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Using Literature as a Lens into the Past


Literature uniquely reflects society. Without trying to be a historical document, novels can reflect the author's worldview, values and beliefs - either overtly or in between the lines.

Dr. Erin Kappeler, assistant professor of English at Missouri State University, tells us about how we can use literature as a lens into the past, present and future.

"Literature is such a great way to understand more about history, more about culture, more about just the experiences of living in the world that might not look like your own experiences of living in the world," she said. "I think especially today, it can be really easy to think that our political situation is totally new, nothing like this has ever happened before, but going back and reading literature from previous times can kind of remind us there have been lots of moments of really intense polarization, and it can be just super helpful to see how people processed moments like this before."

One example she mentions is "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Kappeler taught this book recently. She says that in the form of an engaging fictional tale, "The Sympathizer" gives readers a look at the other side of the Vietnam War, the side most Americans know even less about. She elaborates on how impactful and relevant books can be, even many decades after publication.

"Ida B. Wells heard a lot about the lynching of black Americans that happened during Jim Crow and kind of beyond Jim Crow even. She engaged in what we now think of as like media criticism," said Kappeler. "She would just analyze how newspapers were reporting incidents of violence against black American citizens. Reading that today really kind of helps put into context things like police violence in Ferguson and Baltimore and other areas," she said. "It helps us to see that although the problems we're facing now are very specific to our moment that there's a larger history here, kind of understanding that this is a longstanding problem. It can help us think 'how does that history of lynching inform the history of police violence today? How can looking at older accounts help us understand our own journalistic accounts of things that are going on today?'"

Hulu's adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale," a book originally published in 1985, has become a pop culture phenomenon, and Kappeler reminds us that the dystopian society in the book is based on real events.

"That's such a great example of the way that literary authors are really especially equipped to help us think about contemporary problems," said Kappeler. "Margaret Atwood has famously explained that everything that happens in 'The Handmaid's Tale' is something that has happened historically already, and so she's presenting to us kind of our culture through a lens darkly. She's kind of showing us things that have happened, things that could happen again, and because literature is a representational art, it's meant to reflect to us how we live. It's meant to get us to think about 'how could we live differently? How could we approach these problems differently?

"I think that's one of the reasons why 'The Handmaid's Tale' is really resonating so much now. Just because it's so easy to see like 'oh, this does reflect current realities. But it also reflects past realities, and it gets people to reflect on well, where do we want to go from here? What kind of a world do we want to live in? What kind of options do we want women to have?' That's one of the reasons why that's become just such a touchpoint right now."

Kappeler recommends a companion read for those who read "The Handmaid's Tale."

"There is a book called 'The Awakening' by Kate Chopin. I think it was published in 1899. And it's a book about a well-to-do woman who has been socialized to just get married and have children, and that's what she does. There comes a point in her life where she becomes dissatisfied and kind of wonders 'what else is there in the world? What else could I have done?'

"She embarks on this journey to kind of attempt to become an artist. She tries to expand her life a little bit. It's very historically accurate in representing what childbirth was like for women and what it was like to not have access to birth control, what it was like to be expected to have as many children as your husband wanted you to have. In that sense, because it's very historically accurate, it's one of those texts that help us reflect again on what kind of options we think women should have in the modern world."

When you're dealing with difficult text, foreign dialect, unique storytelling or unfamiliar geography, Kappeler says to use the tool that is probably already in your pocket.

"Just looking up words is super helpful, but also I think it's really useful to just get context, so going on Wikipedia or just looking on Goodreads or BookRags or one of these sites that gives you summaries, and so kind of having context for the book before you get into can be really helpful, because then you can at least have a sense of okay, I think I understand what this book is trying to do, now I can get through say the difficult vocabulary or the complicated storytelling."

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