Literature and Empathy
By Damaris Zehner
In May of 1998, my husband, three daughters, and I – pregnant with our fourth – moved to Kyrgyzstan. We went with a non-denominational mission agency and planned to develop a business in one of the most remote areas. We had many reasons for taking our family overseas to a less developed country. I had grown up overseas myself, though in more comfortable circumstances, and my husband and I had met and got married in West Africa when we were in the Peace Corps. We wanted our children to have the experience of living abroad – to learn another language and have fun adventures, but more importantly, to see poverty intimately, face to face, not through the window of a car. We wanted them to try to communicate with people whose world view would continually surprise them and to know what it was like to be different.
By October of that year, we were living in a mud-brick house in the small but sprawling village of Ak Talaa – “White Field.” It was a good name. It stood on barren, dusty, high-altitude flatlands surrounded by mountains and dry blue sky. The weather was getting cold, and in early morning the streets smelled of burning camel dung – wood was scarce. At night the stars were a carpet of white, the only compensation for a chilly trip to the outhouse.
Our oldest daughter Katherine was eight years old. She was adventurous and plunged into the new culture with determination. Although she had been home schooled in the United States, she chose to go to a Kyrgyz school once we moved to Ak Talaa. Because we wanted her to learn the language and meet other children, we were willing to help her weather the adjustment.
It was harder than we anticipated. We made progress in the language and had a few relationships with neighbors, but on the whole the villagers’ attitude toward us was distrust, even hatred. We were cannibals, apparently – they told us this to our face, and nothing we could offer in response had any effect; our accusers shook their heads tensely and said we should just go away. A mentally ill man used to follow me through the market, muttering, “Are you Satan?” while I tried to find something to buy for dinner. The police and the village leadership were no more welcoming.
Katherine began coming home from school with footprints on the seat of her black uniform skirt. My husband talked to the school but wasn’t sanguine about anything changing.
“You can stay home, you know,” I offered.
“No, I have the right to go to school if I want to. I’m not going to quit.” We left it there but kept a close eye on her.
One chilly afternoon, Katherine came back from school, changed, and played in the dusty yard with her sisters until dusk. I was getting dinner ready, so I sent her to the pump with a bucket to fetch water. Our house didn’t have running water – none of the houses did – but every few blocks was a neighborhood pump, which was also a gathering spot for gossip and play. Water-carrying was Katherine’s regular chore, but today she came back with an empty bucket. Her face was tense and quivering, clenched between rage and tears.
“What happened?” I asked.
The rage won. “They wouldn’t let me get water.” She was fighting to keep her voice steady.
“Well, the kids mostly, but they’re always like that. But then there was an old woman there, too, and she . . .” My daughter struggled to speak. “I thought she would tell the kids to leave me alone.”
I paused. “She didn’t?”
“No!” Katherine burst out. “She laughed! She told the boys not to let me near the pump! She just watched when they pushed me. Why would she do that?”
How could I explain to an eight-year-old about the evil hidden in every heart? How could I make her understand the long generations of culture, the molding force of the family, and the individual struggle for rectitude behind every human choice? While I thought, I maneuvered my very pregnant form onto a low stool and pulled her down next to me, then scooped up the kitten for her to hold. There were several parts to her devastation, I thought: mild but still present was her sense of failure to do what she set out to do; then there was her frustration and fear in response to the bullies at the pump. But to see an adult being childishly wicked and delighting in injustice – that didn’t just hurt her, it undermined her view of the world.
I wasn’t good at lying to my children, especially to Katherine, passionately devoted to truth from the time she could talk. I couldn’t tell her that maybe she hadn’t understood what the woman said, because I knew that wasn’t the case. There was nothing I could say except that there were nasty people in the world, people who would hate her for the things that made her who she was, like her sex, her nationality, her religion, and her skin color. But I didn’t say it – she was learning it all by herself.
I left her huddled on the low stool in the kitchen, clutching her cat, and went to get the collection of poetry that I’d packed as one of the few essentials to bring overseas. I turned to a poem called “Incident,” by Countee Cullen and read it aloud:
Once, riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore,
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there,
That’s all that I remember.
And that’s when Katherine finally began to cry.
She cried for herself, as she should have. She also cried for a little boy she had never known, who had suddenly become her brother in adversity. And she cried for the unkindness of the world and the loss of her illusions.
I read her the poem because I had no other comfort I could honestly give her. Did she find comfort in knowing that she was not alone? I think she found a little. Even the measured phrases that gave shape to a shattering realization provided comfort. Not much, but some. The kitten helped, too.
We didn’t stay in Ak Talaa much longer, because our neighbors kept breaking our windows with rocks and we couldn’t keep the house warm. The police declined to interfere, explaining that there was really nothing they could do and it would probably be better if we just left. In November we moved to the regional capital city, where we made friends and found good work to do, although we occasionally still had people spit or throw stones at us.
Katherine lived in Kyrgyzstan until she was a teenager. She’s an adult now, generous, unprejudiced, and brave. She’s also a novelist, still turning to words to give shape to the complications of life and to assuage the loneliness of the human condition through the communion of literature. And she has two cats.