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EVENT REVIEW: Gillian Allnutt, Charles Fernyhough and Will Storr: Others

11 October 2017

7th October

Palace Green Library

Review by Angelos Sofocleous 

‘How and when do writers put us in the perspective of other people?’, Charles Fernyhough asked, letting silence take over in the room. At that moment, members of the audience took a moment to think of all the times they became someone else through a book’s pages: a king, a dwarf, a merchant, a sailor, a murderer…the list is endless. How do writers manage to convince us to let go of our shell and get us into the shoes of characters whose personality we might never approach in our real lives?

That is the question posited through Charles Fernyhough’s anthology, Others. Joined by two contributors of the anthology, Gillian Allnut and Will Storr, the three gave the audience a deep insight into how they think books can make us see the world through the eyes of others and why it is very important that they do so.

Gillian Allnut, renowned poet and winner of Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, referred to her experience working with asylum seekers and refugees. When talking to them, she realized that they needed themselves to be heard, even though sometimes they felt shame and reluctance when talking about their torturous experiences. This is the case with book characters; they are people who want to be heard – and the best way to be heard is by getting the reader to think like they do.

‘You need to get rid of yourself when talking to people’, Gilliam Allnut said, stressing the importance of letting go of ourselves in order to make room for those who need to be heard, whether they are real people or fictional book characters. What writers do, Allnut said, is ‘uncover the part of themselves that could have been that particular person (i.e. character)’, and then it’s left to the reader to incorporate that character into themselves.

Undoubtedly, in a society like ours, which is more interconnected than ever before in the history of mankind, it’s important to not only understand other people, but also to cooperate with them and form societal groups in order to develop and survive. This is done, however, still using our tribal brains: our ‘original sin’, as Will Storr called it. ‘You can just separate people in any way and they will start behaving like in a tribe and show hostility towards the other group’, he continued. Failure to understand others (our inability to put ourselves in their shoes) can be seen as the cause of the increasing polarization we see today in politics and social media.

As the author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, Will Storr argues that our tribal attributes are still present in the age of technology. Even in social media, there is constant policing of our tribes to ensure that no person in our group adopts out-group ideas. If this happens, that person gets ostracised, something characterised by Storr as ‘psychological death’.

The aim of such great anthologies and events is to bring ‘otherness’ closer to us. However, as a member of the audience mumbled when leaving the event: ‘We always talk of the rest as Others, forgetting that we are the Others of those people. Why do we keep talking about Others when they are absent?’. Nonetheless, even in their absence, others inspire and empower us, allowing us to see and experience the world far beyond our limited everyday perspective.