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Author Roxane Gay on How Fiction Creates Empathy

This post originally appeared on the Aspen Institute blog on January 22, 2018.

Aspen Words will confer the inaugural $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize this year, recognizing a work of fiction with social impact. Twenty nominees are still in the running, and the diverse list includes 12 novels and eight short story collections covering a variety of critical issues and published by an array of presses. While the jury works on narrowing this list down to five finalists and a winner, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, the importance of fiction in understanding contemporary issues, and the books that have influenced them most.

In her short story collection Difficult Women, Roxane Gay gives voice to a group of unforgettable women as they confront issues such as abduction, the loss of a child, sexual abuse, and poverty. Each of the 21 stories features women of many different backgrounds and distinctive voices as they confront what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. Gay is also the author of the novel An Untamed State, the essay collection Bad Feminist, and the memoir Hunger.

Why did you write Difficult Women?
I wrote the stories in Difficult Women over several years. I brought those stories together as a collection because I saw a really interesting connective thread between all the stories, how they largely focused on women who might be seen as difficult but were mostly independent and complicated and interesting.

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
The most challenging thing was what is challenging with every book — finding the confidence to send these stories out into the world and make myself vulnerable like that. These stories are all fiction but they mean something to me, and carry in them a part of me.

How might fiction help us to explore contemporary issues?
For whatever reason, fiction works in interesting ways to bring about empathy and empathy goes a long way in helping people to try and understand the lives of others, the issues people face. There is also a comfortable distance provided by fiction and in that distance people can grapple with real, contemporary issues in ways they choose not to otherwise.

What book(s) have made you see the world differently? How?
Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker opened my eyes and my heart in so many ways. It is such a beautiful book about such an intimate, painful subject, female genital mutilation, and I love the courage of the ending, both in terms of what the protagonist does and how the writer allows the protagonist that ending. I learned so much as a person and a writer from this novel.

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