When I worked with children in the library, one of the concepts that seemed hard for the little ones to remember was the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
They seemed to know that one was “real” and the other “made up,” but they’d often get them backward. My theory is that students were confused because both “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 you would find stories, and nonfiction was where you’d find information.
That explanation, of course, is a vast oversimplification. Most plays, for example, are in the nonfiction 800s section. The same is true for many classic works of literature like “The Iliad” and “The Odyessy” by Homer. Fairy tales are clearly imaginative stories, but they are classified in the nonfiction section, 398.2 to be precise. So not everything in nonfiction is what we would consider “factual.”
Recently, I’ve been contemplating the reverse as well. I’ve been struck by how much truth can be found in fiction. I’m not talking about novels based on historical figures. I’m thinking of the deeper truths we can learn when transported into 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 a chance to step into that author’s understanding of the world. For example, I may never travel to Columbia, and I’ll certainly never be a Columbian immigrant to the United States. Still, when I read Patricia Engel’s book “Infinite Country” I was able to get a glimpse into that life. The book opened my eyes to the hardships of separation, the hopes for improved circumstances and the difficulty of leaving one’s family and home culture.
Author Daniel H. Pink said that “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.” If this is the case, reading fiction is an excellent way to develop empathy for others. Reading books written by authors who have lived in different circumstances or cultures other than your own can connect you with those people’s lives in profound and meaningful ways.
I’ve read some excellent books that fall into this category lately, in addition to “Infinite Country,” including:
• “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee – shares the lives 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 path 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 multiple generations of a family in war-torn Vietnam
• “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi – shows the powerful legacy of chance and privilege across generations of a Ghanan 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 through which we tell the truth.” If you’d like to learn from made-up stories that point to someone else’s reality, come on into the library. We’ll be happy to help you find some truth from fiction.