Why we need stories more than ever

This weekend, following the results of the EU referendum, I went to a café as usual to work on my book. But I barely managed to write a paragraph. Instead I watched in horror as the pound went into freefall and political parties imploded. Terrifying reports emerged of racist abuse on the streets. Claims made during the campaign were exposed as lies.

The nation was in chaos as it absorbed not only the real-life implications of Brexit, but the growing realisation that none of our leaders seem to have a plan for what happens next.

Having grown up in the EU, I’d always taken it for granted that I was a citizen of Europe, with all the freedoms and benefits that confers. I was surprised how profoundly shocked and grief-stricken I felt that we’d chosen to walk away, and how afraid I was of the altered landscape of our future.

Everyone had their reasons for voting as they did. Some were well-informed, others less so. We can’t go back in time now and manage things differently. So how do we move forward when our country seems so bitterly divided?

Sitting in the café that morning, writing a novel felt like an intolerably self-indulgent pursuit. Maybe if more people like me had spent our free time being politically active, instead of making up stories about imaginary people, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

On reflection, I realised that wasn’t fair. Yes, we need to be more responsible citizens and better inform ourselves of the facts. But stories are important too. Perhaps more so now than ever.

I’m as limited in my perspective as anyone else. I need to understand more deeply why people felt so powerless that they chose this path to “take back control.”

Fiction, when written bravely and authentically, gives us a window into someone else’s soul. The things people think and feel, but never say out loud. We get to know what the characters truly fear and love. The life experiences that make them who they are.

It’s been shown that reading increases our capacity for empathy. A novel can help us to understand our own and other cultures, without feeling preached at or judged for our ignorance.

In the midst of turmoil, I believe we should carry on reading and writing stories. And we need to hear everyone’s voices, not just those of the educated or privileged. So we can come to know each other better, and begin to heal our wounds.

Because as the tragically murdered MP Jo Cox said, “We have far more in common than which divides us.”

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