Why we read, part 2



Have you ever found yourself disagreeing with a fictitious character’s actions based on your experiences and or culture? Or judging their decisions because it is something you would never do?

While I shouldn’t say this is wrong for the everyday reader (but I think it is) I will say it is wrong for those of us who have chosen the path of higher education, at least as it pertains to the humanities. We humanities majors have committed ourselves to studying more about the world so that we may learn among other things, empathy and understanding. We have committed ourselves to not just learn about people and events, both past and present, but from other people as well. We are not to sit in our ivory towers tossing our chamber pots over the heads of anyone passing that we find culturally unappealing or acting in ways that do not fit our understanding of the rules of social engagement.

Sadly, not everyone who decides to earn a humanities degree understands this. Yet this lack of understanding keeps them from the beauty and heartbreak of those different from themselves.

I am currently taking a class titled “Non-western lit”. The name says it all. We are reading a novel a week (which is why my blogs have been few and far between) from authors outside of our western culture and cannon, with the understanding that we are to read from their point of view. In other words, we are to drop our Orientalist and post-colonial views, and see the world through the eyes of the characters presented to us.

There is a woman in my class who, despite being a self professed world traveler, refuses to see the non-western world as it is but instead comments on behavior that disgusts her. She sits in judgment as if all people walk the same path and have the same life experiences as her.

Take for instance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize wining, interpreter of maladies. In this beautifully written but heart wrenching collection of short stories there are people who make decisions or do things that may not make sense if we look at them from the western perspective. Some of the stories contain characters that we can identify with even if we do not agree with their behavior.  But just because we do not agree with them does not mean we in a position to judge them. Yet, at every turn this woman will blurt out, “My husband would never do that”, or, “my husband would never act that way”.

The story When Mr. Pirzada comes to dine”, is a perfect example of what this woman is missing as she sits in judgment. Mr. Pirzada (a professor we assume) comes to America to study botany on a government scholarship.  While he is in America an Indian couple and their daughter befriend him. While he is in America the Pakistani army invades Mr. Pirzada’s home country of Dacca. The couple and Mr. Pirzada sit night after night watching the news for any signs of hope as they watch teachers being dragged out of their homes and shot in the streets. Mr. Pirzada clearly cannot safely return home to his wife and six children.

The theme of this story is family. The ones we have and the ones we make. This unnamed Hindu couple takes in Mr. Pirzada, a Muslim, in because they share a cultural heritage.  And, even though Hindus and Muslims have been at each other’s throats for hundreds of years, the couple become his surrogate family in a time when he needs family the most.  This is what we were supposed to get from the story.

What did my aforementioned classmate complain about? That Mr. Pirzada did not return home to his real family! She asserted, “Her husband would never do that!” When I asked if her she and her husband had ever lived a country that was ravaged by war, she admitted they had not but held firm in her conviction that her husband would return to her if  he found himself in this situation. When our professor asked her how Mr. Pirzada was supposed to fly home during an invasion, she became silent but unconvinced that Mr. Pirzada did the right thing by staying in America until it was safe to return. My classmate was focused on the theme of family responsibility, but her absolute stance on what her husband would do, blinded her to beauty of the story.

A part of me understands why my classmate talks about her husband so often. He passed on two years ago, and clearly there is a hole she needs to fill. By remembering him as the perfect husband, she can cling to her past, as the present may be too painful for her. I don’t know. I feel for her, yet there are days I want to shake her and remind her of our commitment to grow, not from the experiences we have had, but from the ones we haven’t. What stops me is my willingness to step back and try not to judge her too harshly. As bad as I feel bad for her loss, I feel equally as bad for what she is continually loosing; a chance to grow as a person.

The next time you find yourself at odds with a character’s behavior, remember the author is not asking you to sit in judgment, rather you are being asked to understand based on the information you are being given. Allow you to learn and grow. After all, isn’t this why we read?

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

2 thoughts on “Why we read, part 2”

  1. I’d say, rather, that we are called upon to make informed judgments. Not make any judgment at all? Then how did you decide Mr. Pirzada did the right thing? The difference is more in being willing to see Mr. Pirzada’s perspective before judging him, as opposed to judging him based assuming your values and experience apply universally.

    The same attitude should prevail in judging Western works, as well. Macbeth did wrong to slay Duncan, his king. But does not Shakespeare help us understand why he was tempted to do so, and make us sympathize with his plight?


  2. Hi Brian, thanks for stopping by. Yes, you are so right to point this out. I am sorry my piece did not go into depth about when it is okay to judge.
    We never did judge Mr. Pirzada’s decision to stay in America, but he had no choice. One, there were not commercial flights going in Dacca and two, teachers were being shot in the street. Had he returned home, he may have put his family’s lives in danger. These two points were lost on my classmate, as she would not consider the possibility that her husband would have no choice. This refusal to make an informed judgment was a failing on her part.


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