Learning from Literature

One of the things I love most about fiction is that, if you really pay attention to what you read, you can easily decipher the state of the world at the time a book was written and published.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, 95 years after the end of slavery but 5 before many of the major moments of the Civil Rights movement. Her novel highlighted “the way things were” and gave its readers a not-so-subtle nudge in the gut that maybe “things” needed to change. Now, over half a century later, this novel stands as a pinnacle of American literature. I wrote a piece for the Times Union Book Blog recently about the current relevance of Lee’s seminal work.

My recent read of Aline Ohanesian’s Orhan’s Inheritance is stirring up similar feelings. The American political landscape right now is, frankly, a bit scary. I don’t usually get political on this blog – I work in politics every day, can’t I just talk about books?! – but for this, I think it’s worth it. In the Republican primary race,we’ve really seen some horrifying, horrifying comments.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the frontrunner Donald Trump who’s saying nasty things about pretty much anyone who isn’t a white man like him. It’s also Ted Cruz, who’s in second place, and has said he’ll “carpet bomb” ISIS. Well, okay, except what he’s suggesting – similarly to Trump, who said he’d kill innocent people – is illegal. I know I, and many people I know, are looking around saying ‘what is going on here?’ Because what’s going on here has already happened. We’ve seen it once, twice, countless times before.

In Orhan’s Inheritance we read about the beginning of World War 1, when Christian Armenians are rounded up in town squares and are sent walking, literally, to the unknown – because Muslims Turks have decided to take their country back. Does that not sound familiar? But what the novel reminds us is that the Turks aren’t necessarily the enemy. Kemal, whose father uses phrases like “Armenian dogs” and Lucine, whose father says a marriage to Kemal – because he’s Muslim and Turkish – would be a betrayal to their families, prove the humanity beneath the struggle and the prejudice.

The book perfectly captures how prejudices fuel the flames of war. It’s only after Lucine has rejected him via insults, insinuating her superiority because Kemal “doesn’t even have a last name,” that Kemal flees to join the war efforts that have ripped Lucine’s Armenian family apart. It’s a vicious cycle we see repeated throughout the book. And it begs the question: where did these prejudices begin? At what point did people turn to one another and declare “you’re different from me, and therefore not acceptable”?

When Kemal’s death prompts his grandson, title character Orhan, to search for the mysterious woman Seda, whom Kemal has left his family’s house. Orhan arrives just before the start of a gallery exhibition about the Armenian Genocide, which Seda’s niece put together.  Unsurprisingly, the exhibition startles him. The idea of a “genocide” disturbs him. Because he’s Turkish, and his grandfather fought in the war, he’s never viewed the atrocities as an outsider. Sure, he muses, it’s terrible that people died, but that’s war. Many, many people died. And he’s not wrong, of course, but there’s a saying of being too close to the forest to see the trees. And it’s pretty apparent that Orhan falls into that category.

It makes me wonder, is our country, right now, too close to the forest to see the trees? Have we stopped looking to the past to learn and understand? By the sheer number of fiction novels begging to be read, the answer isn’t so clear cut. The past is right here, waiting to be ingested again in the present, to remind us all of where we’ve come from and how far we still have to go. But when we read, are we understanding that? Are readers seeing that the past they think they’re reading about is really our present? We’ve certainly got to be careful. It makes me wonder, when we look back on the books written during our present in years to come, what will we see?

I’m reading literature, and I’m learning from it. Are you?


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