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Killam Laureate stirs together globalization, empathy and advertising

PhD student in creative writing receives Killam predoctoral scholarship to help write a novel

Jane Chamberlin's novel explores the nature of empathy and the challenge of empathizing with those who live in different countries, cultures and circumstances. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Jennifer Allford
October 21, 2015

When the world awoke to a front page photo of a drowned toddler on a Turkish beach, we seemed to awaken also to the ongoing horrors of the Syrian civil war and the plight of millions of people trying to flee the violence. Most of us empathized immediately with the father of the dead child.

Empathy is an emotion that is hardwired into us, says Jane Chamberlin, a PhD student in creative writing. “There is this neuron in our heads that helps us feel what another person is feeling,” she says. “It’s there. The question is how can we make that work?”

With the help of a Killam predoctoral award and her supervisor, English professor Aritha van Herk, Chamberlin is writing a novel that explores how empathy reacts in the context of globalization and advertising. “I think of it as a fictional experiment,” she says. “You have these variables and you stir them together and what do you get?”

Exploring the nature of empathy

In the novel, the protagonist is spearheading an ad campaign for a not-for-profit organization that’s working in the developing world. “She will face a series of ethical dilemmas as she explores the problem, and she’ll start asking herself:  How do you do this without exploiting people and how do you get people to care?” Chamberlin says.  The reader will follow the main character’s struggle with having to sell human trauma in order to try to end it.

The story will explore the nature of empathy and the challenge of empathizing with those who live in different countries, cultures and circumstances. “That’s one of the controversial areas around empathy,” she says. “Can you really empathize with another person who is different from you?”

If you’re unfamiliar with someone’s cultural background, political situation or socioeconomic status, some argue you can’t really understand them well enough to feel what they’re feeling. “It’s never going to be perfect, you obviously can’t imagine yourself in the head of another person who is very different from you in any sort of perfect way,” says Chamberlin. “But I don’t think that means we should stop trying to do it.”

Literary fiction as a vehicle for understanding

Literary fiction gives us one vehicle for understanding people we might not otherwise meet. In the pages of a novel, Chamberlin says, “we may not completely relate to characters who live vastly different lives. But at the very least, we can understand that another person is someone with a full, rich interior life.”

As the refugee crisis continues, there is no shortage of real life examples of Western empathy, or lack thereof, for people from other parts of the world who are suffering. “It feels more and more topical and relevant as each day goes by with what’s happening in the news with immigration and refugees and so on,” she says.

As well as current events, Chamberlin will blend research into the neuroscience of emotion into her novel. The writer is working with a PhD student in psychology who is exploring the relationship between emotions and brain functioning. 

Killam Laureate Chamberlin is jointly funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and by the Killam Trust, which together will provide $36,000 annually over three years, to support her work. “It’s huge,” she says. “Getting a PhD is an incredible experience and now I have the funding to take my time with my research and push my ideas as far as they can go.”