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When challenged in Luke 10 by a cheeky expert in Mosaic law who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor and inquires what the Jewish scriptures say. The scholar can easily rehearse the formula found in the Torah: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. “You have given the right answer,” Jesus replies, “do this, and you will live” (NRSV, Luke 10:28). In Luke’s narrative, the impertinent scholar, wanting to vindicate his asking such an obvious question (for a legal expert) retorts, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers by telling a story: the parable of the Good Samaritan, a narrative that has subsequently saturated Western culture, occurring in everyday discourse, movies, and television shows, and even in the legal codes known as “Good Samaritan laws,” to name only a few instances.1 Apparently one way to learn to identify the neighbor is through stories, as both Luke and Jesus recognize and demonstrate in their tale telling.

The conjunction of narrative and neighborliness can be considered from several different perspectives: narratives may recount what a neighbor is, but narratives themselves may also be considered as neighbors, a perspective which then points toward certain reading strategies. This essay will explore some of these facets of neighborly reading with the assistance of “A Private Experience,” a short story by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Widely acclaimed as one of the most significant contemporary African writers, Adichie’s prize-winning novels and short stories abound in aesthetic accomplishment and ethical profundity.2 Reading “A Private Experience” alongside the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan will help us reflect on the biblical imperative to love our neighbor, even as we consider what it might mean more generally to read in a neighborly fashion. Such reading, recent neuropsychological studies suggest, has the potential to enhance our ability to be better neighbors in today’s global world.

In Adichie’s “A Private Experience,” two women—of differing ages, ethnicities, religions, and social-economic class—take shelter in an abandoned store when a riot breaks out in the marketplace of Kano, the second largest city in Nigeria. During the course of the short story, the concepts of stranger and neighbor, self and other, are challenged and exploded—by means of the events of the plot, through the two characters’ interactions, and in the narrative discourse itself, the way in which the story is told.

Although narrated in the third person, “A Private Experience” is focalized through the character of Chika, a twenty-something medical student from a privileged background who initially is obsessed with the conspicuous differences between herself and her fellow refugee, who is never named:

Even without the woman’s strong Hausa accent, Chika can tell she is a Northerner, from the narrowness of her face, and the unfamiliar rise of her cheekbones; and that she is Muslim, because of the scarf. It hangs around the woman’s neck now, but it was probably wound loosely round her face before, covering her ears. A long, flimsy pink and black scarf, with the garish prettiness of cheap things. Chika wonders if the woman is looking at her as well, if the woman can tell, from her light complexion and the silver finger rosary her mother insists she wear, that she is Igbo and Christian.3

The religious and economic differences embodied in the garish scarf are further accentuated with additional sartorial detail. The woman wears a threadbare traditional West African wrapper over a torn black slip and blouse; Chika has on a denim skirt, high-heeled sandals, and a T-shirt with a picture of the Statue of Liberty, indicating her modern global citizenship. As they talk, the woman reveals that she has five children and sells onions in the market, and Chika relates how she and her twin sister Nnedi are visiting their aunt in Kano during the school holidays and were exploring the market as tourists. With her Hausa accent, the woman speaks Pidgin English in contrast to Chika’s Standard English: “‘Where you go school?’ the woman asks. ‘We are at the University of Lagos. I am reading medicine. Nnedi is in political science.’ Chika wonders if the woman even knows what going to university means” (47). Chika’s unspoken sense of superiority resembles the way in which the wounded man in Jesus’s parable might have looked down upon a Samaritan, an outsider, an unclean foreigner at odds with the Jewish community, an attitude certainly held by Jesus’ audience.

For despite Chika’s arrogance, it quickly becomes apparent that the Hausa trader has saved her from the violence erupting in the marketplace, has acted as a Good Samaritan to someone from a different ethnicity, religion, and class, who is travelling away from home. Chika is on unfamiliar ground in a strange city and knows nothing about riots; she is running randomly without a goal, when the woman stops her and calls, “No run that way!” and leads her to the vacant store, knowing from previous experience that the rioters will concentrate on the bigger shops and market, and helps Chika climb in through the store window (42). The woman tells Chika that they must wait in the dusty, deserted store overnight, but after a few hours Chika insists on leaving, confident that the riot must be over. She does not go far before she comes across the partially burned body of a man with a “sickening” smell of “roasted flesh, unlike that of any she has ever smelled” (52). Terrified, she flees back to the shelter of the store, cutting her leg in her panic, where the woman ties up her bloody leg with the gaudy scarf. They spend the night in the abandoned store, and the next morning, the woman goes out into the streets to ascertain the danger is over, returning to assure Chika it is safe to leave. The short story ends as the woman with “the beginning of future grief on her face,” climbs out of the store window (55).

