Literature’s Ability to Evoke Empathy; An analysis of SuheirHammad’s Poem “First Writing Since”

“First Writing Since” is a poem written by SuheirHammad, a twenty first century Palestinian American poet, author and political feminist activist. She wrote the poem as a reaction to the attacks on the United States on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Hammad emailed the poem to 50 friends. The poem took a life of its own and it was sent to 50,000 people. The poem became one of Hammad’s most famous and often anthologized poems. The main reason behind the poem’s success,perhaps, is that it offered an outlet for people who were affected by the 9/11 tragedy. However, the poem also has qualities that appealed to people’s sensibilities and emotions and make it capable of evoking feelings of empathy, through various techniques and approaches, so much so that people not only read it but also contributed in spreading it all over the U.S.

What is empathy? What does it exactly mean?

Empathy is “the capacity to understand and respond to the unique affective experiences of another person”(Lamm 42). It’s “an other-oriented emotional response consistent with the perceived welfare of another.” So “if the other is oppressed or in need, empathic feelings include sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like”(Batson et al. 1656). It’s often confused with sympathy and the main difference between the two is that sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, However, in order for empathetic feelings to be experienced by readers or audience, an overlap needs to occur between the audience and the character of the text or the speaker whose voice is expressed
in the poem. In other words, there is a need to experience “a sense of similarity between the feelings one experiences and those expressed by others” (Lamm, Batson and Decety 42). The fact that the poem is inspired and based on a real event, and such a well-known tragic event to be specific, helps in eliminating any sense of skepticism that might cause readers to distance themselves from the emotional impact of the poem and regard its details
as fictional or imagined. Moreover,Hammad herself has been closely touched by the tragedy. She lives in New York and has experienced the whole event first hand as the details of the poem tells us. (Re-searchers) Batson et al. have found through their experiences that less empathy is reported, when participants are aware that the person they empathize with is fictional (1666).The authenticity of the experience described in the poem, therefore, predisposes readers and audience towards belief and empathy. It also encourages them to put themselves in the speaker’s place (the poet) and share her feelings because all those details that she mentions in the poem are true.“First Writing Since” uses several techniques to engage its readers emotionally and evoke empathy in them. It consists of seven sections, each of which includes two or more stanzas written in “deliberately loose, apparently improvised from of free verse.” The result is that the poem reads like “a confessional or
a series of diary entries outlining the impact of the terrorist attacks on herself, her family, and the various, unnamed people she meets or imagines on the streets of NewYork City” (Gray482). Hammad’s use of loose and seemingly improvised form of free verse makes readers feel that this is a spontaneous outpouring of emotions and this, in its turn, encourages them to be open to its effect and sensitive to feelings of empathy that such
confessions can arouse.There are various techniques that can be used to evoke empathy in its audience & usually different techniques would elicit different types of empathy, such asperspective taking (cognitive empathy), memory-based empathy, and emotional contagion, or what is sometimes called empathic mimicry. Perspective taking entails “imagining how that person is affected by his or her plight” (Batson et al. 1656). Memory based empathy entails remembering, rather than imagining, feelings and situations similar to those experienced by others. Emotional contagion is “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, movements with those of another person and consequently, to converge emotionally” (Hartfield, Cacioppo and Rapson 81). In the poem, we would notice that Perspective taking and memory-based are the types of empathy that Hammad employs most frequently. I’m going to focus mostly on the first three sections. A noticeable approach that Hammad employs in her poem, which helps in involving the audience in perspective-taking, is the use of a first person narration, an empathetic narrative technique that “best promotes character identification and readers’ empathy” (Keen 219). It is evident through the use of the first-person singular pronoun “I” (all through the poem) and also plural first-person pronoun “we”(see sections 3, 5). The whole poem is presented through the eyes and feelings of its speaker, thus maximizing the opportunity for the audience to imagine or re-live (in the case of those who were touched by this particular tragedy or a similar one) the speaker’s pain and experience. -Let’s check the poem again and
for time’s sake, I’m focusing here mainly on the first 3 sections. The first instance in which we, as readers, can be drawn into perspective-taking empathy is when reading the opening lines of the poem, in which Hammad questions the possibility to write about such a traumatic event, “there have been no words, i have not written one word,” she confesses. Like so many shocked people during that event, She is wordless. Moreover, such inability to express feelings or thoughts reminds readers through memory-based empathy technique of situations and traumatic events in which they felt similarly and were too stunned to put their feelings into words.Through perspective taking and perhaps also memory-based empathy, readers can empathize with Hammad as she tells us “i feared for my sister’s life in a way never before” (section1). We can remember moments in life when we were seized with fear for our loved ones because of an imminent tragedy or a situation in which they were in danger. However, even if we have never experienced such a moment, we can surely imagine how it feels to be so afraid for a loved one. Hammad, in fact, repeats this when she prays, “please, don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brothers” (section 1). In doing so, She expresses her fears for her sister and brothers’ sake and also engages the readers even more deeply to feel her plight and empathize with her. However, it goes beyond that for she prays for “anyone who looks like [her] brothers” and later on in section 6, we realize what her brothers look like:“their faces are of the archetypal arab man, all eyelashes and nose and beautiful color and stubborn hair.” By describing them, Hammad is initially encouraging readers to empathize not only with her brothers but also with anyone who looks like them.
The effect is to enlarge the sphere of empathy to include Arabs and people from different ethnicities whose looks are similar to those of her brothers and different from that of the archetypal white American. In fact, Hammad makes this point clear as she writes, “most americans do not know the difference between indians, afghanis, syrians,muslims, Sikhs, hindus, more than ever, there is no difference”(section 1). In pointing out Americans’ inability to differentiate among these different ethnicities, Hammad is also pointing to the danger that such an inability can create and at the same time she iseliciting empathy for these groups who can be easily mistaken for each other. Another approach that Hammad employs to elicit empathy is by providing details about “the dead who are called lost” (section 3). And so she tells us about “iris, mother of three,” “priti, last seen on the 103rd floor. she was talking to her husband on the phone and the line went,” “george, also known as adel. his family is waiting for him with his favorite meal.” By providing those details about the “lost,”Hammad leads readers into imagining the feelings of the families of the “lost” or recalling similar feelings when they lost their loved ones. Readers can imagine, for example, the pain and the loss that Iris’s kids and family must be feeling. They can imagine how painful it must be for Priti’s husband to suddenly lose his wife. Readers can also imagine how worried George’s family must have been as they were waiting for him with “his favorite meal.” The details that Hammad provides about the victims make the whole experience more real to readers and also make them realize that those who were lost were people like themselves who have families and loved ones that are traumatized by the loss. It also drives home the fact that none of us is safe and that a tragedy can occur at any moment.

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