Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Radical Empathy with Sara Baume, Sunil Yapa and Joan Crate

The questions from the audience began with a strike to the heart: “should there be a limit to forgiveness and empathy?” Posed to three authors on the first night of the Spring 2016 Ottawa International Writers Festival, the woman’s question evoked a passionate response: “empathy is not absolution”; to seek understanding does not have to lead to forgiveness. The theme of this third event of the evening was “radical empathy”, a common thread running through the works of Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist), and Joan Crate (Black Apple). Baume, Yapa, and Crate’s novels and characters were vastly different, as the audience would soon realize, ranging from a lonely man and his dog in Ireland to seven perspectives of one day during the 1999 WTO Seattle protests to a Blackfoot woman who grew up in the Canadian residential school system. All, however, explored the idea of deep loneliness, empathy, and humanity deprived.


        To situate the packed room at Christ Church Cathedral, each author read a short excerpt from their novels. There is something special about storytellers being the ones to breath life into their own words, and this night was no exception. In a soft Irish lilt, Baume spoke in the voice of Ray, a man in his fifties, as he talked to his sole companion: his dog. Yunil followed, and we heard the thoughts of seventeen-year-old Victor as he gets caught up in the brutality of the chaotic anti-globalisation protests. Last was Crate, who introduced us to Mother Grace, the troubled Mother Superior in charge of St Mark’s Residential School, and one of her charges, a seven-year-old Blackfoot girl re-named Rose-Marie by the system.


        After the three readings, the authors joined Artistic Director Sean Wilson on stage to go deeper into the concept of radical empathy and the creation of their characters. The consequences of compassion, the fragility of the human life, and simple weariness were key topics pondered, and the authors, particularly Yunil and Crate, emphasized the importance of having no intentional villain to the process of writing empathy. To write from the perspectives of police during a violent protest and a Roman Catholic nun who was complicit in the vile residential school system was a challenge for Yunil and Crate, but they recognized the complexities of each and were determined to better understand the different perspectives.


            The difference between loneliness and solitude was also considered. A young child cruelly ripped from her family, a motherless boy estranged from his father, a crippled old man and his equally crippled dog seeking refuge from damaging loneliness – and storytellers writing in solitude, not quite lonely, comforted by the characters they put on paper, and yet still alone.


            In the comfortable cathedral room, the community gathered was far from lonely, a group full of different textures of people with their own silent stories. Contemplating the limits of forgiveness and the power empathy brought a sombreness to the crowd. With the smell of stale coffee lingering and the soft rustle of neighbours fidgeting, the authors assured the concerned woman that yes, there is a limit to forgiveness, and that their stories were not intending to say we ought to forgive those who inflicted grave harm upon others. But one cannot help but wonder – perhaps radical empathy means there is no limit to forgiveness.