The Link Between Literature and Empathy: Exploring the Capacity for Indigenous-authored Literature to Foster Change

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Bartlett, R. Allana
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Mount Saint Vincent University
The objective of this study was to explore and describe the experience of non-Indigenous readers as they engaged individually and collectively with an Indigenous-authored fiction novel. The aim was to investigate an area of reader response theory that has not been excavated in light of the current political, cultural, and social climate in Canada with respect to the relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. The central focus of this qualitative phenomenological inquiry was on the meanings participants ascribed to the experience. The findings identified salient categories of meaning while rendering the complexity of the experience. Participant reading journals, a transcript of the observed book club discussion, and transcripts of individual interviews provided the text for analysis. According to the research process applied, I conclude the Indigenous-authored novel Indian Horse transported non-Indigenous readers into a narrative experience marked by empathy, reflection, new perspectives, and prosocial behaviour. Engagement in the novel triggered autobiographical memories, and the binding of lived experience to abstractions in the fiction narrative transported readers into the story, creating an experience that was a hybrid of both. Participants then infused the book club discussion with their reading experience and personal life experience. New awareness garnered from the book combined with reflection on personal experience to culminate in moments of reflexivity in the book club discussion. Participants experienced an affective response to the novel characterized by empathic distress, expressed as shame, horror, and sorrow. For some, the book both signalled and mediated change, and the social forum of the book club became the epicenter for cultural work enacted as prosocial behaviour in their daily lives.
Indigenous Canadians, Indigenous literature, empathy,