The Art of Empathy: An Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge

The Curated Collection on “Literature, Writing, and Anthropology,” edited by Darren Byler and Shannon Dugan Iverson, paired articles from the backfiles of Cultural Anthropology with the texts of five short stories as part of a collaboration with the literary journal American Short Fiction. What follows is a brief interview with one of the featured writers, Kaitlyn Greenidge, as well as a list of links to some of Greenidge’s other projects.

About the Author


Kaitlyn Greenidge is a 2010 graduate of Hunter College's fiction MFA program. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Believer, Green Mountain Review, and At Length Magazine.

Interview with the Author

Cultural Anthropology: What is important about reading and writing short fiction, in contrast to other genres like memoir, academic writing, or journalism?

Kaitlyn Greenidge: Fiction, at its best, ushers the reader into another person’s consciousness. Now, the consciousness you enter into could, demographically, be similar to your own (you could be a teenage lesbian in Ohio reading a novel about a teenage lesbian in Iowa) but really good fiction shudders and shocks you with the utter strangeness of another person's mind—even someone who ostensibly, on paper, is just like you. At the same time, while you feel this frisson of otherness, good fiction draws out and composes the similarities in human consciousness, so that a reader is able to recognize flashes of their own consciousness across time, country, race, class, sexual orientation: all the myriad, sordid ways that society conspires to divide us.

I believe that fiction is one of the few art forms that not only mimics but also stimulates empathy. I view empathy not so much as an emotion but as an integral and basic part of human interaction and progress (and I mean progress in the grand old historical sense. After disbelieving and disproving the idea of a progressive history for many years, I've now come to the belief that it's a necessary and vital story human beings tell themselves in order to have the will to get up in the morning, finish something small or big, and not drown in despair while doing so). To make social, political, and cultural progress of any kind, there must first be empathy—which, in my opinion, is one of the highest forms of intelligence. Fiction forces the reader to exercise this kind of intelligence and, in that effort, the reader’s capacity for empathy grows. Perhaps they even begin to hunger for it.

CA: What does fiction reveal about social worlds?

Good fiction takes none of the rules of a social world for granted. Good fiction recognizes that all social rules are arbitrary, and plays in the margins.

I’m not a big fan of fiction that is more concerned with language than story. I love words, it’s true, but I would rather read a book that is made up of a good story than a book that is made up of beautiful sentences but doesn’t really have a plot. That’s just what my mind responds to: I would not suggest that one artistic choice is better than the other. (I say this after just reading and falling in love with Are You My Mother? a book with, ostensibly, no plot. So I'm kind of talking out of the side of my mouth, here).

So for me, fiction works best when there is something emotionally at stake. And what is more at stake for any character than their place in their social universe? For that kind of fiction to work, the space of the social universe has to be unstable. In my opinion, this is a reflection of reality: in reality, all societies are always unstable as well. Society, or rather, any society we choose to inhabit, is always changing, always in flux, and our place in it is precarious. We hold on to our place with anxiety: some feel this anxiety more than others, and we've all come up with strange, fabulous, beautiful and sad ways to express and alleviate this social anxiety. One thing fiction does is describe those ways we've devised to cope.

Think of the French and British and Russian novels of the 19th century, the classics we all have to slog through in high school. Almost all of them are concerned with marriage: making a good one, the moral, spiritual (and often physical) ruination of a bad one, the anxiety of making one at all.

When I was a teenager, most of my friends hated these books. They'd complain that they were misogynistic and boring and frivolous. But I secretly loved them. Those books, which set the blueprint for the novel for many years, are essentially about the untenable contracts we make within ourselves and with the world at large in order to be allowed to stay in our small societies. Everybody, everywhere, makes these contracts and everybody, everywhere, feels the sting and the loneliness that comes when you try to abide by them.

CA: My co-editor Darren Byler noted that your short story “lays bare an itinerary of desire by tracing it back to the discourse that disciplines it and incites it.”*  What is the structural and individual relationship between desire and innocence?  Does the protagonist’s journey through her “itinerary of desire” negate, enhance, or reveal her innocence?

I am not as smart as you and your lovely editor, so I have to admit I don't really understand this question. My dream when I was younger (ha, aka, 5 years ago!) was to be an academic but my mind is very wobbly and not able to hold big, structural ideas very well. So, forgive me if I am giving you a nonsensical answer.

I feel as though our society right now believes that "innocence" is an absence of desire. I believe that "innocence" is more often simply desire unrealized, or desire thwarted. When I wrote this story, I was very familiar with that topic. I wanted to write about a character that wanted something very, very badly. I wanted the want to be painful for the character, and because it was painful, it had to become unspeakable. But how to convey this to the reader? And how to turn this into a plot? The act of speaking itself became a plot device, and the courage to say exactly what the protagonist wants (which Vera is incapable of) became what was at stake.

In the end, I couldn't give Vera an unhappy ending. Reading this story now, three years later, I think that's a flaw. If I could rewrite it, I would have left Vera's greatest desire unsaid, and she would exit the restaurant deflated. But then, I revise this. I think the kindness that the story ends on is something I could not have consciously written: that my unconscious desire to give Vera emotional fulfilment was ultimately correct. It's another expression of empathy, which, of course, is what fiction, for me, is all about.

*ED: This is a rephrasing of Jaques Lacan's (1977:viii) arguement that desire is discursive. SeeHairong Yan (2008: 207 ) for further discussion.

Related Links

Essay, “Something Prickly and Strange,” appears in a recent issue of Talking and Writing:  A Magazine for Writers.

"NYMPHADORA, 1935" (November 27, 2011)

Reading at Sunday Salon (March 2011)

"Blacks in Wax" AfroBeat Journal (Fall 2010)

Reading at Hunter College (June 7, 2010)