Literature, Empathy and the Migrant Experience

As the migrant crisis continues to unveil its complexities over news screens everywhere and Canada contemplates how to best welcome and make room for refugees in our communities, I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a human being and citizen of the world.

How do you build friendships with people from an unfamiliar culture where etiquette, language and customs collide with your own? How can our community be as welcoming and inclusive as possible when, for many Canadians, understanding what it’s like to continually worry about the safety and well-being of you and your family is an alien concept?

In other words, how do you build empathy?

Many have written excellent pieces and done studies on how literature can help readers to better understand and connect with others.  In his Atlantic article, author Joe Fassler explains this process best by saying that, “Literature gives us a broad spectrum of human possibilities. It teaches us how to feel other people suffering. When you read a good novel, you forget about the nationality of the character. You forget about his or her religion. You forget about his skin color or her skin color. You only understand the human. You understand that this is a human being, the same way we are. And so reading great novels absolutely can remake us as much better human beings. ”

Below I’ve put together a short list of Canadian novels which explore the migrant experience for readers who are interested in pushing their limits of human understanding. You’ll notice that while many of the titles are contemporary, I have also included American novelist John Steinbeck’s American classic Grapes of Wrath, which although it was published in 1939 is still as relevant today as ever as it chronicles the hardships faced by a poor Midwest family forced off their land and into the sea of migrants heading West during the American Dust Bowl. empathy exams

In addition to these titles, NVCL’s March Book Club will be taking a look at Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams . If you’re interested in learning more and participating, please join us on March 2nd for what promises to be an interesting discussion (It’s also my first book club at NVCL!).

Finally, February 22nd is also the deadline for the Library Small Grants program, an initiative we are piloting here at the library to build creative and community-led cross-cultural relationships here on the North Shore.  The deadline is Monday so please don’t hesitate to apply, we’d love to hear from you!


Recommended Reads:

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill theillegal

One of my most anticipated reads of the year is Canadian author Lawrence Hill’s first novel since the bestselling epic, The Book of Negroes. The Illegal tells the story of Keita, an elite marathoner and refugee from a fictionalized country in the centre of the Indian Ocean called Zantoroland who uses his running prowess to escape to Freedom Land—a familiar stand-in for the wealthy, democratic Western world.  In an interview with CBC, Hill said “I think we have trouble imagining the lives of refugees and stateless people. With refugees, you see all these pictures of these people who are displaced or on the move… It’s important to remember that each of these people has a story: has a mother and a father and perhaps children, lovers, aptitudes and skills. There are doctors, engineers and lawyers in those groups of displaced people, as well as people of every other economic class.” 


The Cockroach by Rawi Hage  cockroach cover

Published in 2008, The Cockroach was the finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was also selected as one of CBC’s Canada Reads finalists in 2015.  Through flashbacks and conversations with his therapist following a failed suicide attempt, The Cockroach tells the story of one former refugee’s violent childhood in a war-torn country, forward into his current urban life, and out into the frozen night-time streets of Montreal, where the thief survives on the edge of society.


Year of the Runaways The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Nominated for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this book takes a slightly different look at the migrant experience by highlighting the plight of economic migrants, in this case by telling the story of the difficult, lonely, and at times despairing lives of four illegal migrants who made their way to Sheffield, UK from India in search of a better life.


Ru by Kim Thúy

In vignettes that shift back and forth between past and present, Ru tells the story of a young woman forced to leave her Saigon home during the Vietnam War. Thúy traces the woman’s journey from childhood in an affluent Saigon neighbourhood to youth in a crowded Malaysian refugee camp and then to Quebec, where she struggles to fit in — all aspects of the author’s own life story.


The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck   JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath

One of my all-time favourite reads, this is one of those stories which has the power to reach and touch readers who have difficulty stepping outside their North American experience. It examines the plight of the Joad family as they are forced off their Midwest homestead and join the sea of migrants heading west to California during the 1930’s Dust Bowl. One thing that I found most striking about the book is how Steinbeck is able to fully realize what happens when dehumanizing labels like “migrant”, “refugee” and in this case “Okie” are assigned as tools to allow others to step back and withdraw their responsibility to care and empathize as fellow human beings.


-Mikale Fenton

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