Through her compassionate intervention, the Hausa woman makes the Igbo Chika her neighbor, just as the Samaritan made the wounded man his neighbor by deliberately approaching him when he was sprawled on the dusty road. While the priest and the Levite “pass by on the other side” of the road, the Samaritan “went to him” (Luke 10:31-34). As liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez explains, “the neighbor is not [the one] whom I find in my path but rather [the one] in whose path I place myself, [the one] whom I approach and actively seek.”4 Neighbors in need are everywhere, not just in our immediate proximity. By bandaging and dressing the victim’s wounds, conveying him to an inn, nursing him through the night, and giving the innkeeper money to continue to care for the victim, the Samaritan provided sympathetic physical assistance without having any social connection or personal relationship with the victim, just like the Hausa woman.

Yet despite the contrasts between Chika and the woman, several similarities gradually emerge beyond the fact that both are caught in the riot and take shelter together. In the first paragraph, the woman says, “My necklace lost when I’m running,” and Chika admits that she dropped her handbag: “She does not add that the handbag was a Burberry, an original one that her mother had bought on a recent trip to London. The woman sighs and Chika imagines that she is thinking of her necklace, probably plastic beads threaded on a piece of string” (42-43). While the economic gap and Chika’s condescension are again stressed, a tenuous link is also formed. The shared sense of loss goes beyond material possessions, however, as each woman next reveals that she has lost something far more precious in the chaos: Chika has become separated from Nnedi, while the woman has lost her young daughter Halima, who was selling groundnuts in the market. Both have lost flesh of their flesh—a twin and a daughter, respectively. A third similarity arises from the shared fragility of the human body. In a parallel to the care the woman will later provide for Chika’s injured leg, the medical student examines the woman’s dry, irritated nipples, “burning like pepper” from nursing her baby, and advises her to apply cocoa butter to the afflicted area (48). Furthermore, both women wear physical signs of their religious identities—the headscarf and the rosary. Such attentive textual descriptions honor both bodily particularity and bodily correspondence. In their mutual possession of ornamental items, close family members, vulnerable human bodies, and religious affiliations, Chika and the woman share a common humanity.

However, while the love for neighbor commanded by the Torah and dramatized in the parable of the Good Samaritan is grounded in the fact that the neighbor, like us, is created in the image of God, imago dei, that does not mean differences are eliminated. In fact, differences are one of the keys to neighborliness. In Works of Love, a series of reflections on the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard stresses such differences: “Neighbour is what philosophers would call the other...”5 According to Kierkegaard, we love our romantic partners and friends out of preference and because they are similar to us—Jim likes to snowshoe; Kathleen enjoys playing bridge— but our neighbors are such solely through our shared human presence in the world. “One’s neighbour is the first Thou,” Kierkegaard writes in terms that were later to influence Martin Buber strongly, “Love for my neighbour cannot make me one with the neighbour in a united self.”6 As the parable of the Good Samaritan stresses, even those we might regard as alien or an enemy are to be treated as neighbors, for restricting benevolent acts to one’s own family, tribe, class, religion, or nation expresses only self-love. Alan Jacobs describes the difficulties such differences raise: “I am to love my neighbor as myself, but this is a challenge because the neighbor is not myself.”7 The preservation of difference is a central element of neighborliness; we are not to make our neighbors into ourselves but rather to honor their differences. Thomas Aquinas also notes that we do not love our neighbors because they are our friends; instead, we love them because God loves them, regardless of our differences.8 While Aquinas focuses on the neighborly implications of God’s love for others, John Calvin reads the parable as demonstrating how God created human beings to be in relationship: “…there is a mutual obligation between all men,”9 even between a Jew and an enemy. “Mankind is knit together with a holy knot,” Calvin states in another commentary; “we must not live for ourselves, but for our neighbors.”10 Calvin believes that God created human beings with both gifts and needs; one person’s gifts meet other people’s needs, so human communities are complex ecological systems of gifts and needs, with neighbors found at every turn. The onion trader’s street smarts and patient maturity minister to Chika’s needs, even as Chika’s medical knowledge and youthful energy assist the woman.

