugees are peoples displaced from their homes and motherlands. They are people who are uprooted, by natural or unnatural disaster, and forced to live on foreign soil where they are, very often, unwanted. Refugees have lost belongings, communities, livelihoods and sometimes even loved ones. Some are thrown from stable, professional jobs into uncertainty and poverty. Education is interrupted.  

Resources being universally limited, the influx of a refugee population often causes strained relations between the refuge seekers and the community receiving them. There is typically friction, to put it gently, between the refugees and the people of the host land.

This is where cross-cultural fiction can flex its muscles.

Fiction, if done right, can bridge cultural divides. Stories can be a footpath for a reader to step into another land and view its indigenous practices and beliefs through a local lens, instead of a telescope.

Reading "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak, for example, opens a window into life under the Nazi regime and brings to life the power books have on carrying on hope. Individuals have risked their own lives to save others facing certain death. To read their stories inspires empathy for those enduring persecution around the world and forces us to question our aloofness.

"Little Bee" by Christopher Cleave teaches us the heartbreak of those who come to the United States as survivors of trauma and war. We learn about their transition and the way in which they may view a society so different from their own. Assimilation is a struggle that takes time.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by the aforementioned Khaled Hosseini provides a dark look at what life was like for Afghans under the rule of the extremist Taliban regime. Decades of war and the Taliban’s oppressive rule drove Afghans into neighboring countries and abroad in search of a better life. Families picked up the pieces of their broken lives and reconstructed in Australia, Europe, Pakistan, United States and beyond. You may have Afghan neighbors who had a rocket land on their home or had family members killed in the cross-hairs of war. How do those experiences color their new lives? This question is better asked and the answer better understood once the back story is known.

Every society has a culture made up of its beliefs, practices, arts and more. Cultures don’t always follow geo-political borders and can vary greatly across a single continent or even a single country. When looking at another culture, it is easy to make snap judgments on those practices that feel most foreign to us. Even when different cultures live in close proximity to one another, there often is limited cross-cultural understanding or connectivity. Though Afghanistan and Pakistan share a border, they are two very different peoples.

According to the American Immigration Council, in 2009 the United States admitted over 74,000 refugees. While in the past, the US had been called a melting pot of cultures, more recently this metaphor was swapped out for the salad bowl, implying that each culture represented maintained its individuality whilst coexisting. In theory, this means we all maintain our own “flavors,” while we share neighborhoods but it says nothing about the ability for differing cultures to live harmoniously with one another. Proximity does not spontaneously generate cross cultural understanding or connectivity. The interest American readers show in fiction set in other nations helps foster a link between two different populations.

A novel will not alleviate the problems of a refugee crisis nor will it bring peace in times of war. But, a well told story can shed light on some of the nuances that make up a society.  It can tell the story of a people so we can begin to understand their history, their sufferings and their struggles. It is a humble beginning, but better than no beginning at all.

About the Author

Nadia Hashimi, M.D., is a pediatrician in the Washington D.C. area. 

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