Monday, 21 May 2018

Guest Post: Who Gets to Tell the Story? Empathy vs Exploitation by Victoria Williamson


In today's guest blog post, and as part of her blog tour, Victoria Williamson, author of 'The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle' (see my review), discusses how stories can help children to understand things from the perspective of others. In her own book the story is told by two characters, each with their own point of view on the same events - this device is a helpful way into exploring how different people see and interpret the same events differently.

In a world of competing twenty-four hour news channels, adverts and infomercials that stretch the definition of truth, scientific data sponsored by self-interested corporations, and ‘fake news’ pedalled on Facebook and Twitter with countless celebrity ‘likes’, how do we separate the fact from the fiction, the objective reality from the subjective opinion?

Learning to sift through all of the available sources and select the most reliable ones is a vital skill for students to learn. One of the best ways to introduce them to this is through fiction. Children’s books are full of unreliable narrators, characters who see the world only from their point of view and get things wrong as a result. Caylin and Reema in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle are no exception. Seen though Reema’s eyes, Caylin is a mean school bully, a talentless thug and an untrustworthy thief with no redeeming qualities. From Caylin’s point of view, Reema is a foreigner who speaks a strange language and eats weird food, an outsider she couldn’t possibly have anything in common with. At first their own prejudice colours every interaction, to the point where they experience the same events in completely different ways.

In Chapters 16 and 17 Caylin and Reema race each other in gym class, and both come away with a very different opinion of how that race turned out. Reema thinks:

I have won. I have proved to them all that I am the White Gazelle, and I am fast.
Caylin may be faster than me over a short distance, but that is alright, because I am stronger.
I will always outrun her in the end.

While Caylin says:

I totally beat her. If Miss Lindsey hadn’t made us run a stupid marathon instead of a straight race then I would’ve crossed the finish miles ahead of Reema.
It wasn’t a fair contest.
            [...] As long as I know I can outrun Reema, that’s all that matters.

It’s only when the two girls overcome their initial mistrust and start to work together to look after the family of foxes in the back yard of their apartment building that they realise they’re not so very different after all. It’s only by sharing their experiences with each other, and looking at the world from the others’ point of view, that they come to see the whole picture.

When discussing refugee issues in the classroom, the ‘whole picture’ exercise is a very useful one to get students thinking about who is being allowed to tell the story, and whose point of view is being left out entirely. I ask groups to look at a picture that is half covered with paper, and ask them to describe what they think the other hidden half looks like. The most useful picture for this exercise is the Reuters photograph by Jose Palazon showing golfers on an expensive course in Spain on one side, while migrants attempting to make it across the Spain-Morocco border to start a new life in Europe are seen climbing the high fence in the background. When the background is covered and we only see the point of view of the golfers, it looks like a beautiful, tranquil scene on a plush course lined by palm trees. Only when it is seen from the point of view of the migrants perched precariously on top of the fence does the difference in wealth, situation and life chances become clear.

This exercise is a great introduction to further activities looking at newspaper headlines and news stories. Who is telling the story? Is it written from the point of view of a resident of that country or a displaced person seeking a refuge? Is it sympathetic or hostile? Is the story being told with empathy, or is it exploitative, full of click-bait headlines and inflammatory phrases to draw readers in, regardless of the dehumanising effect this has on the people being described?

As teachers we need to ensure that students have access to a wide range of sources in our classes that describe historical and current affairs events from all points of view, not just the mainstream or ‘accepted’ version. As authors, we have a duty to represent a range of different characters and voices in our books, and not always default to writing characters just like us whose life experiences mirror our own. The ability to empathise with others may be something we are all born with, but like most skills, it has to be nurtured and practised. It’s only by seeing the world through the eyes of others that we get to exercise this important skill fully, and reading fiction with a diverse range of characters and voices is one of the best places to begin.

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