01/15/2013

How Fiction Informs a Socially-Conscious Work Life

by Megan Mayhew Bergman

When I embarked upon this socially-conscious series, I not only wanted to show the relationship between writers and their ideas, but also the relationship between fiction and readers. That second part — the way a work of fiction affects a reader — strikes me as a critical component of the literary exchange.

So we writers set these fictional ships a-sail, full of our ideas, our flawed characters, our hard-won insights. At our best, we illuminate a human truth. We hope readers walk away holding onto something. Feeling something. Maybe our words alter the way a reader thinks. Just maybe.

I thought it would be interesting to give someone in a socially-conscious job an opportunity to talk about the way specific books have gotten into their head, the way fiction has nudged its way into a world view, cracked open an insight, enhanced empathy. I wanted to see a real-life exchange between books and people. I wanted to see fiction at work.

My friend, Jessica Shortall, is as adventurous as she is smart, and I can think of no one better to detail a specific and meaningful exchange between books and reader. Her bio and her relationship with a few beloved books are below, best in her own words:

Bio:

Jessica Shortall has a weird career in global social entrepreneurship. She has been a Peace Corps Volunteer (in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan), co-founder of a nationally (U.S.) franchised non-profit organization (www.campuskitchens.org), consultant to socially-minded businesses worldwide, and currently serves as Director of Sight Giving for TOMS’ global Eyewear business.

She holds a to-date-unused B.A. in Art History from Wake Forest University, and an MBA (with distinction) from Oxford University, where she studied as one of five Skoll Scholars in Social Entrepreneurship.

Jessica lives in Austin, TX with her husband, Clay (an architect), her son, Otis (a professional insane person), her soon-to-be daughter (release date: March 2013), and her dog, Blue. She speaks crappy Spanish and Uzbek and really crappy Italian and Russian.

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Social Entrepreneur Jessica Shortall’s Recommended Reading: Three African Novels

I should begin by saying that I am a certified non-expert on any part of Africa, let alone the continent as a whole — which far too often is portrayed as a monolithic bloc with one set of people, problems, and politics. In fact, the only African country I have set foot in is Ethiopia (albeit multiple times). But my work does, and has in the past, touched on “Africa” (there’s that monolith again) in many ways — all of them focused in some way on social change, economic development, and poverty reduction. And for whatever reason, I seem to have sought out African writers throughout my life. Maybe it’s due to having strong childhood memories of the Ethiopian famine, or to having grown up during the dying days of apartheid. Maybe it’s just that there are some damn good African writers out there. At any rate, and without further hemming and hawing, here are my African Fiction Top Three:

1. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Published in 1958, the book centers on an Ibo village in Nigeria in the late 19th century, as white people began to make their presence felt there (to use an extreme euphemism). This book was my first exposure to literary immersion in any African culture, and created a useful counterpoint to the stereotypes of African communities I had seen enough of in colonial literature (for example, Heart of Darkness, which I admit to loving for its prose). I have pored over the details of Achebe’s book, exploring rituals, turns of phrase and proverbs, and the intricacies of communal living. I had never before seen an account of a so-called “primitive” culture that did not cater to the Western reader with anthropological explanations and footnotes. On Achebe’s watch, the community and its people simply were, without a lot of explanation, as the West has always been allowed to be in fiction. And in terms of a writer taking me where he wanted me to go, Achebe had me by the nose. When things indeed started to fall apart for Okonkwo and his community, I did exactly what Achebe wanted me to do: I mourned the inevitable loss of tradition at the expense of change, while ruminating on motifs of gender, religion, community, and family.

*2. Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.

Another vintage pick (published in 1948), this book is set in (just barely) pre-apartheid South Africa, and centers on the intertwined stories of a white family and a black family from the same rural village. Nothing if not a protest song and true cry of despair at the horrific state gripping Paton’s country, this book, when I first found it, spoke to the part of me that has always been drawn to social justice issues. With a microcosmic story, Paton lays bare the viciousness of the situation on people of both races. But the prose, oh the lovely, Biblical prose — Paton could have been writing about damn near anything and I would have read it voraciously. Indulge me for a moment with a quotation that reminds me of Paton’s sheer magic with words. The speaker is black, and speaks of his fear that reconciliation from the whites will come too late: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” Could he be writing about 21st century LGBT rights in the USA or Uganda or almost anywhere else? Women’s struggles at any time in history? Israel and Palestine? Would that Paton could teach us about all of those things, too.

3. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, the first novel (published in 2010 — see? I read contemporary books, too!) by Maaza Mengiste

The book is set in the mid-1970s Addis Ababa which saw the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rise of the Red Terror and fearsome Derg regime that terrorized Ethiopia for almost two decades. Mengiste somehow manages the daunting task of making both the personal tragedies — the novel centers on a middle-class doctor’s family in Addis — and the wider turmoil compelling and terrible in their brutality. We see the son clandestinely collecting bodies of murdered citizens, and through him we begin to develop a sense of the magnitude of the violence and tragedy. We see families forced to pay for the bullets that killed their children. We learn of countless peasants starving to death in the north. In one horrifying and beautiful book, Mengiste refutes Stalin’s famous “a million deaths is a statistic” assertion, and makes the whole horrible thing real, including the statistics. She gives us no choice but to witness the horror that befell Ethiopia (this time a brother-to-brother conflict, prompting one character to note, “When the Italians were here, at least you could tell who the enemy was”) — something that has long escaped the attention of far too many Westerners (this one included).

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posted by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Megan Mayhew Bergman is our Writer In Residence for January 2013. Megan is the author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a collection of stories published by Scribner in March 2012, and the forthcoming novel Shepherd, Wolf. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in the New York Times, Best American Short Stories 2011, New Stories from the South 2010, Oxford American, Narrative, Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere. Raised in North Carolina, Megan now lives on a small farm in Vermont with her two daughters, veterinarian husband, and a host of rescue animals. Her website is MayhewBergman.com.

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