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Reading made up tales for our own good

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In honor of National Book Lovers day, I thought I’d pay homage to the power of fiction and its positive attributes for expanding our life experiences. It has always surprised me when people say they don’t read fiction, in any genre, as though it were a sub par category to nonfiction, or merely something to do when all other serious reading is done.

Fiction not only draws readers into new experiences, but can also expand our hearts and minds, challenging preconceived notions and prejudices, or opening us up to new realities and imaginative possibilities. If we are open to being read by the novels we read then fiction has the ability to invite us to ask difficult yet necessary questions about how to make our way through a complex and changing world. I have always been an avid reader and there are a few books that have left a mark on me despite the years since I have read them.

I can never forget the first book I read that took me out of myself and into a world more foreign than any I’d ever known at the time. I was 16 years old. The book was All Quiet on The Western, by Erich Maria Remarque, a story about the psychological and emotional causalities endured by soldiers during World War I.

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It was my first foray into the world of catastrophic violent conflict, of strangers, school boys really, pitied against one another in horrifying daily circumstances, fighting till the death in a war of which very few of them seemed to understand the point. After I finished the book, I remember being speechless, sitting on my bed and weeping from an overwhelming sadness because I knew that this work of fiction spoke of actual realities out in the world, that the lives of countless young men and women around the world are deemed insignificant and disposable for the sake of abating egos, accumulating resources, and promoting ideals that can usually be whittled down to human greed.

All these years later I am still moved by the beautifully nuanced ways Remarque was able to show both the ruthless horror and the sensitive compassion of which people are simultaneously capable. I think that reading All Quiet on the Western Front was when I really began to understand the power of reading fiction, to safely enter stories we tell ourselves that other people have made up but which really often hold pages of hidden and deep truths that many of us haven’t the courage or the luxury, or sometimes thankfully, the misfortune to explore aloud and in the rooms of our actual lives.

Hardly out of my teenage years, I read ZENZELE A Letter for My Daughter, by J. Nozipo Maraire. It tells the story of a Zimbabwean mother writing to her daughter Zenzele, a student at Harvard University. Her letter informs her daughter about both the joys and trials of growing up in Zimbabwe, the political unrests, the struggles for independence, and the sacrifices people made. All this is juxtaposed by the her daughter’s vastly different life in America, where the mother worries Zenzele will never understand what it means to be rooted and to have a country of her own, even one with a turbulent and painful history.

It is a fascinating narrative to read for any African man or woman, boy or girl who wonders about the complexities of being from multiple homes, with often conflicting generational cultural identities within the same household. In today’s world with all sorts of open and closed figurative borders, what does it mean to be African, to be Nigerian, Kenya, Ghananian, etc? These are questions many young people are asking today both on and off the continent.

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While in graduate school I read Ernest Gaines’ book, A Lesson Before Dying. A complicated and deeply moving story about a black man named Jefferson who is falsely accused of a murder and sentenced to death. Grant is a young educated black teacher who is given the task of making Jefferson a man before he dies. It takes place in the American south post World War II but before the Civil Rights movement. It covers themes of racial and economic injustice, what defines humanity, and how people in marginalized and often dire circumstances must still be afforded dignity. One way that power is found is in a person’s ability to own and tell his or her own stories.

Though there is much to gain from reading in general, no mater the genre, reading fiction allows us to consider life from various positions and roles. It can teach empathy. It can inspire new behaviors. It can foster courage. It can invite us to acknowledge latent fears or to deal with issues we’ve long avoided.

Fiction asks us to enter new worlds on a regular basis, and to find ourselves within each story, identifying with certain characters and trying to understand why we react the way we do to each story or character. Reading will always be a powerful way to continue to learn about ourselves and about worlds both near to and from us. The earlier we teach our children to see reading as a source of power and not just mere entertainment, the better equipped they will be to face life with a well of wisdom that will only deepen as they grow and continue to read.


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