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Recap: Workshop Two, World Literatures and Global Conflict

On 20 January 2017, we held the second workshop in the ‘Ethics, Affect and Responsibility: Global Citizenship and the Act of Reading’ series, held at the University of Bristol. The day took the broad theme ‘World Literatures and Global Conflict’ and featured a range of speakers and reading groups.

The day opened with a general introduction which sought to delineate some of the aims of the workshop series more broadly, and to reflect on the lessons learned and questions raised at the first workshop. In my remarks, I tried to trace the ways in which my own thinking around empathy, global citizenship and social justice have changed since I first started this project. Given the events of 2016 – especially Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States – I have started to feel as though some of the scepticism towards empathy which underlies this series might not need to be reconsidered. Is part of what has been happening across Europe and America, with the regeneration of the far right, perhaps not a consequence of a lack of empathy? What about the lessons that might be learned from failures of empathy, from the realisation of its limitations and boundaries, and the effort towards it nonetheless?

I’ve been particularly interested in Paul Bloom’s recent book, Against Empathy. Writing in the Boston Review on the project, Bloom argues that ‘Most people see the benefits of empathy as akin to the evils of racism: too obvious to require justification. I think this is a mistake. I have argued elsewhere that certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy. Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.’ For Bloom, then, empathy can be the driver of new barriers, led by a sort of blindness which comes as a consequence of emotional and affective interference in what should be matters of policy. Yet, an alternative built upon reason and rationality is not always viable or even desireable. And empathy still holds a considerable sway in the way in which we envision the world as a more just place, if one that is not entirely straightforward.

Next up was a roundtable session on Teaching World Literature and Global Conflict. Zoe Norridge (KCL) spoke about her experiences of teaching material around Rwanda and the Holocaust, offering practical suggestions for bringing potentially-sensitive material into the classroom and engaging students in the practice of empathic engagement with conflicts which are often conceived of as alien or remote. Zoe’s talk was also useful for problematising the very idea of world literature – what world? And whose? And conceived under what set of parameters? Zoe was followed by Florian Stadtler (Exeter), who discussed the ways in which he and his colleagues have been addressing global conflict through a focus on the environment and anthropocene. Florian helpfully detailed the ways in which they have organised their teaching, particularly in the face of a significant demographic gap between the student body which they teach and the material which they use. Brendan Nicholls (Leeds) then spoke about his experience of teaching poetry from the global South, leading us through a practical example of the ways in which we might leverage our particular ability to focus on aesthetics – and the disruptive potential therein – as a way of complicating the easy idea of empathy and forcing other kinds of recognition. Finally, Anna Bernard (KCL) spoke about her role as an educator, researcher and activist who engages with Palestine and larger notions of solidarity, and the inextricable inter-connectivity of those roles.

After the panel, we spend the afternoon in a series of reading group sessions led by each speaker. I was not able to sit in on any of these in their entirety, but popping my head in and out, I was impressed with the level of engagement in each room, and the variety of view points which were raised. We finished the day with a reading and discussion by Kenyan writer Billy Kahora and British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, who shared with us a variety of yet-to-be published material and generously reflected on their own perspectives, as writers whose work engages variously with conflict zones, of the relationship between literature, empathy and social justice.

Our next event is 24 March and takes the theme ‘Literature and the Humanities in an Age of Autocracy’. Details here!

Workshop 2: Global Conflict and World Literatures, 20 January 2017, University of Bristol – Registration now open!

We are pleased to announce that registration is open for the second workshop in the series ‘Ethics, Affect and Responsibility: Global Citizenship and the Act of Reading’. The workshop will take place from 10:30 am – 5 pm on 20 January 2017 at the University of Bristol.
The theme for the second workshop is ‘Global Conflict and World Literatures’. Confirmed academic guest speakers include Dr Zoe Norridge (KCL), Dr Anna Bernard (KCL), Dr Florian Stadtler (Exeter) and Dr Brendon Nicholls (Leeds). Confirmed writers include Billy Kahora (Kwani Trust) and Selma Dabbagh (author of Out of It).
The workshop will include a panel on teaching world literatures and global conflict; reading group sessions; and literary readings and discussion around writing and publishing.
Registration is free but essential. Please email Madhu Krishnan ( by 10 January 2017 to register, listing any dietary requirements.
More information can be found at
We’d very much appreciate if you could circulate this message widely to your networks!

Nikesh Shukla in Conversation – 17 September 2016

It’s been quiet on the blog lately, which, given the time of (academic) year, is not really surprising. Luckily, it hasn’t been quiet behind the scenes. I’ve been busy finalising plans for the next workshop, which will be held in late January and will be on the theme of literature and global conflict. News on that soon! I also have some thoughts I would like to put down around Facebook activism, especially with the current happenings around the Dakota Access pipeline and Standing Rock protests, as well as a recent blog that I read from a pretty well known writer, arguing against empathy. Hopefully these will be up in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’m pleased to share this recording of Nikesh Shukla’s amazing reading and conversation from our 17 September workshop. Nikesh talks about (and reads from!) The Good Immigrant, race, representation, empathy and publishing. It was a really fun night – give it a listen!

