How Novels Widen Your Vision


Joe Fassler in The Atlantic [h/t: Tunku Varadarajan]:

Dinaw Mengestu is a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” writer, aNew Yorker “20 Under 40” writer to watch, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His other novels are The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air.

Dinaw Mengestu: I came to Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the Northlate in life, shortly after I had finished my second novel and was just beginning to make the first tentative steps into the third. I read it once, and then a few weeks later, once more. I began to carry it in my bag, next to my laptop, or in my coat pocket where it easily fit. I opened it at least once a week to no particular page. After a few minutes, I would close the book, slightly uncertain about what I had just read, even though I knew the outlines of the story better than almost any other novel. I would often wonder why I had never heard of the novel before, and why the same was true for most people I knew. Under the broad banner of post-colonial literature, it deserved a place next to Achebe’sThings Fall Apart, but to think of it only in those terms undercuts its value as a stunning work of literature, as a novel that actively resists the division of art into poorly managed categories of race and history.

Those divisions are a fundamental part of Salih’s novel. The story, set in a recently independent Sudan, with footprints in England and Egypt, mocks and eviscerates the clichés that come with looking at the world as a division between us and the Other. That fractured gaze, whether it is born out of race, gender, or privilege destroys the characters in the novel, none of whom are merely victims or perpetrators. Through them, the story becomes an argument for a better way of seeing, which has always struck me as being one of the novel’s better gifts, something which it is uniquely poised to do, if only because it demands the reader’s imagination, and by doing so affirms our capacity to live beyond the limited means of our private lives. We read not to encounter the Other, but to see ourselves refracted in a different landscape, in a different time, in shoes and clothes that perhaps bear no resemblance to our own.

More here.