The complexities of neighborliness, of defining self and other, of experiencing difference and similarity thus emerge from the interactions between the two characters, and the short story’s narrative structure highlights this theme. The technical difference between the story—the chronological sequence of events—and the narrative discourse—the order in which those events are presented in the narration—explicitly directs the reader’s attention to the women’s developing relationship rather than to the resolution of plot elements. The timeframe of the narrative discourse repeatedly moves among the present (occurring in the store), the past (the events leading up to the riot), and the future (what happens after the riot). Nine times in the course of a fourteen-page text, the events unfolding in the deserted store are interrupted with the word later that introduces a short passage describing future events, followed by the phrase “but now,” which returns the narrative to the women sheltering in the store. The third such prolepsis prematurely reveals the final chronological event, resolving the narrative suspense created by Nnedi’s disappearance: “Later, Chika will comb the hospital mortuaries looking for Nnedi. … She will not find Nnedi. She will never find Nnedi” (46). The fact that Nnedi had left Chika in order to buy groundnuts hints that the Hausa woman also will not find her daughter Halima, for Halima was selling groundnuts. The early closure of the central conflict created through the text’s focalization in Chika—where is Nnedi?—transfers the narrative focus to the events taking place in the store. Just as the specific facts of the vicious attack and the Samaritan’s subsequent return in the parable are elided but the Samaritan’s actions are enumerated in detail, “A Private Experience” concentrates on the healing moment, not the harming moment nor the future repercussions.

“A Private Experience” portrays several possible responses to the other beyond Chika’s initial arrogance and the Hausa woman’s kindness. The first prolepsis situates the private experience of the two women within a larger public frame of events not yet known to them: “Later, Chika will learn that, as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones. But now she says, ‘Thank you for calling me. Everything happened so fast and everybody ran and I was suddenly alone and I didn’t know what I was doing’” (43). In the moment, the women’s experience is bewildering and without context, yet the reader is provided with a larger perspective in order to better grasp the significance of the shared private event.

Like the first-century Jews and Samaritans, the Igbo and Hausa peoples have a long history of conflict. Historians and cultural anthropologists differ on the degree to which colonialism is responsible, but colonial politics undoubtedly contributed to the ongoing ethnic tensions. Traders and Muslim preachers from other parts of Africa brought Islam to the Hausa as early as the 11th century, while the Igbos adopted the Christianity spread by nineteenth-century British missionaries. A political state initially created in 1914 by the British, “Nigeria” arbitrarily united the Hausas who lived north of the Niger River, with the Igbo and Yoruba people, who lived south of the Niger. The subsequent political system that led to the formation of the nation of Nigeria in 1963 resulted in “division, hatred, unhealthy rivalry, and pronounced disparity in development.”11 Adichie believes that by manipulating the differences between the Hausas and the Igbos, the British pursued a divide-and-rule strategy that “ensured that unity would not exist, thereby making the easy governance of such a large country practicable.”12 Postcolonial conflicts include the brutal Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970), the long struggle for control of Nigeria’s rich oil fields, and the extremism of the Boko Haram insurgency. Various political powers, including the government of Sani Abacha (1993-1998), subsequently have played on such tensions to serve their own ends. In “A Private Experience,” Nnedi, the political science student who leads student protests against the Abacha regime, explains to her apolitical sister in a flashback “that religion and ethnicity are often politicized because the ruler is safe if the hungry ruled are killing one another” (48). In Nigeria, interactions between Igbo and Hausa, Christian and Muslim, have often depicted the worst-case scenarios of neighborliness.

