“But I’ve Never Been to Lebanon…” and Other Reflections on “Unrelatable” Texts
Mark D. McCarthy, Laura Apol, and Bevin Roue
In 2014, our teaching team piloted a “globally-infused” section of a required children’s literature course intended to meet the needs of the teacher education program’s global educator cohort. The instructional team consisted of a faculty member, the graduate instructor of the section, and a graduate assistant attending class as an observer and occasionally participating in small group book discussions. One such book discussion centered on the graphic novel A Game for Swallows (Abirached, 2012), a memoir set in a cramped apartment in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The students in one of the observed groups found this text particularly distant from their experiences, with a student exclaiming in frustration: “But I’ve never been to Lebanon. How am I supposed to get it? They should have a page with background info.”
The student’s response gave voice to a disheartening but all-too-common expectation among our students that texts must provide everything for the reader, and that readers are passive recipients of what the text has to offer. We found this particularly troubling because the student (a U.S. reader) expected a book set in Lebanon to be accessible to her with no effort on her part–even though she was enrolled in a program that explicitly focuses on global education. In the small-group interaction, the graduate student observer stepped into the discussion to pose two questions to the group: “Did you look up the things you didn’t understand?” and “Do you think you are the intended audience for this book?” Although impromptu, these questions were meant to suggest that readers sometimes need to work to understand texts, especially those that are unfamiliar; to “get it,” there needs to be an awareness of the text’s implied reader, of the reader’s own subject position, and of the subject position of the author. On the surface, such a reaction would suggest that without such effort, the student’s frustration toward, and ultimately, her giving up on, a text because she had never “been to” its setting would limit her future literary possibilities to a handful of local authors who wrote in ways and about experiences that were largely familiar to her.
In conversations following the observation, we came to joke that the student had never been to Hogwarts and speculated about why popular fantasy or dystopian series are not so easily dismissed as A Game for Swallows, despite their settings also being distant from the experiences of students. Our discussion led us to explore the concept of “relatability”–a term that students bring up often in a number of our literature classes, and one that we as instructors decided to investigate more fully.
In a 2014 article in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead attributes a widespread rise of relatability to readers looking for character identification, explaining:
Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading… though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends… to demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader… The reader… remains passive in the face of the book… she expects the work to be done for her.
For our students, relatability is often a necessary characteristic for a text to have value. As Mead posits, the texts students view as relatable exhibit familiar characters and recognizable narrative features. Drawing upon our collective experience with students’ responses to a variety of books, we observe that “relatability” as an evaluative measure frequently stems from students’ identities as white, middle class, able-bodied, mostly suburban, and cishet. They find it easy to engage with books that include white, middle class, able-bodied, mostly suburban, cishet narratives, or narratives that fit that worldview, and thus, they determine these texts to be relatable–even when they take place in a fantasy or dystopian setting. A story set in the real-world political and cultural environment of Beirut requires more.
Understanding student responses through the lens of “relatability” helps explain some of their resistance to unfamiliar global literature. It also is in direct conflict with our pedagogical and ideological goals as instructors–for students to pursue active, critical engagement, no matter what the text, rather than insisting on facile understandings or easy recognition. We want distant texts to be meaningful, not overlooked, and we want to ensure students feel equipped to do the hard work necessary to bridge any gaps between “unrelatable” texts and their own world views.
Literary and Educational Commitments
Scholar Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) articulates a commitment to diversity in, and engagement with, literature when she suggests that readers be provided texts that are both mirrors and windows–literature that allows them to see themselves (as in a mirror) and others (as through a window). Obviously, in a diverse classroom what is for one student a mirror is for another student a window. Yet the notion of “relatability” imagines a single set of experiences that are always mirrored (and therefore “relatable”) for the reader. As a result, a (mostly positive) desire to make literature relevant (without the follow-up questions for whom, and under what conditions?) leads students, time and again, to evaluate books using their own sense of relatability, expecting books to be a personal mirror.
Given that prospective teachers’ future classrooms likely will include multiple cultures, most students need to imagine children, contexts, and texts that are quite different from their own experiences and perspectives. Consequently, mirror-texts–that is, texts that are relatable to them because they reflect their own experiences–often will not be relatable to their students as well. However, our observations regularly indicate students evaluate a book using relatability as the main criterion, a measure that overlooks the diversity of their students’ experiences and the need to provide both mirror-texts and window-texts for a range of readers. Our goal, then, has been to nudge students away from relatability toward multiple forms of valuing texts, while also instilling values of multicultural education.
