A Paradigm Shift

Political science is not the only way to understand the world. It seems like a simple statement, but when I first entered the Faculty of Arts I was surprised how many students grimaced when they heard the word science. As a former life sciences student, this distressed me. I changed faculties with the view that the problems of the world are complex, and that therefore, both the humanities and the sciences need to work collaboratively in order to create lasting change. This personal belief is what led me to terry when I was a nascent political science major, and has sustained my love and admiration of the project through much of my time at UBC.

Did this idea ever truly sink into my consciousness though? Perhaps not. I read once that when you find yourself surprised at your own reactions, that means you have discovered a personal bias that likely you did not previously realise existed. If that is so, then something similar has happened to me.

In early September this year, a friend gave me a novel called “Does My Head Look Big In This?”, a funny, clever book about a Palestinian-Australian sixteen year old who decides in the middle of high school to adopt the headscarf. Despite being far older than the novel’s target audience of about 14-17 years of age, I found it fascinating, particularly because I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the protagonist is just a normal person who happens to be Muslim. In other words, a person that makes mistakes, experiences success, and has a dynamic personality, rather than simply being an “oppressed, suffering female smothered under Islam”: the image that is found in much of literature and popular media. The author demonstrated that generalizations are problematic, and long after I finished the book, I found myself wondering whether she was able to convey this idea in a way that pages upon pages of de-constructing stereotypes, could not have achieved as successfully.

Similarly, in my children’s literature class this term, we are reading “Parvana’s Journey”, the second book in a trilogy by Deborah Ellis about children in Afghanistan. Despite the book being written for a much younger audience, children describing the effect of wars between adults (whether foreign or domestic) has a powerful effect regardless the age of the reader. It gives context to what we might already know, and personalizes conflicts that we may have become desensitized to.

My surprise over the impact of literature means one thing: that at some point in my university and high school days, I developed the idea that papers and scholarly journals are the ‘proper’ vehicle in which to discuss issues, and that social scientists have a monopoly on speaking about issues that affect populations worldwide. In other words, that novels and short stories and poetry are somehow a lesser way to make sense of the world.

My gained understanding on the importance of stories on the other hand, does not mean that reports and papers are not useful as well… Last night I read UNICEF Emergency Child Alert Afghanistan Report where Afghanistan was described as the most dangerous place in the world to be a child. That was important to read on its own, but even as I read UNICEF’s description of the region, my mind went to the characters I had met and learnt about in the context of that novel.

Now I am interested to learn more about the impact of stories on the human consciousness. How does literature enable the discussions of big important ideas and helps readers to think critically about their own views about a subject matter? Does fiction help people connect to issues, (and to action), in ways that scholarly papers or newspaper clippings cannot?

what do terry readers believe the possibilities of fiction to be?

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at http://seriouslyplanning.wordpress.com.