What we need, when confronted by difference, is a safe place in which to be curious, and non-judgemental, about both that difference and our own raw reactions to it. How can we find that space without offending those who arouse our curiosity with our open-mouthed stares or, as Sacha Black has found, really dumb questions. TV and the Internet provide a place to look at, and reflect on, the diversity of human beings but, of course, I think fiction is the best place of all.
Fiction enables us to get inside the minds of people who are different to us, perhaps people who, in real life, we might avoid. A recent report from The Reading Agency states that, although the volume of research is limited, reading for pleasure enhances empathy, knowledge of other cultures, relatedness and community cohesion. Some interesting research in social psychology might explain this effect. Although not a study of reading per se, Richard Crisp and Rhiannon Turner have found that imagined contact can improve attitudes towards diverse groups.
These things matter, not only in our immediate communities, but on the grander scale of national and international politics. No wonder then, as Caroline Lodge tells us on Bookword, the author Yann Martel was moved to send a book almost every fortnight over nearly four years to the Prime Minister of this country.
As readers, we expose ourselves to diversity each time we pick up a novel. But we can make an extra effort by reading authors in translation, taking part in diverse December celebrating BME authors or reading books with LGBT characters. As writers, we can endeavour to reflect the diversity of our communities in our fiction, and my post on Words with Jam has some suggestions on how we can do this from the outside in.
On the subject of guest posts, I’ve had another dozen since the official Sugar and Snails blog tour came to an end, including one on the dos and don’ts of the promotional blog tour. The two most recent are on Putting the Personal into Fiction… And Taking It out Again under the shelter of Sherri Matthews’s summerhouse and Three novelistic approaches to mental health issues that won’t set your teeth on edge on another aspect of diversity that impacts on more of us than we like to think.
But that’s not the reason I’m posting on this topic today. The credit or blame must go to Charli Mills, who has blogged this week on nosiness, along with the anxieties about blogging about her own culture, finishing with an invitation to write a 99-word story about a looky-loo – not a term with which I’m familiar, but I think this morality tale captures the essence of why it’s important to be free to look:
Curiosity killed the cat, but we were kids, not cats. Our mothers told us not to stare, so we snatched glances from between our fingers and shivered at the sight. Was she a witch with those long fingernails and wild hair? We couldn’t ask our teachers, because then they’d know we’d been looking and looking was Wrong.
We dared each other to ring the doorbell and watched safe behind the garden wall, when she emerged, snarling like a dog. We threw stones at her window until they took her away in an ambulance, ending our game with a thump.