Introducing a variety of texts and authors is central to the broader goals of multicultural education, particularly when envisioning multicultural education for social change (Nieto, 1992). In fact, working with mostly white, middle class, able-bodied, mostly suburban, cishet undergraduate prospective teachers to build intercultural understanding means the texts we select–windows by intention–will be inherently less relatable because they have been selected to depict multiple experiences. Through literature, teachers (both teacher educators and the teachers they prepare) can negotiate meaning with students and influence beliefs. According to Robyn McCallum and John Stephens (2011):
The literature of multiculturalism… can be read as an ongoing exchange among ideologies or discourses… a dialogic relationship between… what the writer conceives of as a current and dominant situation or attitude and… a desirable direction of change for society (p. 370).
This critical dialogue shapes social values and beliefs, providing teachers with opportunities to enact change through text selection and discussion. Teachers might use texts as part of culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris, 2012), leading them to incorporate literature that reflects a range of cultures. Prospective teachers should value and select texts that represent more than their own self-reflective experiences, which means they need to learn to navigate texts written by or about cultures they may know only as “outsiders”–texts that are perhaps not explicitly relatable or that may be deliberately unrelatable.
One such body of diverse literature is global literature. Deborah Lo (2001) explains that global literature “not only illustrates and reflects the culture from which it comes, but it also gives us insights into the reasoning and belief systems of people whose outlooks and life experiences may be far different from our own” (p. 84). The very value of this experience is what makes the texts unrelatable. However, the pedagogical value we find in experiencing distant cultures is not necessarily enough to encourage students to do the hard work necessary to find the texts meaningful–despite their interest in becoming global educators.
Teaching with “Unrelatable” Texts
The following semester, we used A Game for Swallows to explore another group of students’ reactions. This set of students were more diverse; however, it was still the case that none of them could read this book as a cultural insider. To facilitate the students’ reading, the instructor explicitly addressed how relatability might not be useful to them as teachers. Instead, he foregrounded the connections that existed between the text, current events, and students’ lives, encouraging students to engage in research to fill gaps that come with “outsider” positioning. In the class session preceding the book discussion, student groups researched the Lebanese civil war. They found information about the complicated sectarian divisions in Lebanon; made connections to Israel and Palestine, creating an intertextual dialogue with previous texts read in class; learned about U.S. military involvement; and saw how the narrative of Muslim majorities governing Middle Eastern nations was insufficient. To further expand their consideration of the role of religion in the war and in contemporary times, the instructor shared an article about the first sect-less child born in Lebanon (Pizzi, 2013). This time, the hope was that discussion would go beyond limited or dismissive remarks about their lack of familiarity with a book’s setting, characters, events, or narrative style. This is, admittedly, hard work. Yet it is, we feel, a necessary disposition to instill in students, and therefore we wanted to scaffold their attempts at building a more active understanding of the text.
Directly addressing (un)relatability might help students recognize its limits and move past it, so following the book discussion, the instructor asked students about experiences of their own that might (or perhaps might not) parallel those represented in the story. It was assumed the story was not relatable to most students, so the instructor encouraged them to embrace this unfamiliarity.
One student’s response did refer to an inability to relate to the characters, but despite this lack of familiarity, the student did not dismiss the text:
Experiences I have had may be superficially similar to the book, but I have by no means lived through anything similar to the characters in this novel… These small experiences help give me only a glimpse of the cooped up feeling that hiding from a war must convey.
The “glimpse” this student was given required her as a reader to work to know more; she begins by acknowledging that her point of connection to the story is superficial and inadequate for real understanding, perhaps taking the absence of relatability as an invitation to find other modes of engagement.
Many students referred to their own emotional response when they found the book not to be relatable. However, for many other readers, it was character identification that remained a primary means to relate to the text, as in another student’s comment:
… [the book] made me feel stressed. I put myself in Zeina’s shoes and felt terribly sorry for her. They lived in one room and were surrounded by warfare. They weren’t allowed to leave and their only interaction was the few neighbors they had. It sounded like a terrible childhood.
While the previous student speculated that the text might not provide all the information needed for understanding, in this comment the student arrives at a set of conclusions based on this same partial knowledge. In our classes, this happens dismayingly often, given that hasty generalizations (not far from stereotyping) are more likely when considering the unfamiliar, particularly when the image becomes the identity (Bhabha, 2012). This reader’s negative conclusions about a character’s childhood arise from emotion as well as from character identification and are understood relative to the privileged experience of a war-free childhood.
