Can Fiction Teach Us How to Live in a World Full of Suffering?

Reading and Writing Can Help Us Understand the Difficult Past and Imagine Better Futures

Fiction won’t fix the world, writes author Adria Bernardi, but it can offer us another way to perceive it. Illustration by Be Boggs.

Any work of fiction is an investigation of aftermath, borne of the world that has already occurred. Fiction offers readers as well as writers the possibility to explore past transgressions and raise complex ethical and intellectual questions about responsibility—and culpability, guilt, betrayal, and remorse.

Patrick Modiano’s The Occupation Trilogy, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise are three works that dig deeply into these inquiries and grapple with the sins of empire. Each asks: What forces shape the present moment? Who bears responsibility for the suffering and inhumanities of the past?  These works of fiction—which explore the legacy of fascism in France, the wars of empire in Africa, the ongoing displacements precipitated by two warring colonial empires, respectively—ask the reader to bear witness, to dwell with complex moral investigation.

In an interview with Sandra Petrignani, the Italian writer Italo Calvino—who spun fabulous tales out of the horrors of 20th century—has called the imaginative zone literature creates a fantasfera: “[T]here’s always a kind of cloud attached onto the world, a fantasfera, which is an atmosphere created by our images of the world.” This fantasfera, this “cloud,” offers a zone for wrestling with complex intellectual constructions that co-exist with all the images we collect and hold in our minds. At any given moment, we are occupying a world we perceive through our rational senses as well as the fantasfera. There, intellectual concept meets concrete object, sound meets image, sensory experience meets memory—creating, in Calvino’s words, a world made up of images and thoughts, a ‘multiplied world.’” In this sense, we are always reading the world, with our imagination as companion.

My novel Benefit Street is set in an imaginary, unnamed country, and it follows five women whose lives are disrupted by intertwined global events: civil war, political strife, geographic displacement. And by personal events: infidelity, children growing up, parents aging. Benefit Street came out of the fantasfera I experienced while listening to the experiences of friends and acquaintances whose lives were changed forever after a traumatic geographic displacement. At a Passover Seder, a woman across the table told me about her exodus as a child from Armenia, with only her mother and her brother, and surviving the genocide. The mother of my son’s classmate told me about her life in Tehran and her family’s precipitous, dangerous departure. A long-time friend unexpectedly talked about her father surviving Shoah. All of these stories became woven into the story that became Benefit Street.

Fiction isn’t going to fix the world. It doesn’t provide a roadmap on how, where, or whether to make amends. But in addition to grappling with the sins of our world, what it can do is give us another way to continue thinking about, and living in, the world.

Whenever someone asks you to listen, it is a sacred moment. Each of these women had asked me to be a witness to the stories of their lives, lives defined by the societal sins of genocide and ethnic cleansing. After sitting a long time with their experiences, the voice of the narrator for my novel, Şiva, emerged.

In that emerging voice, there was a sense of a deep connectedness with her colleagues and friends, all teachers, who sat around a table in a teahouse once a week for years. These are five women who have known each other since they were adolescents. Sidra with the wild hair; Miri of the blue, blue eyes; Aminah who is always late and buys too many shoes; Ana who peels an orange with a reverential calm. And when their way of life is under assault as war and political repression close in, their conversations continue; as does their dedication to their ideals. Her friends have devoted their lives to not repeating the sins of the past—sectarian wars, the persecution of what is deemed foreign, genocide. Even after the protective shell of idealism has cracked under violent conflict, after Sidra has been imprisoned, after Aminah is killed by an errant missile, after Siva’s husband is tortured: They continue. And in her story, in its aftermath, she—and the reader—can begin to work through its wreckage.

In Benefit Street, Şiva shares with others a collective ethos dedicated to witnessing the sins of the past and to imagining lives that do not repeat these sins. “We read everything we could get our hands on. The holy books with different beliefs … We read the poets of the world.  We hastened.  We tried to know the world,” she says of their shared urgency. “The ancient massacres? We’re not. We’re not. We’re not. Doing this again. And so we believed.” And so, through reading and adding images of past societal transgressions to her own fantasfera, Siva envisions a future without those sins.

 I recognized in Şiva’s voice the language of repetition to bridge gaps. Now where were we?  I came to understand that phrases like this in Şiva’s voice were both an indication of breakage and a source of continuity. Amid the traumatic dispersal and displacement, Siva’s voice offered a way to try to make a unified whole out of the seemingly disjointed fragments of aftermath.

The stories of Benefit Street emerged in fragments, partially formed. The work of writing this novel was largely to understand the way they interconnect. Multiple worlds and cities and histories contained on the book’s pages allow the reader to do the hard work of grappling, of abstracting to something more universal and applying moral or philosophical codes on the transgressions. That same simultaneity provokes universal thinking, away from the utterly singular experience.

Once I understood that as her conduit, I simply needed to listen, to inquire, to seek, to remain open, I began to understand the quick unravelling of her beautiful, full, and dedicated life in a beloved city—and the painful remaking of a new one. Şiva became a way to work through the ongoing aftermath of the profound stories I had heard in real life.

Fiction isn’t going to fix the world. It doesn’t provide a roadmap on how, where, or whether to make amends. But in addition to grappling with the sins of our world, what it can do is give us another way to continue thinking about, and living in, the world. It may even show us, as Abdulrazak Gurnah said in his 2021 Nobel Prize lecture, “what can be otherwise.”

But writing cannot be just about battling and polemics, however invigorating and comforting that can be. Writing is not about one thing, not about this issue or that, or this concern or another, and since its concern is human life in one way or another, sooner or later cruelty and love and weakness become its subject. I believe that writing also has to show what can be otherwise . . .

Aftermath cannot be quantified. But by investigating the echoes that reverberate from an event, by dwelling and meandering in the complexities of different conditions, we might discover—and, perhaps, even put into words—evocations that can help us understand better and better imagine futures and a way out of the trappings of the past.

Adria Bernardi is the author of the novel, Benefit Street, which won the 2021 FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Award. She has published a collection of literary essays, a collection of short stories, two novels, and eight translations from the Italian.

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