In another “later” passage, Chika learns about the origin of the riot: “She will find out it has all started at the motor park, when a man drove over a copy of the Holy Koran that had been dropped on the roadside, a man who happened to be Igbo and Christian” and a group of nearby men “who happened to be Muslim” pulled him out of his truck, cut off his head with a machete, and carried it to the market to encourage others to attack Christians (44-45, my emphasis). This roadside encounter full of happenstances (like the parable’s “and by chance”) results in violence when individuals are taken as representatives of larger groups, when personal responsibility is subsumed in a mob mentality. Two other proleptic passages reveal a similar formulaic abstracting that occurs in the media, and in each instance, Chika contrasts these public reports with her private experience. In the first,

[She] will listen to BBC radio and hear the accounts of the deaths and the riots—“religious with undertones of ethnic tension”—the voice will say. And she will fling the radio to the wall and a fierce red rage will run through her at how it has all been packaged and sanitized and made to fit into so few words, all those bodies. (52-53)

In the second, she reads in The Guardian that “‘the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims in the North have a history of violence against non-Muslims,’ and in the middle of her grief, she will stop to remember that she examined the nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim” (54). Against the public historical account of one people group pitted against another stands the intimately personal account of gentle care for the human body, the common possession of us all. Later, searching for Nnedi with her aunt, Chika sees another corpse lying on the street, and “it will strike her that she cannot tell if the partially burned man is Igbo or Hausa, Christian or Muslim, from looking at that charred flesh” (52). In death and suffering, human beings are the same.

The parable of the Good Samaritan depicts how loving the neighbor involves crossing ethnic and religious lines to care for material needs, and “A Private Experience” provides a contemporary global perspective on one instance of that crossing. However, this short story also expands on the parable’s account of loving the neighbor, thus serving as a fictional midrash for Christian thought about neighborliness. Christians can engage with others across boundaries in four different ways according to Samuel Wells, an Anglican priest and the former chaplain of Duke University. In the most conventional model, which he calls working for, a person with skills and a heart for others uses those gifts to help someone in need, through such activities as medical aid, political leadership, or philanthropic activity. Working with, in contrast, “seeks to empower a group of people to discover their own solutions based on their own diagnoses.”13 The third model, being with, “is less given to programs and movements, and is more to be found in piecemeal initiatives and small-scale relationships. This is because being with is not fundamentally about finding solutions, but about companionship amid struggle and distress.”14 Finally, being for involves orienting one’s life in order to see the struggles of others without averting our gaze,15 even if we are unable to work for, work with, or be with the suffering. Jesus, Wells expounds, practiced all four forms of engagement,

but before [he] ever got into working with and working for, he spent thirty years in Nazareth being with us, setting aside plans and strategies, and experiencing in his own body not just the exile and oppression of the children of Israel living under the Romans but also the joy and sorrow of family and community life.16

Sometimes, Wells asserts, Christians should realize that the best they can do is simply to be with the other. Too often we want to try to solve other people’s problems with an objectifying pity instead of humbly sharing their experiences.

“A Private Experience” provokes reflection upon the being with model. Like many affluent and privileged people, Chika makes an effort to work for the impoverished trader, telling her that she will return with her aunt’s car and chauffeur to take the woman home so she will not have to ride the bus, and trying to help with her physical discomfort. Despite her insecurities as a medical student (revealed in a flashback), Chika pretends to have medical expertise when the woman tells her about the pain in her breasts and even lies: “It was the same with my mother. Her nipples cracked when the sixth child came, and she didn’t know what caused it, until a friend told her that she had to moisturize” (49). The narrative discourse underscores Chika’s falsehood through commentary and repetition:

She hardly ever lies, but the few times she does, there is always a purpose behind the lie. She wonders what purpose this lie serves, this need to draw on a fictional past similar to the woman’s; she and Nnedi are her mother’s only children. Besides, her mother always had Dr. Igbokwe, with his British training and affectation, a phone call away. (49)

Chika’s lie may be an inept attempt to move from working for to a more egalitarian approach indicated by the substitution of “a friend” for a British-trained private physician as well as six children for two. “We are members of similar families,” her lie claims, “I am your friend, not a doctor.” Chika’s lie functions as a futile, condescending attempt to eliminate differences.

However, once Chika moves beyond her sense of superiority in order to ask for help herself, she comes closer to working with the woman. When it is time to leave the store the morning following the riot, Chika unties the scarf from her wounded leg and returns it to the woman. They exchange formal farewells that name the missing and recognize communal bonds: “‘Wash your leg well-well. Greet your sister, greet your people’ the woman says. … ‘Greet your people also. Greet your baby and Halima,’ Chika says” (55). The woman’s healing advice echoes Chika’s earlier attempt, and Chika suddenly “turns to the woman and adds, ‘May I keep your scarf? The bleeding might start again’” (55). This moment has often puzzled my students, as it is not likely that Chika’s leg will begin to bleed again after so many hours, but in this request Chika is both acknowledging the woman’s kindness and asking for a memento by which to remember her. The bleeding will, in one sense, start again in Chika’s grief at the loss of her sister, but the memory of working with the woman will endure.