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Workshop 1: thoughts and recap

Last Saturday (17/9/2016) we held out first workshop for Ethics, Affect and Responsibility: Global Citizenship and the Act of Reading, focusing on national and regional issues and frameworks. It was a long and tiring day, but also a thought-provoking and stimulating one. Huge thanks to everyone to gave up a sunny Saturday to travel to Bristol and share their ideas.

We opened the day with a plenary talk by Dr Keon West. Keon is a social psychologist who works on intergroup empathy and intergroup prejudice. We started with a practical exercise that reminded me a little bit of the Harvard Implicit Association Test. It was surprisingly difficult, and I felt that it really helped reinforce Keon’s message about the ways in which we are programmed, through upbringing and social interaction, to see the world in a certain way. Keon then took us through a whistle stop tour of his own research, introducing us to concepts such as intergroup conflict and prejudice, contact, and, finally, his own model of imagined contact as a way of increasing empathy. The talk ended by looking at the few studies which look at literature and the act of reading as an imagined contact zone, showing pretty solid evidence that reading can, and seemingly does, increasing empathic abilities and reduce intergroup anxieties in statistically significant ways.

I was surprised at how conclusive the results Keon showed us were, preliminary though they may be. In the discussion period, however, a number of questions came up. If it is indeed true (as it seems to be) that reading a fictional text can increase intergroup empathy, what happens next? To what use is this empathy put? Some of the reading I have been doing (which, unlike Keon’s work, is not empirical in its nature) looks at the ways in which empathy, on the surface a good thing, might actually re-enforce global hierarchies of power. Marta Caminero-Santangelo’s essay ‘Documenting the Undocumented: Life Narratives of Unauthorized Immigrants’ is particularly interesting in this respect. When considering this, isn’t it important that the next step be to see what actually happens with this newly increased empathy? Why, if there is measurable proof that reading can increase empathy, are we so sceptical of this claim? We also wondered whether inhabiting another mind, as often happens in fiction, is quite the same as imagining contact with another individual. Important questions were also raised about narrative, voice, and form. I hope that we’ll be able to explore these issues more throughout this project.

In the afternoon, the group divided up for four workshops: Samuel Durrant took participants through the bibliotherapy model he has developed up in Leeds; Nicola Abram talked about her experience teaching race through literature; Tom Sperlinger discussed his recent work trying to co-create literary criticism with the Bristol-based IDEAL project; and Louisa Egbunike talked about how she uses literature and the creative arts to empower diasporic communities through the annual Igbo conference. Participants reported positively from each workshop, talking about the practical and theoretical debates that each brought up.

We ended the day at Bristol’s Watershed media arts centre, where Nikesh Shukla gave us a reading and discussion around The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by BAME authors exploring the experience of migrancy in the UK today (podcast up soon!). My favourite part of the discussion was his insistence, as an author, not on empathy but on discomfort as a way of effecting change, however small.

The next workshop will be in January 2017 and we will shift focus from the national/regional to thinking about literature, affect and global conflict. Check back on the events page for details in November!

Workshop 1: Registration Deadline Extended and Some Exciting News

We’ve had a lot of interest in our first workshop. As a result, we are pleased to announce that we are extending the registration deadline to 28 August 2016. Please see the events page for full details of how to register!

In other exciting news, our first workshop will be followed by a live literary eventfeaturing Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant, reading from his work and in conversation. The reading is free and open to all workshop participants and the general public, and will be held at Watershed Bristol, in Waterside 3, from 6-7:30 pm. Watch this space for further details.

Finally, this blog post at the New York Times on ‘Reading Novels at Medical School’ caught my eye earlier this week. I was particularly struck by this quote:

Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind. We examine cultural conventions and conflicting perspectives, and reflect on our own preconceived notions about life and work. Reading attentively and well, we hope, will become a sustaining part of our daily lives and practice.

The general idea here seems to be that, through literature, it is possible to more fully explore other minds and lives with nuance and care (a similar line of thought to that found in Martha Nussbaum’s work). I wonder, however, how much that holds true? In my own classes on postcolonial and African literature, I often spend a lot of time emphasizing to my students that the characters they read about are just that – fictional characters, the product of imaginative creation, textual practice and socio-political context, and not real people. Part of why I do this is to work against the ‘anthropological fallacy’ that often attends to African literature. At the same time, it is true that reading often functions through the emotional connections we develop with characters, and that much of the pleasure of fiction comes precisely from this. Yet, I can’t help but feel a bit uneasy about the idea of the novel as ‘an anatomy lab of the mind’ and wonder how, as we read, we can take away insights and understanding without falling into appropriation or even co-optation?