Literature can bring a better sense of perspective

Deborah Williams ponders the dilemmas facing some young students.

In global classrooms, moments of empathy enable the students to better understand one another, despite their differences. Victor Besa for The National
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One of the students in my literature course this term wants very much to do graduate work after college. She’s a strong student with a great work ethic and I think she would be a very competitive candidate. This student has a deep sense of social responsibility and ultimately she would like to work on behalf of refugees and other displaced persons – a worthy goal, especially in these troubled times. Her mother insists, however, that more education may render her unmarriageable. According to the student’s mother, it’s more important that a woman support her husband’s ambitions than to follow her own aspirations.

This student is a good daughter who minds her parents, looks after her siblings and helps out around the house when she is home. What should she do? Honour her mother’s request and put her own dreams on the shelf, or risk her mother’s angry disappointment in order to fulfil her own sense of purpose?

The student talked briefly with me about her dilemma – I didn’t have any answers – but then she found a better, and unexpected, way to think through her problems: a novel written in 1957 by a Japanese American about the aftermath of the Japanese internment camps, which the United States government created in response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The government issued Executive Order 9066, which remanded anyone of Japanese descent – even those who were US citizens – from the western coast of the US to camps further inland, where people could be under constant surveillance and thus unable to spy for the Japanese military.

No No Boy chronicles this ugly period of US history, which until fairly recently was not regularly included in US history books. To a contemporary reader, however, the novel offers a startling reminder of what can happen when a government legislates xenophobia in the name of “national security”. The novel’s title comes from two key questions on a “loyalty questionnaire”, which was given to Japanese men in the camps. The form asked the men to forswear allegiance to all other governments, and to promise to fight for the US wherever they were sent. Young men who answered yes-yes were freed from the camps and sent to fight in the Pacific. Men who answered no-no were sent to prison. The hero of the novella, Ichiro, becomes a no-no boy out of respect for his mother, a Japanese émigré to Seattle who had never assimilated to her new country. She insists, in fact, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Japan was winning the war and that any talk of surrender, or the wreckage caused by the atom bomb, is just American propaganda. One of the central conflicts of the novel turns on Ichiro’s divided loyalties: how does he balance his sense of loyalty to his very troubled mother with his loyalty to his native country, whose language he speaks and whose principles he still admires, even as he deplores the attitudes that sent him to prison?

In Ichiro’s story, my student found resonances with her own life, as did other students in the class, even though none of them is either Japanese or American. Reading about Ichiro’s mother’s fears, as well as about Ichiro’s negotiations with the conflicting identities of “Japanese” and “American”, offered the students a mirror in which they saw versions of their own struggles. Literature, in some sense, demands that we find ways to empathise with lives very different than our own. In global classrooms like those at New York University Abu Dhabi, these moments of empathy also enable the students to better understand one another, despite their differences. Even as they are learning about literature and history, they also begin to understand that safety does not emerge from sameness but in the engagement necessitated by difference. As for my student? She’s not given up on graduate school, but she says she now has a much better understanding of her mother. “And besides,” she added cheerfully, “my mum is nowhere near as horrible as Ichiro’s.” Literature, it seems, has given her a sense of perspective.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi