The Lives of Others

by Charles Fernyhough

Something extraordinary happens around a quarter of the way through Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad. We are on a cotton plantation in antebellum Georgia, following the struggles of the slave girl Cora to maintain some semblance of human dignity in the face of an inconceivably brutal regime. Inconceivable, and yet the author gives us the tools to imagine it. We are taken into Cora’s world as she works and fights, is raped and cheated and beaten. We are agonised by a brutality that seems to defy the logic of any human heart or brain. Cora and her fellows are not just people reduced to chattels; they are objects of a violence designed to assuage an empty soul, to beat out an identity by negating someone else’s. We look out on the world that Cora sees: the brittle pleasures of an old slave’s birthday celebrations; the plotting of what seems like an impossible, suicidal escape; the chasing of the mundane joys that remind her of what seems a risible truth: that she is still a human being.

And then the author does this thing. All of a sudden, with nothing more than a chapter break and the signpost of the title ‘Ridgeway’, we are in someone else’s point of view. Ridgeway, the six-and-a-half-foot-tall son of a blacksmith, who seeks an alternative to the limited destiny available to him and finds it in rounding up runaway slaves. To make up for his own lack of purpose, he drags absconders back to plantations for certain torture and likely death. We don’t just get an objective account of the making of a monster; we see it from the monster’s perspective. We learn what it feels like to thrill to the pursuit of a defenceless slave: the cuts and bruises in the darkness, the baiting of New York City abolitionists, the verbal jousting in and outside the courtroom. ‘In the chase his blood sang and glowed’: the author doesn’t flinch from showing us the workings of Ridgeway’s deformed heart.

There’s nothing unusual about switching point of view in a novel: it is a restraint-demanding technical feat that exposes many novices. At one level, Ridgeway’s intervention is just a moment in a brilliant book that advertises fiction’s power to make us morally complicit. Simply by attending to the details of Ridgeway’s circumstances, the author gives the slave-catcher the humanity he denies to his kidnapped, abused, brutalised black quarry. I have no wish to increase my sympathy for slave-catchers or evil-doers of any kind, but the novel does it for me anyway. It is one of the demands that literature makes of us: you play this game, you’re going to be in with the bad guys for at least some of the time. My first thought was that Whitehead had no right to be able to do this. How is it possible for a black American novelist to put us into the mind of a white man who catches runaway slaves for money? It was a trick, an act of conjury, a sleight of hand that seemed deliciously indecent. It asked me what a good book always does: where do my sympathies lie?

That moment in The Underground Railroad got me pondering this trick. I thought about times when I had been similarly morally upended by being placed in the shoes of people who do not think, feel or act like I do. In Lolita, Nabokov had put me into the mind of a paedophile, and challenged me to my core by showing me that the paedophile was a human being. Dostoevsky had done it with the murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. It wasn’t just about showing us the bad guy’s point of view; it was about making damn sure we inhabited it. It worked for the good people too. I thought about all those times when brilliant writing has opened other worlds to me, when I have felt a little more understanding of a predicament for which my sympathy was untutored and under-equipped, and thus not up to the task. This is what literature does. Novels are moral workouts precisely because they are no more likely – if they are halfway decent – to caricature the heinous as they are to cartoon-sketch the good.

And yet it is miraculous. I’m far from the first person to marvel at what Virginia Woolf called ‘the immense persuasiveness of a mind which has completely mastered its perspective’. Every author strives for it; rookies make the mistake of not realising that a character’s point of view has to be earned. When done well, literature puts us into suits of mental clothes that we usually don’t try on. I call it a miracle, and yet it is a writer’s bread and butter, a staple of what authors do. The late Toni Morrison put it well in her essay collection, The Origin of Others. ‘Narrative fiction,’ she wrote, ‘provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.’ As a novelist, my technical curiosity makes me ask how this trick is even possible. As a reader, I want more of that exhilarating leap into another worldview.

As a human being, I feel that it’s a trick the planet needs more of. It doesn’t take much familiarity with the news to see that the world has become a more hate-filled place. In the US, the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported a 20 per cent surge in hate crimes in nine metropolitan areas following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In the UK, the popular vote to leave the European Union was followed by a substantial spike in racially and religiously aggravated offences, followed by further rises following the Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Parsons Green terrorist attacks. Home Office figures put the rise in hate crime between 2018 and 2019 at 10 per cent, with the figure more than doubling since 2012–2013. At the time of writing, there are serious concerns that the vitriolic atmosphere in Parliament over Brexit might incite violence beyond Westminster. These sad facts should come as no surprise: the political forces of Trumpism, Brexit and all shades of European nationalism have been nourished by campaigns that are less about issues than about distrust of the Other. Many of us have looked for a way to assuage a sense of powerlessness in the face of this tide of resentment. At workplace water coolers and in cafés and front rooms, the urge to do something, to try to effect some kind of change, has found expression in varied and creative ways.

