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Constructing the Other: Empathy and the Ethics of Imagining Difference in Literature

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Organizer: Arnab Roy

Co-Organizer: Shailen Mishra

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A central question engaging literary scholars today is, can the practice of reading literature make humans more empathetic, particularly towards those who do not share similar socio-cultural or experiential backgrounds? Postcolonial theorists largely reject this possibility by finding empathy to be a bad criterion for supporting ethical cross-border-identification in literature. Some such as Marcus Wood and Fredric Jameson dismiss empathy as an ideology that promotes colonial subject imposition. Others such as Stephen Aschheim and Paul Bloom maintain that as an emotion, empathy is more likely to promote ego-centrisms and self-directed behaviors. The disdain that most postcolonial theorists have for empathy is nonetheless vigorously contradicted in practice by postcolonial novelists who strategically employ empathy in their writing in reaching out to audiences both near and far (Suzanne Keen’s emphasis). These novelists create what the scholar Shameem Black calls “border crossing fictions;” fictions that a) confront the ethical challenges of writing difference, and b) offer non-coercive alternatives to representational violence. Virginia Woolf recommends that novelists should devote themselves to “character-reading,” the everyday act of observing people, to portray a complex interior to their characters and to enhance relatability for readers. Amitav Ghosh in novels such as The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide utilizes linguistic strategies and nonverbal cues as narrative vehicles to demonstrate how interiority of others can be ethically and responsibly imagined. The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat uses first-person narrative and child characters in nuanced ways to set off layers of border crossing between the narrator, writer and reader.  


This panel aims to bring together scholars, creative writers, and literary theorists who take interdisciplinary approaches to interrogating empathy’s role in border-crossing literature. Candidates can consider the following questions as possible starting points (without being limited by them): How do literary and artistic works rethink and problematize empathy? How do writers invent narrative strategies to ethically represent difference? How does empathy inform readings of cultural identity? How do literary approaches to empathy intersect with discourses including affect theory, medical humanities, disability studies, ecocritcism, or queer theory? How can teaching of empathy enrich students’ encounter with narratives of difference?


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