Real understanding through fiction

Political junkies and academics take in news, journal articles, op-eds and non-fiction in alarming amounts, ingesting as much information as possible to inform their worldview and further their understanding. The value in such information sources is clear, but the aforementioned crowd overlooks one source with near uniformity: fiction.

As a political science student and general politics nerd with a Middle Eastern background, I thought I was pretty well-versed in the 9/11 attacks and the impact they had on American foreign policy, American relations with the Islamic and Arab worlds and the American psyche.

I’d researched the topic extensively for academic and personal interests and read numerous books, studies and essays on the post-9/11 world. I was in the Middle East during the attacks and have since visited to further diversify my perspective.

In addition to loving politics, I’ve always been an avid reader. I’d always wanted to take an English class, and last semester I finally got around to it.

I chose a class called “Post-9/11 American Fiction” which I was surprised to learn was a class, nevermind a genre of literature. I figured it would be a good choice for my first English class as it seemed political and the course content would be at least vaguely familiar.

I quickly learned the value of fiction in furthering my understanding of 9/11 and broader themes of mass psychology, fear, intolerance and grieving — themes that existed long before 2001.

Often, when an event becomes a reference point for time (think about the terms pre and post-9/11) we forget the event’s scope of impact. 9/11 as an event and reference point for Western civilization is only rivalled by other events deserving of “pre” and “post” framing, including WWI and WWII. The fact that a single act of violence can compare in historical significance to major wars is a testament to the event’s impact.

Fiction has proven itself to me as a useful tool for understanding past events and experiences.

Most usefully, it can be used to understand the trauma of events so large that the spectacle of the event itself limits access to human impact, human interactivity and introspection.
This is something that war movies have done well for some time. Films, on occasion very successfully, depict an experience foreign to most of us but feature individuals and groups experiencing very familiar emotions.

It seems there has been a conscious effort to separate the worlds of fiction and non-fiction written work, even though a thorough understanding of this topic requires a straddling of both.

The most misunderstood aspect of fiction is that it is false, a creation of pure imagination. While the stories are, to some degree, not real, they come from a very real place. The characters and plot have to come from a place we can relate to, or at the very least understand, as people. It comes from experiences and emotions that exist in our reality.

Fiction creates room for cultural nuances, psychological tendencies and human interaction in a way that non-fiction, policy analysis and academic case study is incapable of doing.

Fiction allows for a depth of understanding. It does not compartmentalize issues, events, and people but often features a rigorous combination of all three.

Fiction preserves humanity and reveals the common traits, experiences and tendencies that unite us all, regardless of nation, culture, religion or language.

We can relate to each other through story and characters, which is a language we all speak and this transcendence should be valued as a complimentary tool for those seeking a thorough understanding of transnational issues like terrorism, 9/11 and the like.

There is a distance, typically, between non-fiction and the reader, especially if the topic is a historical event or other happening unrelated to their lives directly. However, once the event is fictionalized and told through characters, that distance is removed, replaced instead with an overwhelming sense of empathy.

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