What we can learn from lies in order to make sense of today’s truths

About a year ago, Laura Hattendorf was talking about books/reading in her social entrepreneurship class at Stanford, when she proposed a really interesting idea I hadn’t thought about before:

Fiction writing allows you to get into the heart of people.

(And she went on to say that this is a critical skill for entrepreneurs).

Before this conversation, I was almost exclusively a nonfiction reader, perhaps mistakenly believing that the most insight could be gained from actual events/ideas (and that I could continuing watching movies for fictional truths/insights). After Laura’s talk, however, I decided to at least read some of the classics I had never read or mostly forgotten, like 1984, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Wrinkle in Time, and Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps I might find, as claimed in V is for Vendetta, that “artists use lies to tell the truth.”

And sure enough, as I was reading Grapes of Wrath, I realized that I was getting into the hearts of people I had never even thought much about: the migrant communities who desperately moved out to California in the 1930s after their own home “countries” turned hostile due to outside forces (in this case, the land owners and big banks in the rural south). And of course, what struck me was how similar their plight/journey/struggle is to that of the “outsider” in America today.

Here’s how Steinbeck describes this community, which Californians insulting labeled “Okies”:

They had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred.

Okies — the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong, that they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed.

And in the towns, the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend.

The town men, little bankers, hated Okies because there was nothing to gain from them. They had nothing.

And the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more.

In one narrative, Steinbeck further depicts this hatred through a deeply disturbing dialogue:

Outlanders, foreigners.

Sure, they talk the same language, but they ain’t the same. Look how they live. Think any of us folks’d live like that? Hell, no!

We got to keep these here people down or they’ll take the country. They’ll take the country.

Having grown up in Northern California — a state that has, for my lifetime, been known as one of the most liberal in the country — it’s almost unimaginable to think of Californians treating people from the outside like this, back then and certainly today. Until I think about my brother's friends in LA from Mexico, or my own friends at Stanford from “the Muslim world” (another Okie-like phrase) or even my own family members from LGBTQ, black, or women communities.

And I realized that, in many ways, we have become “the great Californian land owners” that Steinbeck fictitiously — but not fictitiously — writes about:

They have access to history, with eyes to read history, and to know the great facts, the screaming facts that sound through all history. And yet ignore the cries of history.

Instead, the great owners formed associations for protection and they met to discuss ways to intimidate, to kill, to gas. And always they were in fear.

Sadly, through Steinbeck’s writing, I’ve realized that this fictional story isn’t actually fiction. And that today’s world, although it feels like an unfathomable type of fiction, is very much nonfiction. Perhaps the only question that remains is if we will ignore the cries of history, or if we can learn to “get into the heart of people,” and help write a book that our kids will one day be proud to read.

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