Nonetheless, neither the woman nor Chika can ultimately resolve their vast economic dissimilarities, Nigeria’s political instability and corruption, the senseless violence of the riot, or their loss of loved ones regardless of whether they work for or work with each other. Their most meaningful boundary crossing takes place in the private experience of simply being with each other through a long night, dwelling together in uncertainty and pain. Wells notes that being with is often much harder than being for. We want to act, to employ our knowledge and power to solve the problems of others, but sometimes all we can do is to be present. Chika and the woman both do small acts of kindness for each other, but their deepest experience of neighborliness occurs in their sharing of the most intimate moments: panic, fear, thirst, defecation, sore nipples, a bloody leg, grief, and even prayer. Chika will not find Nnedi, but she did experience “the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim.”

The religious motifs in “A Private Experience” provide a window for Christian readers to consider how to know and love neighbors of other faiths. While those of differing faiths may demonize and attack each other, either physically or verbally, another option is to dialogue with and learn from others while being with them. The significant religious boundaries the two women cross in their interactions are highlighted by the contrast between their private experience and the public experience of the riot. The Muslim woman’s willingness to cross such boundaries is incarnated in her prayer, “Allah keep your sister and Halima in safe place” (50), which again reveals Chika’s immaturity: “And because Chika is not sure what Muslims say to show agreement—it cannot be ‘amen’—she simply nods” (50). Yet the woman’s alien faith affects Chika’s own religious consciousness in a type of exchange described by Scott Alexander:

In trying to understand and appreciate another’s very different relationship with God, we somehow come to understand more deeply and cherish more dearly our own. … In recognizing life-giving elements in the faith of another that are not apparent or that have lain dormant in our own tradition, we come to yearn for a deeper relationship with God and others that sometimes leads in new, rich directions.17

This dynamic emerges with the woman’s second, more formal, prayer. As she washes, kneels on her wrapper, and faces Mecca to pray, Chika looks away, feeling that she is intruding on “a private experience” yet wishing, as she touches her finger rosary, that she, too, could believe in God and pray (51). Another prolepsis follows, describing the family’s offerings of repeated Masses for Nnedi’s safe recovery and Chika’s new attitude: “And Chika will think about this woman, praying with her head to the dust floor, and she will change her mind about telling her mother that offering Masses is a waste of money…” (51). In the present, when the woman finishes her prayers, “Chika feels strangely energized” (51). By witnessing the Muslim woman’s life-giving faith, Chika begins to reconsider her own religious tradition.

Texts as Neighbors

Fictional accounts like “A Private Experience” are capable of expanding our awareness of the complexities of being a neighbor through their themes, motifs, and narrative structures, but we can also think about a literary work such as Adichie’s short story as a neighbor and consider what that might mean in terms of reading. Thinking or talking about a text as a person has fallen out of critical favor in past decades, with a few notable exceptions, including Wayne Booth, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Chicago until his death in 2005. Booth’s preferred metaphor of personification, however, was that of friendship, which he elaborated the most fully in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Unlike his poststructuralist contemporaries, Booth suggests that we think about works of fiction not as linguistic puzzles or textual codes to be deciphered, but rather as “would-be friends.”18 Believing in the formative power of rhetoric, Booth argues that we should consider what kind of company a story offers to a reader, what kind of relationships and ways of thought it encourages. As we read, according to Booth, we should ask ourselves, “Will I accept the author among the small circle of my true friends?”19 (This quotation exposes one of the weaknesses of Booth’s analysis; he swings between referring to the text as the friend and the author as the friend.) Booth says that if we choose to embrace the gifts of insight, the attitudes toward others, and perspectives on life that the text offers, we will embrace it (or its author) as a friend. In this sense, both “A Private Experience” and Adichie are our friends. This process of evaluation and selection, according to Booth, is an ethical act: “We choose our friends and their gifts, and thus who we will be, for the duration [of our reading].”20

But thinking about a work of fiction as a neighbor, rather than a friend, raises a different set of ethical considerations, for, as we have seen, we do not choose our neighbors in the same way that we select friends.21 While some books may indeed become our friends, we should read in such a way as to meet neighbors, moving beyond those who merely are like us or share our perspectives. This entails expanding our reading selections beyond our cultural comfort zones. Being for the other, Wells’ fourth category, involves “becoming … informed about issues of social inequality and disadvantage,”22 and reading fiction is an especially powerful way to increase our knowledge and thus be for another.

