When I worked with children in the library, one of the concepts that seemed difficult for the little ones to remember was the difference between fiction and non-fiction.
They seemed to know that one was “real” and the other “made up”, but they often backed them off. My theory is that students were confused because “fact” and “fiction” start with the letter F. They thought fiction books were factual. I was usually able to help them understand that fiction was where stories were found and non-fiction was where information was found.
This explanation, of course, is a vast oversimplification. Most plays, for example, are in the 800 non-fiction section. The same goes for many classic works of literature like Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”. Fairy tales are clearly imaginative stories, but they are classified in the non-fiction section, 398.2 to be precise. So not everything in non-fiction is what we would consider “factual”.
Recently, I also considered the reverse. I was struck by the amount of truth that can be found in fiction. I’m not talking about novels based on historical characters. I think of the deeper truths we can learn when conveyed in a good story.
When writing fiction, an author has the opportunity to speak their truth through the story they weave. When reading fiction, we have the chance to enter into the understanding of that author’s world. For example, I may never travel to Colombia, and I will certainly never be a Colombian immigrant in the United States. However, when I read Patricia Engel’s book “Infinite Country”, I was able to get a glimpse of this life. The book opened my eyes to the difficulties of separation, the hopes of improving the situation and the difficulty of leaving one’s family and one’s culture of origin.
Author Daniel H. Pink said “empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, feeling with your heart, seeing with your eyes.” If so, reading fiction is a great way to develop empathy for others. Reading books written by authors who have lived in circumstances or cultures different from your own can connect you with the lives of those people in deep and meaningful ways.
I’ve recently read some great books that fall into this category, in addition to “Infinite Country”, including:
• “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee – shares the life of Korean immigrants in Japan in the early 1900s
• “Map of Salt and Stars” by Zeyn Joukhadar – a dual-timeline novel about a young Syrian refugee and a medieval adventurer
• “The Girl With the Louding Voice” by Abi Dare – the story of a young Nigerian girl finding her way out of poverty
• “A Woman is No Man” by Etaf Rum – a glimpse into the lives of three generations of Palestinian-American women
• “The Night Watchman” by Louise Ehrlich – examines life on and off the Turtle Mountain reservation in the 1950s
• “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyen Phan Que Mai – follows several generations of a family in war-torn Vietnam
• “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi – shows the powerful legacy of luck and privilege through the generations of a Ghanaian family
• ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett – examines the difference perceived race makes in the lives of twin sisters
In the novel “The Stranger”, Albert Camus writes: “Fiction is the lie by which we tell the truth”. If you want to learn from made-up stories that point to someone else’s reality, step into the library. We will be happy to help you find some truth in fiction.