Idra Novey is one of my favorite writers. She is a teacher in the Bard Prison Initiative. She is a poet and a translator. Her debut novel, “Ways to Disappear,” is about a 60-something Brazilian author named Beatriz Yagoda who climbs a tree and mysteriously disappears. Yogoda’s young American translator, Emma Nuefeld, comes to Brazil from Pittsburgh and tries to find her. This theme of trying to translate the words of another person, of trying to understand another person, of trying to put yourself into the shoes of another person, is imbued in the work Novey does and in the translations, poems and stories she writes. As Dostoyevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world,” and this kind of work and writing is that kind of beauty.
I have been thinking about what it means for me to try to put myself into the shoes of other people, too. When I see someone who is different from me – a transgender person, a Muslim person, a politically conservative person or an “any kind of different” person – I am tempted to look at that person through eyes of fear. I either fight against or flee from that person. But what if I look at that person through eyes of empathy? What if I put myself in that person’s shoes and walk around? What might happen if I do that?
I carried that question into a story I am writing about a boy during the Cuban Revolution. “What do you do?” you might ask him. “I’m a farmer,” he would answer. But if you asked him, “Who are you?” then he would answer, “I'm a boxer.” He has a gift. He can see through people’s eyes and feel through their hearts when he holds their hands. In this passage, he is with his mom after a boxing match:
He reached out his hand, battered and bruised from the fight, and found his mother’s hand to hold. He tried to bend his fingers around hers, but they were too stiff and sore to move. She turned her hand around and opened it so he could rest his palm on hers.
He took a slow, deep breath through his mouth into his tired lungs. He couldn’t breathe in through his nose. His opponent had broken it in the second round with a left hook and it was stuffed with packing gauze. “Oh well,” he thought, “I’m just a farm kid and a boxer. My face doesn’t matter. Only my heart and my hands do.” He breathed out through his swollen, cracked lips and sighed.
Something happened then that had never happened to him before and that would change his life forever afterwards. As he held his Mother’s hand there in the simple room beside the boxing ring, his eyes became her eyes, his ears her ears, and his heart her heart.
He saw the world as she saw it, heard the world as she heard it, and felt the world as she felt it when she was his age, when she was a girl of 10.
She held her Papa’s hand and they walked together by a large window of a hotel restaurant on the main street of the town. Her Papa stepped off of the sidewalk, took his threadbare, tattered hat into his hand, held it to his chest, and bowed his head in silence as the owner of a large sugar plantation passed by and opened the door to the hotel.
The powerful man sat down with his wife and daughter at a table by the glass window looking out onto the street. The girl appeared to be Maria’s age. She was wearing the most beautiful dress Maria had ever seen. She held a silver fork in her right hand, and on the fork was a piece of steak cooked to perfection by the finest chef in the town.
That morning, Maria had eaten a single corn tortilla and a spoonful of refried beans. That would be the same thing she would eat that evening, for her family was in the time between the harvest of the previous year and the harvest of the present year, and her already poor family was now desperately poor and hungry.
For a moment, the girl’s eyes behind the glass met her eyes, but the girl quickly looked away. Maria felt the pain of her hunger. It was deep and aching in her empty stomach and moved out as weakness into her arms and legs, moved out as despair into her mind and heart. A lump formed in her throat.
She closed her eyes and a tear rolled down her cheek and onto the dust and dirt of the sidewalk.
Tomás, her son holding her hand, felt that pain of her hunger, felt the emptiness so deeply in his own stomach and heart that a tear formed in his own eye and rolled down his cheek and onto the dust and dirt of the floor of their dark, quiet room.
He knew then so clearly why his Mother worked the fields in bare feet, why she wore the same dress day after day and year after year. He knew why she took so little of the food she prepared for them. She did these things because she never wanted him to be hungry as she had been hungry then.
In that moment he realized how much his Mother loved him and how much he loved her.
He realized his Mother was beautiful.
What kind of beauty could we see, what kind of beauty could we create, if we looked at the world with empathy, if we walked around in each other’s shoes, if we held one another’s hands?