Narratives, whether oral or written, exist in all known human cultures, and we find it much easier to understand and appreciate another culture’s stories than to learn its language. Using Jesus’s radical definition of the neighbor as someone who crosses cultural, economic, and religious lines in order to be with the other, we can meet and respond to texts of others: literary works originating from a culture, a worldview, a human circumstance radically different or foreign from our own. North American Christians who read works of global literature such as Adichie’s fiction often find themselves entering into decidedly different and sometimes uncomfortable worlds, with new languages, cultural norms, and ways of thinking. What kinds of reading strategies are most appropriate for such encounters?

The different responses to others dramatized in “A Private Experience” provide some examples of potential ways to read. Like the Hausa Muslims and Igbo Christians in the Kano marketplace, we can respond to texts of radically different others with suspicion, judgment, and even violence. Such judgmentalism characterizes many critical approaches, but it also holds a certain attraction for some Christian readers. What Rita Felski terms today’s “vogue for vigilant and mistrustful readings” is often traced to philosopher Paul Ricouer’s account of the hermeneutics of suspicion inaugurated by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, but Felski notes that skeptical reading approaches have a long history stemming back to the interpretive assessments of the Inquisition.23 Moralistic readings that critique a text’s alleged non-Christian worldview, suspect it of hidden heresies, or find demonic forces lurking beneath its fantasies practice a kind of reductive and deflating critique characteristic of some feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial criticism. Vigilant reading often takes the form of symptomatic interpretation, which eschews authorial intention and a work’s overt meaning, to dig beneath the textual surface to uncover hidden racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and so on. Symptomatic interpretation practices a “second order hermeneutics”24 that overlooks the particularities of a text for the larger frameworks that inform it. Diagnostic readings that concentrate on discerning alleged errors, of any kind, rule out other kinds of relationships with the text and often end up performing violent readings, distorting or ignoring other themes and implications. Reading “A Private Experience” solely in order to highlight the differences between Christian and Muslim worldviews is a violent hermeneutical act. Reading a text as a neighbor means practicing openness and hospitality, attempting to simply be with for a time rather than uncover hidden error.

A second kind of non-neighborly interpretation is suggested by Chika’s sense of superiority and tendency to read the woman’s life solely as one of ignorance and scarcity. In teaching African Literature, I sometimes encounter this kind of attitude in students who see nothing more in the otherness of Africa rendered in novels like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood than patriarchy, paganism, and poverty; who are unable to apprehend the rich social systems, customs, political structures, art forms, or systems of justice and benevolence depicted in such works. A hermeneutic of patronage, pity, and self-satisfaction can result in distortions, misreadings, omissions, and arrogance, pushing the other even further away, reinforcing strangeness rather than neighborliness. We may find ourselves like the Pharisee in Luke 18, thanking God that we are not like the tax collector. Reading a text in a true neighborly fashion involves expecting to discover its treasures and being open to the gifts it will offer.

The formulaic abstracting found in the BBC broadcast and The Guardian points to a third tendency to misread: what Adichie called in a 2009 TED talk, “the danger of the single story.”25 The types of narratives most frequently reported in the mass media—about group conflicts, violence, and atrocities—are not the only stories about interactions between cultural and religious others. Yet the power of the media often results in the stereotype that all Hausa Muslims and Igbo Christians are in conflict. Adichie notes, “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”26 Chika’s later frustration stems from the dichotomy between her private experience and the single story rendered by the media, the inadequate reading propagated when individual identities are subsumed beneath group generalizations and distinct experiences are overlooked because of the power of a dominant narrative.