For me, it felt as though one answer might be right in front of our eyes. If literature does all these things, then it stands to reason that we should turn to it for respite. Who knows: perhaps the marvel it enacts every time a reader opens a book could even make the world a better place. In the months in which I was telling myself ‘I have to do something’, I heard it said that books mattered more than ever. I started to wonder why. I wanted to understand the tools that books give us for seeing reality from other points of view. It was this that really seemed to make the difference: not some worthy notion of empathy, but the miraculously practical efficiency with which literature expands the boundaries around a heart.

A feature of modern discussions of empathy is the idea that we have certain psychological and neural biases that shape our ability to see the world from other perspectives. Social psychologists have shown that simply imagining having contact with individuals from another social group reduces prejudice towards that group. How, though, does that imagined contact come about? What are the motivations for it, particularly when the other group is ignored, patronised or silenced? Our brains are geared up for making the leap into different mental spaces, as decades of research into human ‘social cognition’ have shown. We come into the world ready to make sense of other people. But we need some grist to the mill, some fuel for our imagination, and some corrective to the forces that make us stick, habitually and jealously, to our own kind. I think these are some reasons why so many of us turn to the pages of a book.

There are risks in assuming that literature can unlock any and every point of view. As mentioned, good writers use this trick with discretion, sensitivity and humility. There is an ethics of literature’s miracle, and recent debates about cultural appropriation – defined as the adoption of the expressions and practices of a marginalised group by a more privileged one – focus our attention on it in important ways. Some authors have attracted criticism for portrayals of characters from under-represented groups who, some readers felt, should have been allowed to speak in their own voices. In its darkest moments, the debate sometimes feels like a struggle for the soul of literature. The writer Kenan Malik drew flak when, writing in the New York Times, he suggested that cultural appropriation is part of the fuel source for every art form. The novelist Lionel Shriver found herself at the centre of a storm in 2016 when she defended the rights of authors to write the stories of others. ‘I would argue,’ she stated in a speech published in the Guardian, ‘that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.’

Responding to Shriver’s speech in the same newspaper, a panel of professional writers pointed out some of the complexities she had missed. A sense of entitlement does not make for good fiction. The novelist Kamila Shamsie observed that writers need to ‘understand that there are very powerful reasons for people to dispute your right to tell a story’ – reasons that are historically and politically freighted. Several of the 2016 Guardian contributors noted that writers who themselves spoke from marginal perspectives often, when entering a different imaginative territory, showed a deeper understanding of the individuals with whom they were sharing that space.

These feelings are starting to be reflected in changes in publishing’s traditions. A recent movement in young people’s fiction, #OwnVoices, has made a real difference in putting new and authentic voices onto bookshelves. But the logic of diversity is twisted if it is taken to mean that you have to be autistic, say, to write a character with autism, or that you have to have been a medieval peasant to create such a character in a novel. Writers of historical fiction, as much as any others, know that the need to respect the experience of one’s characters reaches back into the past as much as it crosses geographical and cultural boundaries. The experience of human beings deserves human respect, whenever and wherever they happened to tread the planet. The Guardian contributors emphasised how the right to exercise one’s imaginative powers has to be earned: through careful research and a sense of awe. Learn and listen, and use all the skills of the writer’s craft, and you should be allowed the chance to try to do it well.

Writers have a duty to ask what is involved in letting a reader inhabit a different worldview. How, when and under what conditions can – and should – writers try to master a perspective that is different from their own? Every author will answer this differently, and all writers will have to work out for themselves which doors might swing open and what lines must never be crossed. But each one I have spoken to has defended it as a right that can, with the appropriate knowledge and sensitivity, be earned. The best literature celebrates this magic trick, but also feels for its boundaries. Dare to imagine, it tells us, but do it with respect, and do it well. We need diversity and authenticity, but we also need to defend writers’ right – and the responsibilities of their privilege – to launch themselves imaginatively across those divisions. Without it there would be no Hamlet, no Beloved, no Mrs Dalloway, no Underground Railroad.

Debates about cultural appropriation inevitably tend to coalesce around issues of racial and ethnic identity. Our failure to stand in other pairs of shoes is most catastrophic when it goes with imbalances of power. But great writing can also illuminate ordinary kinds of otherness, by taking us into points of view we might not otherwise have been able to enter: those moments when, thanks to the magic of words, people are less strange to each other, or when we glimpse something of the strangeness of our own selves.

The culmination of my own ‘I have to do something’ moment was a crowd-funded anthology, Others: Writers on the power of words to help us see beyond ourselves. I invited pieces that would consider otherness in a wide variety of its forms, from the dividing lines of politics and the anonymising forces of city life, through the disputed identities of disability, mental health and neurodiversity and the making and breaking of boundaries in the medical clinic and the asylum reception centre, to the endless battles that should have been won by now around social inequality. Through it all, we focused on two complementary themes: how words on the page can break down barriers of understanding and imagination and propel us into other points of view, but also how they can show how we ourselves are ‘other’ to those we want to set apart as different, dangerous and unknowable. The greatest literature challenges us to recognise our own otherness; not just to understand how people out there are different to us, but how we are alien to them. Who are the others? The answer is simple. We are.