The Power of Stories to Enlarge Our World

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annie rim -power of story3

I am a nerd in the very untrendy sense of the word. I don’t wear cool glasses. I know little to nothing about pop culture references. My clothing style is firmly preppy without any funky flair. But I can engage in conversation about a lot of political topics, about some theology, and my favorite: history. As an art history major in college, I learned about the evolution of cultures and societies through their art and literature.

Talking books and ideas lights me up, makes me excited, gives me energy. And so, in today’s culture of divisiveness and other-ing, I turn to books to help me understand.

In her inspiring TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds me of the power of storytelling, of the necessity of listening to the stories of other cultures and experiences. Ideally, this happens face-to-face over a cup of something warm or a shared meal. Realistically, that’s hard to make happen naturally.

I’m unlikely to find someone to be my new culturally-diverse instant best friend, so I have made an intentional point to read more books by people of different nationalities, different backgrounds and identities than my own.

Of course, I had read diverse authors before, working through Paulo Coelho’s magical worlds and my year of books from Iran and Afghanistan. But I knew I needed to be more intentional, to pick books not only because they looked interesting but because they stretched me and grew my perspective.

And so, I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Adichie’s Americanah. I made sure to read theologians like Soong-Chan Rah, Christena Cleveland, and Richard Twiss. I prioritized books like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and pretty much anything written by Roxane Gay.

Of course, I still read memoirs by white women in their mid-thirties, who look like me and have similar life experiences. There’s something powerful about nodding along and thinking, me too! But there is something even more powerful about being stretched, feeling a bit uncomfortable, and remembering that these stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – are the reality of so many people’s experiences.

Recently, I started volunteering at my daughter’s school. Every Wednesday, I help tutor mothers from around the world. They come from Iraq, Ethiopia, China, and Mexico. They have vastly different stories from my own. They are learning English as their second or fifth language and have left behind more than I can imagine.

Each week, we sit side-by-side and puzzle out their, there, and they’re, using them in sentences and laughing over the difficulty of the English language. I think this experience would be powerful, regardless of my own preparedness in intentionally reading about cultures other than my own.

But, as they open up about journeys to America and struggles from their home countries, I am thankful for the background knowledge I’ve started to build. I know I’ll never understand the reality of the border crossing between Mexico and the United States but because I’ve read Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, I have an inkling of some of the stresses and terrors. I’ll never know what the political disintegration in Sudan, Ethiopia, or Zimbabwe actually feels like, but I have an image by reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Adichie or They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak—some of Sudan’s Lost Boys.

I don’t write this to give you a syllabus of Books to Read to Understand Other Cultures. (Though, I do hope your to-read list has grown!) I write this because loving people outside our own cultural identity can be incredibly daunting. It can feel awkward to make friends with people whose life experiences are so completely different from my own.

But by filling my bookshelves with stories about other experiences and challenges, I feel more prepared to stop, listen, and learn from my new friendships. These books have emboldened me to remember that our stories may seem vastly different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t connect over similar things like motherhood and learning and living in this particular neighborhood.

I’m learning to embrace my nerdyness and need to read and learn as I do life. I’m learning that, if reading a novel or memoir about a unique story emboldens me to reach out and share actual life with my neighbor, then maybe I need to read more. If you’re feeling a bit stuck or unsure about how to engage with cultures and values that are outside your norm, can I encourage you? Pick up a book. Read with an open mind. Learn from the experiences and stories of others. And then, find a real-life friend.

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Did you know SheLoves has a book club focused on reading diverse voices? If you’re looking for a place to start, join the Red Couch Book Club’s Facebook community!

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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Annie Rim
I live in Colorado where I play with my daughters, hike with my husband, and write about life & faith. I have taught in the classroom, at an art museum, and now in the playroom. I am honored to lead the Red Couch Book Club here at SheLoves. You can connect with me on Twitter @annie_rim or on my blog: annierim.wordpress.com.
Annie Rim

Latest posts by Annie Rim (see all)

Annie Rim
  • Ahhhhhhhh, yes.

  • Thank you, Annie, for all you do to make the book club happen — and I LOVE this book-saturated post!

    • Thank you so much for your encouragement, Michele! (I had to reign in the recommendations… There are so many incredible reads out there!!)

  • The best books are more like reading a life. I like being surprised by the impact that often has. Thanks Annie.

    • Yes! I love memoirs and stories that truly bring me alongside a journey…. It’s so powerful!

  • Kathleen Bertrand

    Oh I LOVE this post. Sometime last year I stopped reading books by white men (unless it was a really good one!) in an effort to expand my world. Thank you for some new titles to add to my growing list!

    • Me too! (Though there are some really good white-men books I haven’t read…. That’s been a hard balance!) My upcoming goal is to read more indigenous writers. I love Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich but there are so many others!!

      • Kathleen Bertrand

        Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle is amazing! Not an easy read but this book stuck with me like few books do. The Break by Katherena Vermette is also a good one. (Both women are Canadian.)

        • Awesome! I’m adding these to the teeteringly tall to-read list!

  • Yeeesssss — so important to intentionally read point of views so different than your own! (And totally fine to read some of the nod-along ones too!) 🙂

    • I can be so extreme sometimes! But am remembering that nodding along is ok, too. 😉 PS- What are some of your favorites?

      • Americanah was a compelling one for me. Just Mercy, and The Black History of the White House, too. I love Voice of Witness books, because they’re just story after story of the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people both in the US and abroad. In an effort to keep expanding my worldview, I also find books like American Wasteland, The Earth Knows My Name, An Inconvenient Indian, and Who Really Feeds the World? hugely impactful for me. (I know thats too many, sorry!)

  • Guy Austin

    Homegoing – one of my favorites last year.