Only connect.”

--E.M.Forster


Recently, I was listening to Anna Perera being interviewed on To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio. Perera is the author of Guantanamo Boy, a young adult novel about a 15-year-old boy, Khalid, who is on vacation in Pakistan but ends up being kidnapped and taken to Guantanamo Bay.

The book doesn’t shy away from what a prisoner in Guantanamo might undergo. As Publishers Weekly (7/25/11) noted: “Perera unflinchingly portrays the beating, sleep deprivation, isolation, and waterboarding that Khalid undergoes; in one section, she skillfully employs white space to demonstrate the confusion and madness caused by sleep deprivation. Readers will feel every ounce of Khalid's terror, frustration, and helplessness . . . .”

The interviewer, Anne Strainchamps, asked Perera what the craft of fiction brings to the subject of waterboarding, a newsworthy topic with all its corresponding facts and figures. Perera replied, “The stories that we remember in our own heads to do with our families, to do with our own lives, they stay in our heads because they have a power that facts can never have. They allow us to empathize, and once we know how to empathize, we know how to feel compassion, and that’s that power of stories.”

Writing allows us to take a topic – whether it’s newsworthy, abstract, or overwhelming – and make it personal. And by doing so, we bring the reader in to take a closer look, we let them feel the moment. That is incredibly powerful and significant. Steven Pinker, in his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” says he believes there is a connection between literacy and compassion, because reading expands our minds. He credits it with possibly being the reason that, starting in the 17th and 18th centuries, people started caring more about human rights. A powerful possibility!

How do you write about patriotism or the power of forgiveness? How do you help readers understand justice or love? Noting that our soldiers have given up a lot for this country is one thing, writing the story about a young man who has just returned from his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan to find his wife has left him and he can’t find a job is much more powerful.

Poet Richard Wilbur wanted to write about the death of his dog – almost a clichéd topic, but look at these first three lines of his poem, “The Pardon,” and you know there is nothing trite about what he has to say.

My dog lay dead five days without a grave

In the thick of summer, hid in a clump of pine

And a jungle of grass and honeysuckle-vine.

Isabelle Allende’s memoir, Paula takes us through the pain of what it is like to lose a child. While her daughter is in a coma, Allende tells her the legends of their family, so when she wakes up “you will not feel so lost.” But it is Allende who is lost and through her retelling of the family stories, she finds her way through the unimaginable pain of her daughter’s death.

The stories and poems we write matter. Stories help us share our humanity with each other. There is a story in Buddhism about a woman whose child has died. She asks the Buddha to help her get over her unyielding grief, and he tells her to go and collect a mustard seed from a house where the inhabitants have not experienced the death of a loved one. She roams far and wide, but every house she visits has known the pain of the death. Finally, she returns empty handed, unable to find such a seed, but she has found some comfort in learning she is not alone in her grief. That is the salve of stories, how it connects us to others.

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