Finding the Dugong Inside You: An Empathy Day post by Candy Gourlay

empathy dayEmpathy Day was founded in 2017 by not-for-profit Empathy Lab. This year it falls on 11 June. Using research that shows empathy is a skill we can learn, it aims to inspire and promote empathy.

And where better to start than with reading, particularly children’s books.

As founder Miranda McKearney OBE says: “Reading helps young minds to imagine lives beyond their own…Books are scientifically proven to help us develop empathy. 

This year, author Candy Gourlay has explained what empathy means to her for MinervaReads:

candy gourlay

Ten years ago my debut novel Tall Story was published. It is the story of two siblings who have never met, one in the Philippines and one in London,  separated by years of failed visa applications.

I filled Tall Story with Filipino characters, sewing Filipino folk tales and quirks into the narrative, including the national passion for basketball despite our diminutive stature.

I also infused Tall Story with loneliness – my loneliness: having left my family behind in the Philippines to start a new life in London, in the same way that my hero Bernardo is left behind when his mum becomes a nurse in London.

It is not a loneliness unique to me.  For the past 20 years, my country has been experiencing a migration phenomenon. Eleven percent of our population leave home every year to work abroad.

So imagine my surprise when my English husband’s uncle – a former Royal Marine – said that he felt Bernardo’s story was like his own.

Uncle Ian had spent most of his childhood at boarding school while his parents had worked overseas. Several times, when his parents had visited him at boarding school, he had changed so much they had failed to recognise him.

Uncle Ian had found echoes of himself in a left-behind Filipino boy.

Echoes

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” the novelist Mohsin Hamid said, in an interview.

Hamid was talking about writing, not reading.

#ReadforEmpathy may be today’s hashtag … but it might as well be #WriteforEmpathy because to write a book that inspires empathy requires much empathy from the author herself.

is it a mermaid
The Dugong in Me

EmpathyLab, the empathy, literature and social action programme for four to 11 year olds, has compiled a Read for Empathy list of 45 diverse books for 2019.

This includes Is It a Mermaid?, written by me with achingly beautiful illustrations by Francesca Chessa, and nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal.

Is It a Mermaid? is about a dugong (sea cow) who declares that she is a mermaid despite the objections of a little boy named Benji. When I read this aloud, the comedy of the situation has the children hooting and laughing. How can this fat, grey sea creature even begin to look like a mermaid?

But midway through the story, Benji goes too far and the dugong bursts into tears. As I read, I am always amazed by my audience’s reaction. The children’s faces become serious and sad as they realise that, like Benji, they have been unkind.

The moment never fails to move me. Because that dugong who thinks she is a mermaid? She is full of echoes of my own experiences:

That time when my sister and I were playing at fashion modelling and an aunt fell about laughing. “Oh she’ll never be a model, she’s too fat!”

That time I said I was trying to become a children’s author and an acquaintance laughed scornfully saying, “Not another one! Too many people think they can become authors!”

That time when I was left out of a game by some cousins, claiming, “Only boys can play this!”

Better People

“The more we read the more empathy we show to our fellow human beings,” the literary agent Jonny Geller declared in his TedxTalk What Makes a Bestseller?, citing research that makes a connection between fiction and increased empathy. “Reading makes us better people.”

The 11th of June is Empathy Day and book lovers (readers and makers alike) will be banding together to create a #ReadingforEmpathy sonic boom, with chat and book recommendations. Join us in showing how books can transform readers.

Reading makes us better people.  Let’s make it happen.

With thanks to Candy Gourlay for her guest post. To read my review of her latest novel, Bone Talk, click here. To buy Is It a Mermaid click here, and you can watch the book trailer here.