We were concerned that students might be inclined to make these sorts of unfavorable comparisons between unfamiliar cultural representations and their own lived experiences if they insisted on using a lens of relatability with window-texts. It may be the case that these responses were prompted in part by the instructor’s question about students’ own experiences; yet the question served to make explicit the notion of “relatability” that was often an unexamined lens through which students viewed literature. Making it visible created a space to counter this nearly-automatic response on the part of students. “Relatability” is often problematic because it begins with the notion that the experiences of the reader (in this case, a prospective teacher) are normal, allowing that reader to make comparative judgments as part of an engagement with cultural difference.
Another student identified the narrative features of the novel as unrelatable, writing: “The book did not have any main events really, it revolved around the idea of making the audience feel how the author felt when living in the civil war in Lebanon.” Like her groupmates, this student noticed emotion was central to experiencing the text. However, the cultural standards of narrative to which U.S. readers are accustomed emphasize plot and action, which seemed less prevalent in this book. In class, this group’s note-taker recorded this part of the discussion in the following way:
The book doesn’t give us much in terms of character development or plot but provides us with images that take on their own meaning, like the tapestry. In this way, the book challenges us to consider meaning other than what is written in the book.
Importantly, the group explicitly states that in the absence of recognizable character development or plot, readers need to make their own meaning–an affirmation of active reading and a first step in breaking through the constraints of relatability. Another student comment reiterated the struggle to make meaning despite unfamiliarity with the narrative style and the layout of the graphic novel: “Blank pages are strange because they are purposefully put in the story. Maybe they signify emptiness, or the part of the children’s lives that we do not know.” These comments indicate an engagement with the unfamiliar and with authorial intent; the window-text becomes a place for speculation and consideration, rather than conclusions, certainty, or dismissal.
Reflections on Relatability
Our initial response to a student saying, “But I’ve never been to Lebanon. How am I supposed to get it?” was concern that a reader might not have any sense of the tools required to “get” a challenging text. We came to realize that often these tools may not be taught, though they are particularly necessary when readers engage unfamiliar texts. The texts we use are unfamiliar by design as window-texts for the prospective teachers enrolled in the globally-infused section of the course. Although initially unaware that students would have little access to unfamiliar texts like these, our goal was (and continues to be) to prepare those readers for the world of unrelatable window-texts that offer them insight into cultures outside their experience. Inspired by connections across the texts read in class, one student demonstrated this broader cultural engagement in this way:
The little girl in the book grew up in a Christian household during the war. I wonder what the Muslim families were feeling during this time period, too. When we were reading about the conflict with the Palestinians and the Israelis, we had a chance to read about many different points of view, but in this case we did not.
This student went beyond the text to wonder about a world in which the text takes place, in the process interrogating the text itself; a skill that is perhaps most important when interacting with unfamiliar and unrelatable texts. Her “wonder” implies a desire to know or read more.
When students move from frustration to engagement with unfamiliar texts, they leave behind an uncritical attachment to the notion of easy relatability. As a part of teacher preparation, then, literature courses should intentionally provide students with texts that offer layers of unfamiliarity–unrelatable characters and settings, as well as narratives that do not follow Western patterns. In this way, rather than simply seeking out familiar storylines and characters, students may engage with diverse literature writ large and, in the process, make meaning in broader life contexts. We found modeling and encouraging research to build background knowledge supported this engagement and suggest contemporary connections can facilitate this process.
Abirached, Z. (2012). A game for swallows: To die, to leave, to return. Minneapolis, MN: Graphic Universe.
Abirached, Z. (2014). I remember Beirut. Minneapolis, MN: Graphic Universe.
Bhabha, H. K. (2012). The location of culture. New York: Routledge.
Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix-xi.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.
Lo, D. E. (2001). Borrowed voices: Using literature to teach global perspectives to middle school students. The Clearing House, 75(2), 84–87. doi:10.1080/00098650109599242
McCallum, R., & Stephens, J. (2011). Ideology and children’s books. In S. Wolf, et al. (Eds.), Handbook of research on children’s and young adult literature (359-71). New York: Routledge.
Mead, R. (2014, August 1). The scourge of “relatability”. The New Yorker (online). Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/scourge-relatability.
Nieto, S. (1992). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.
Pizzi, M. (2013, November 1). Lebanese couple announces country’s first ‘sect-less’ baby. Al-Jazeera America. Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/11/1/lebanon-s-first-sectlessbaby.html.
Mark D. McCarthy is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University.
Laura Apol is Associate Professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.
Bevin Roue is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology at Auburn University.