Elif Shafak: ‘We need to tell different stories, to humanise the other’

The year 2020 hasn’t solely been defined by the pandemic, rising unemployment, deepening economic inequalities and a critical time for the climate emergency. There has also been an alarming increase in hate crimes across the world.

In Poland, LGBTQ communities have become enemy number one. In Hungary, neo-Nazi crowds organise demonstrations to expel the Roma communities. More than half of the hate crimes in New York last year targeted Jewish citizens. In Germany, there has been a dangerous increase in attacks against minorities and refugees. In the UK, Home Office figures indicate a surge in hate crimes, including those against sexual minorities and transgender citizens. In Turkey, Brazil and India, a dangerous form of dogmatism continues to brew. All these seemingly disparate events have one fundamental thing in common: a systematic hatred of and bias against people who are regarded as different; the dehumanisation of the “other”.

History has shown that it doesn’t start with concentration camps or mass murder, or civil war or genocide. It always starts with words: stereotypes, cliches, tropes. The fight against dehumanisation, therefore, also needs to start with words. Stories. It is easier to make sweeping generalisations about others if we know close to nothing about them; if they remain an abstraction. To move forward, we need to reverse the process: start by rehumanising those who have been dehumanised. And for that we need the art of storytelling.

Data and factual information are crucial, but not enough to bring down the walls of numbness and indifference, to help us empathise with people outside our tribes. We need emotional connections. But more than that, just as we need sisterhood against patriarchy, we need storyhood against bigotry. East or west, when we relate to others we do so through stories. Literature can be incredibly powerful, universally relevant and, most importantly, a healing force.

True, Doris Lessing was right when she said literature was analysis after the event. Writers need time to process, to digest, to analyse. But in the post-Covid world, when everything is shifting with bewildering speed, and there is so much hurt and pain and injustice everywhere, literature also has to become analysis during the event.

Under austerity, we have seen libraries shut, cultural centres neglected. Now, with the impact of coronavirus, the arts and culture are once again endangered. At a time when inequalities are deepening and prejudices escalating, we urgently need public and private support for creativity, especially among disadvantaged communities. There is a direct relation between coexistence, inclusion, democracy in a society and how well supported its creative industries are. This is not a luxury, but something as vital and urgent as the air we breathe.

The art of storytelling is one of our last remaining democratic spaces. Now it must become one of our main acts of resistance against dehumanisation.