Delving Into the Mind of the 'Other'

Author Assaf Gavron is part of a world-wide effort to raise empathy through story exchanges. He talks to Haaretz about the power of the story swap.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Assaf Gavron
Assaf GavronCredit: Fana Feng
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

If you had to pick one story to tell a stranger – just one – what would it be? Nearly two years ago, Assaf Gavron had to make that choice.

The acclaimed Israeli author found himself paired with U.S. author Terry Tempest Williams for a story exchange. Someone tells you a personal tale; you tell one in return; then you retell each other’s stories to the group, Gavron explains.

It was summer 2012 and they were at a writers’ summit in Aspen, Colorado. Gavron chose a story about breaking the rules at school with a friend, who later lost his life in Lebanon. Tempest Williams told him how as a girl living in Utah, in an area said to be the site of many nuclear experiments, she saw a flash in the sky and to this day doesn’t know whether it was real or imaginary.

All the women in her family had breast cancer, explains Gavron, visibly emotional at the memory of the experience. "It was strange, but it was very moving, I felt like I was constantly on the edge of tears," he says. "We immediately forged a bond between us for the rest of our lives. And we understood the power" of story exchange.

Experiencing the power of story swaps induced Gavron to join the board of Narrative 4, a United States-based initiative that grew out of that 2012 Aspen summit that is dedicated, in its own words, to promoting “empathy through the exchange of stories.”

Narrative 4’s target is mainly high-school students. The organization’s board includes educators such as Lee Keylock, an English teacher in Newtown, Connecticut, where the 2012 massacre took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

So far 25 exchanges have taken place with some 600 participants, according to the organization, which was co-founded by cofounded by authors Colum McCann and Luis Alberto Urrea. Participants have included high schools in Newtown, Connecticut, Chicago, Limerick in Ireland, and Tampico, Mexico, among others. Plans for the coming year include exchanges between the U.S., South Africa and Rwanda, and a project with students and parents affected by the Boston Marathon bombing.

“When you tell someone else’s story … it’s like someone handing over their most prized possession, maybe something made out of glass,” said the testimony from one Newtown High School student.

The initiative launched last year with a special June/July edition of Esquire Magazine featuring more than 100 stories on the theme “How to be a man.” These were penned by authors including Salman Rushdie, Roddy Doyle and Etgar Keret - all three of whom are on Narrative 4’s 134-strong honorary committee. The stories are available for purchase online, as is a book to raise money for the organization, and a crowd-funding campaign is underway. Narrative 4 also counts Amazon and Picador among its sponsors and partners.

Partners in crime

Gavron represents the Mideast along with the likes of Egyptian-American journalist and commentator Mona Elhatawy and Iranian-America writer and scholar of religion Reza Aslan. Another is Gregory Khalil, an American of Palestinian descent who is a social entrepreneur, peace activist and former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on peace negotiations.

“Maybe one day Israelis and Palestinians will exchange stories with each other. But that’s not really our goal,” says Khalil, who Gavron describes as his partner in crime. The two have talked at length about future projects.

What they definitely don’t want are “photo op” story exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians.

Neither is under any illusion that story exchanges are the magic ingredient that John Kerry is looking for, though. But at least some kids may gain a greater understanding of the other, Gavron says.

The idea is to build trust in the idea. Although they still have not set concrete plans - “this whole thing is moving very slowly,” Gavron says – they intend to start with separate international and local story exchanges for Palestinians and Israelis. An exchange between kids living in affluent, safe north Tel Aviv, and residents of the rocket-ridden southern city of Sderot, perhaps.

Gavron was born in Israel to British parents and is no stranger to walking in the shoes of the other. “The Hilltop,” available in English later this year, delves into the world of the religious settler right. An earlier novel, “Croc Attack” (“Almost Dead” in the U.S.) goes into the mind of a Palestinian suicide bomber. His current work-in-progress takes him into the hearts and souls of elderly Israelis and Brits looking back at the Mandate period. He’s used to crossing boundaries of empathy and is interested in worlds that are alien to him, he explains.

Doing story exchanges, he says, is a way for him to “do a bit more” as a writer. “I am a cynic, so I say maybe these are just dreams. But they are nice dreams. So why not try and fulfill them.”

Ebuka from The Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick, Ireland retelling his partner's story to a group from the Latin School of Chicago. Credit: James Lawlor.

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