Learning love from literature
Graphic by Elisabetta Paiano / Production Editor
By Nisha Gill, Contributor
Literature can be a wonderful escape from the dreariness of the winter months; there are few things better than being curled up in front of a warm fire with a good book. Perhaps counterintuitively, as much as it is an escape from our world, literature has a lot to teach us about the world we live in, especially with regard to love.
“Literature is always to some extent about our love and our knowledge of what love means,” explains Professor Noel Glover, of the McMaster University Department of English and Cultural Studies.
Literature’s capacity to inspire our imagination is one of its greatest strengths, allowing us to push the boundaries of what is and imagine what could be. It accomplishes this by using settings, characters and plots to not only mimic our experiences, but also expose us to new ones. This exposure prompts us to explore profound and personal questions, such as those pertaining to love, with little real risk. For example, we may wonder at Amira and Duncan in “The Chai Factor” or marvel at Simon and Baz in “Carry On”. We can put ourselves in these characters’ shoes to learn about forms and expressions of love that we have yet to experience, and reap no consequences. After all, it’s “just a story”.
“We can see love and come to understand what love means [by] leaving ourselves behind, leaving what we know behind, or at least, being confronted with the question of how we know love and loving relationships from experiences that are not written from our own but that we can be called on to imagine nonetheless. This imagining is both the responsibility and the pleasure of literature,” said Glover.
The imaginative nature of literature enables us to explore our identities, beliefs, desires and dreams through worlds and characters that are both astoundingly alike our own and dramatically different. We are able to think on how our lives might follow the same paths as our favourite characters or perhaps instead the roads not taken. By living through these characters we are able to explore and understand what we want from love and how we want to love and be loved, tying these questions of love to larger questions of identity. Glover talks to the way we process romantic questions being linked to how we perceive romance within literature itself.
“Literature stages the effects of this image [of identity], both as a personal demand and a socio-cultural repertoire such that there can be room for crisis, transformation, revolt, pleasure and, especially, counter-normative expressions and representations of self in the cultural syntax of gender, race and sexuality. The questions at the heart of identity ‘what am I like,’ ‘what do I want,’ can be inflected and enjoyed in literature in contradictory and exploratory tenses: ‘what does it mean that I am like this character and like that character as well?’; ‘what is the other’s desire?’; ‘what can desire be like?’” said Glover.
While literature’s capacity to spark our imagination helps to enrich and expand our view of love by encouraging us to look beyond our own experiences and beliefs, it also has the potential to distort our view of love. This distortion results from the reinforcment of stereotypes, particularly regarding normative relationships and gender roles, that have been established by classic literature, from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” as well as more contemporary works such Nicholas Sparks’s “The Notebook”.
“[Literature] is inventive . . . of others and relations we may know all-together too well, reinforcing stereotyped expressions of love and loving, oppressive and supremacist stereotypes of who is worthy of love,” noted Glover.
Thankfully, in the past few years, there has been an increasing diversity of voices being heard in literature on love, thanks to works such as Richard Wagamese’s “Starlight”, M.G. Vassanji’s “A Delhi Obsession”, Lydia Kwa’s “The Walking Boy”, Kagiso Lesego Molope’s “Such a Lonely, Lovely Road” and many, many more. Many of these authors grew up without seeing their identities and experiences in love represented in literature and then took it upon themselves to correct this. In doing so, they are setting the stage for new questions and further exploration of love and identity in all its forms. All it takes is for one person to see that there is someone else like them out there in the world to be inspired to embark on their own path of self-discovery.
This article is part of our Sex and the Steel City, our annual sex-positive issue. Click here to read more content from the special issue.