Johannah Murphy's Blog

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Lung Propelled Empathy


There is a part in the Reluctant Fundamentalist, when Erica is trying to describe her current state to Changez. She describes it as feeling as if in a sort of waking sleep. A sleep similar to how one feels when they step off an airplane and their ears have not yet popped, yet her hearing was fine, her eardrums intact. When reading this book, even prior to Erica’s articulation of this particular state, I also felt fuzzy, disconnected for no reason, as if my ears hadn’t popped from a plane I hadn’t been on. It is of course possible that this state came about for other reasons, but I feel there is a chance that the book had a part to play as well.


Throughout the book I felt a strong loneliness emanating both from the main character’s relationship to America and to Erica. Not only a sense of heartbreak, but a rejection of belonging to a person and to a country. Part of the power I see in the Cultural Studies Approach and an artistic literary approach to learning, is a widening of opportunities for outsiders to see ways in which their world overlaps with others. For me, Cultural Studies allows a lens in which one can see world’s overlap, and art or literature allows one to feel this overlap and to feel the difference and alikeness of these worlds and their overlaps.


This art piece explores the overlap of worlds I felt when reading this book, the overlap that allowed me into the main character’s world, drew upon feelings I know, then grounded these feelings in a experience different from mine, resulting in feelings of empathy. The piece is a rough self-portrait of me closing my eyes and framing my face and neck with my hands. My lungs are exposed and my heart is in the middle almost floating in a ribbon. My eyes are closed to represent a want not to be in that space of a waking sleep, so my eyes are closed in an attempt to sleep, in an attempt to make the waking sleep just sleep. But it is this space of fuzzy haziness of not quite sleep, depicted by the white photo-edited fog, where one’s heart can often become not only exposed, but also mobile. Mobile and able to be put into motion with the breath in the lungs. This piece expressed the empathy I garnered through reading the Reluctant Fundamentalist, an empathy developed through the haze one gets one they are drawn into a work of fiction. Empathy developed for the main character and extended to all outsiders specifically in the context of September 11th and its aftermath. The odd haze introduced through the art of this book’s words, the want to close your eyes, but the mobility of heart that opens space for a move beyond the regular ask for “tolerance.”

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