These days it seems more important than ever that human beings get along with each other and work together, yet here we are, divided and at odds, struggling to cooperate in even the smallest ways. We lack what nineteenth century writers and philosophers called “imaginative sympathy,” the ability (and the willingness) to use our imaginations to help us bridge the gap between ourselves and those who seem very different.
In her 2013 article on literature and the “moral imagination,” Heather McRobie highlights the work of philosopher Martha Nussbaum in describing the role of the novel as “key to social justice.”
McRobie says, “Through literature we can live more than one life. Our imagination takes us to times, places and realities that we have not personally lived. By entering the viewpoints of others from within, we can experience their experiences through our reading. And after we have ‘lived’ people through literature, it is harder to find them alien or disgusting, however much governments and media may try to make them so.”
The “Stories from Elsewhere” Reading Group will use contemporary novels from around the world to help readers experience “places and realities that we have not personally lived.” Together we will develop and exercise the imaginative sympathy in ourselves which can lead us to a fuller understanding of our common human struggles and shared humanity.
The Stories From Elsewhere reading group meets monthly from September 2021 to May 2022 at the Athenæum, on the third Wednesday of the month from 5:30-7pm.
*VIRTUAL MEETING* Wed, September 15 | China
Strange Beasts of China, by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang (2021), 240 pages. “The delights of Strange Beasts of China, an inspired bestiary as investigative novel, are the authentic human emotions evoked. Fear, loneliness, melancholy, and hope fill every page” (Paul Tremblay).
Wed, October 20 | Vietnam
Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Nina McPherson (2002), 272 pages. “Reading Duong Thu Huong’s lyrical novel about life in post-war Vietnam I am reminded of a line from Nguyen Du’s classic narrative…which mourns “all women in soul-rending strains.” I am also reminded of the resiliency of Vietnamese women, of all women in general, especially those who come from Confucian societies” (Dan Cragg).
Wed, November 17 | Saudi Arabia
Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea, translated by Marilyn Booth (2008), 286 pages. “Alsanea’s wisdom and insight into the female experience seem surreal….Her characters provide wisdom to each other that are astounding in their accuracy, and Alsanea thus speaks for countless women everywhere” (Bookreporter.com).
Wed, December 15 | Iraq
The American Granddaughter, by Inaam Kachachi (2008), translated by Nariman Youssif (2020), 192 pages. “Originally published in Arabic in 2008 and short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Kachachi’s war novel follows the internalized musings of an Iraqi-born American working as a translator for U.S. military forces after Saddam Hussein’s fall” (Kirkus Review).
Wed, January 19 | Kenya
The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gi᷉ku᷉yu᷉ and Mu᷉᷉mbi, by Nu᷉gui᷉ wa Thiong’o (2020), 240 pages. “Essential reading and especially vital for our times….Emphasizing fundamental cycles of birth, life, love, and death, this tale is centered on the Gĩkũyũ but connected to all of us and our humanity, a story to be told and retold, as it has been in various forms, for generations” (Booklist).
Wed, February 16 | Russia
The Light and the Dark, by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Andrew Bromfield (2014), 368 pages. “Shishkin has created a bewitching potion of reality and fantasy, of history and fable, and of lonely need and joyful consolation” (The Wall Street Journal).
Wed, March 16 | France
At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop, translated by Anna Maschovakis (2020), 160 pages. “Diop’s short but emotionally packed second novel illuminates an underreported chapter in French and Senegalese history. Part folklore, part existential howl, and part prose poem, it is a heartbreaking account of pointless suffering . . . A searing, eye-opening tale of innocence destroyed (Kirkus Reviews).
Wed, April 20 | Argentina
Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Miranda France (2010), 269 pages. “A razor-sharp psychological and social portrait not only of Argentina, but of the affluent Western world as a whole” (Rosa Montero).
Wed, May 18 | Mexico
Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrara (2015), translated by Lisa Dillman (2020), 128 pages. Herrara “explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back” (Amazon).
Mare Davis believes in the power and the simple pleasure of reading and talking about books. She has taught English to college students for many years and led the Athenaeum Reading Group on Mary Wollstonecraft and Feminism during 2020-2021. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and continues to read and re-read the novels of Eliot, Dickens, Austen, and Zola. She is also interested in French, Spanish, and the practice and theory of translation. Her children’s book, Alice and Fay: A Fairy Adventure will be published in the fall.
Online registration will open to Athenæum members on Wednesday, July 28th at 8am. If you have any questions, please email email@example.com.