Empathy – Will

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This week was mostly comprised of editing once again so I’d like to write about something I read for my New York City Literature class. We read James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, a short story centering on an African-American teacher in Harlem and his relationship not only with his brother, Sonny, but with the world of institutionalized racism that surrounds him. Of course, this very real world is entirely different than the very fictional world of my novel. Despite the difference though, Baldwin’s masterful storytelling was extremely inspiring. Sonny’s Blues is a tale of suffering, regret, redemption, and occasionally happiness and Baldwin’s depiction of these themes is nothing if not artful. Though the story was so well written and interesting, I, at times, found it hard to keep on reading due to the overall bleak nature of the world of the narrator.

“He stood up and walked to the window and I remained silent for a long time. Then he sighed. ‘Me,’ he said. Then: ‘While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through—to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.’

I said: ‘But there’s no way not to suffer—is there. Sonny?’

‘I believe not,” he said and smiled, ‘but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.’ He looked at me. ‘Has it?’ I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence—so long!— when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. ‘No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem—well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it. You know?’ I said nothing. ‘Well you know,’ he said, impatiently, ‘why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason’ (Baldwin 17).
Yet, I believe that this misery is precisely what Baldwin wanted the reader to feel, as he was communicating something very real about the world in which he lived. And perhaps suffering, for him, flowed into what he wrote and helped him deal with the suffering. Truthfully, I can’t really identify with any sort of visceral suffering, such as the narrator and Sonny had to go through, but Baldwin makes me feel as though I can understand that suffering. I’ve said before that any good writer strives to create empathy and understanding in the reader, and I’ve seen very few writers who have done that as masterfully as Baldwin. I do apologize that I don’t have more to share, but this past week was a hectic week of edits, so I thought that sharing something that was provocative to me would be a nice change of pace.

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