I was tagged on Instagram months ago to talk about what literature has taught me but this answer is so vast that one little photo post could not possibly do it justice. Really, the title should be: what hasn’t literature taught me?
Let’s start at the beginning.
I grew up in a very white-centric environment, in a very white city on the Canadian prairies. My family has been in Canada since around the potato famine (1847) and, until my older sister, still managed to mostly only marry people of Irish descent. I still live in this prairie city and it is still very white – although times are definitely changing. But even before the internet blew all our worlds wide open with the ability to make connections once never thought of, I had books to teach me about the world.
Yes, history books could do the same but social history – even if it is fictional – is often easier to remember and empathize with. I could read about the industrial revolution and how England went from an agrarian society to an industrialized one where children were working in factories but I won’t remember all the little facts as well as I do the story of Oliver Twist or Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.
So my education through literature started off slowly. Stories about kids with alcoholic parents. Stories about kids being abandoned and learning to survive on their own. Stories about kids with cancer – sometimes dying, sometimes not. Anorexia. Bullying. First love. All of this happened to me through the pages of books before I realized these were things that happened in the real world.
When I was in junior high I went to stay with my god parents in Quebec for three weeks. One day my much-older cousin was asking me about my friends and he started asking me what nationalities all these kids were (his world was even whiter than mine), and up until that point I had never thought about it. “Well,” I said. “Emese’s family is from Hungary. Jerome is from the Phillipines. Danny is from Chile.” But everyone seemed the same to me – and really, we were in a sense, having all gone to the same Catholic school for years. Most of my friends came from families that had lived in Canada for a long time. Also, I just assumed every one was Catholic for the longest time. I remember singing in choir at the local music conservatory and my friend Amy had to relearn the Christmas carols every year. How could she not know them? Something that was ingrained in me as breathing. Well, Amy was Jewish so Christmas carols weren’t on her radar.
In my high school their were maybe a handful of African American students and three obviously Native Americans (a brother and sister, and a friend who I had grown up with who I didn’t even know was native until years later because to me he was just another Catholic fine arts school kid). I had another friend who was from the Phillipines. I suspect that there were probably some other Asian kids as well but I can’t recall any right now. So that makes about a dozen non-white kids in a school of five hundred.
It was a nice safe little world for me but it didn’t teach me much about other cultures.
Charles Dickens taught me about poverty.
The Diary of Anne Frank introduced me to the horrors of Nazi Germany.
Gone with the Wind introduced me to slavery and the American Civil War. Learning about that war encouraged me to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn. This led to me reading more modern stories written by actual writers of colour: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston which blew me away so much I immediately started reading it a second time when I finished the first reading. Just yesterday I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s We Should All Be Feminists while laying in the bath and I thought: why has it taken me so long to read this? And I thought: I may know what it is like to be a woman who has been sexually harassed repeatedly through out my life, but I will never know what it is like to be an African woman who has to put up with the shit that she has had to put up with.
And then there is the whole Black Hermione Granger debate. It never once occurred to me that Hermione could be black but it also, as far as I could tell (and I checked) never once stated in the books that she wasn’t black. She had frizzy untameable hair, brown eyes and protruding teeth – those things we remember. But apparently girls of colour across the world read about Hermione and claimed her as their own. I had no idea – because I’m white and just assumed she was white – but how cool is that?
Literature still has so much to teach me about different cultures, races and religions – to crack open my myopic white world view and create bridges so I can see the racism and discrepancies around me.
Literature is still shaping my life.
Literature has helped me understand how far we have come and how far we still have to go – and now I have the privilege of sharing it with my children. I have read thousands of books to my girls in the last almost-nine years of being a mother. It is fascinating to see my children learning about the world around them through the pages of books and being able to continue my literary education with them.