Adichie explores this tendency further in another fictional gem, “Jumping Monkey Hill,” a short story about eight writers participating in an African Writers Workshop led by an Englishman named Edward Campbell, who has unequivocal ideas about what constitutes African literature and who wields the power of choosing which stories will be published. A story about a Harare schoolteacher whose Pentecostal minister has convinced him that witches are keeping his wife from getting pregnant is deemed “terribly passé … when one considered all the other things happening in Zimbabwe under the horrible Mugabe.”27 A story about a lesbian coming out to her family while attending a funeral is similarly dismissed: “Edward chewed at his pipe thoughtfully before he said that homosexual stories of this sort weren’t reflective of Africa, really.”28 “Which Africa?” the protagonist, Ujunwa, asks, before her own story about sexual harassment in Lagos is similarly dismissed by Edward: “This is agenda writing, it isn’t a real story of real people.”29 Edward assumes African stories must all follow a certain script and refuses to recognize the truth of Ujunwa’s short story, which is actually based on her own experiences. Reading a text as a neighbor involves recognizing and combatting our human propensity to stereotype.

Suspicious readings, superior readings, and single readings share a common tendency to overlook the particularity of the neighbor-text, making it, in effect, a form of the self by reshaping it for our own purposes. Loving our neighbor requires paying close, accurate, and sustained attention to the particularity of the other, as Simone Weil explains,

Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.30

Being with involves paying attention. Weil concludes,

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us…31

Loving our neighbor involves asking to hear his or her story, listening carefully and attentively, welcoming the gifts that story offers, and being willing to be with another without turning him or her into ourselves.

Texts and Becoming a Good Neighbor

Metaphors of neighborliness, however, like all metaphors, inevitably break down. Vehicle and tenor are never completely identical. Texts are not people; they are complex linguistic and narratological compositions delivered through media of clay, papyrus, paper, ink, glass, electricity, and/or liquid crystal displays. Thinking about written, printed, or electronic texts as neighbors provides a helpful analogy for considering what we read and how we read, but can a textual medium actually help us be better neighbors? We have all known well-read people who are selfish, arrogant, and unpleasant. Nonetheless, there is a growing consensus that reading literary texts has a unique and unusual ability to affect human relationships and form character. While humanities scholars have long argued that fiction can change one’s mind and affect one’s heart, recent work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience has further explored the ways in which stories “structure, enable, and enrich lives.”32 One notable finding has been the extent to which reading literature changes consciousness, which has been documented both by mapping physical changes that take place in the brain when one reads and by documenting how behavior changes after a reading experience. Common sense tells us such is the case, as anyone who reads Edgar Allan Poe alone on a dark and stormy night can attest. But fiction also has the ability to affect the way our minds conceive of and react to our neighbors. Cognitively, reading expands our knowledge of others’ lives and helps us to recognize both our similarities and our differences. Psychologically, reading increases our ability to empathize with others and conduct constructive social interactions.

Recent work in cognitive psychology, for example, has explored the relationship between reading and Theory of Mind (ToM)—the capacity to identify and understand what other people are thinking, a crucial skill for navigating complex social relationships. Reading fiction, which requires making inferences from representations, hones our ToM abilities as we track agents, motivations, goals, and actions in the course of reading. Reading fiction is a kind of “cognitive play” training minds to be flexible; it “fosters an ability to think about possible worlds and allows us to see the actual world from a new viewpoint.”33 The act of reading provides a ToM workout, strengthening the physical neural connections that facilitate social connection. Other approaches, such as folk psychology or action modeling, are more concerned with the behaviors depicted in fiction. Narrative, says David Herman,

furnishes a powerful technology for building models of action sequences. Such models enable storytellers and story-interpreters to assess the motivations, structure, and consequences of actions by varying perspectival and attitudinal stances toward those actions and the situations in which they occur.34

Narrative thus provides “an invaluable resource for understanding and explicating the conduct or persons.”35 Keith Oatley, a novelist and emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, calls stories “the flight simulators” of human social life, allowing us to practice for challenges we meet in the historical world, such as encounters with those who are markedly different from us in ethnic, cultural, and religious identity. Paul Armstrong uses a more scientific metaphor: fiction provides “a lab in which the brain can experiment with its social skills.”36 Whether we initially identify more with the impetuous, self-satisfied Chika or the less educated but wiser trader, “A Private Experience” incrementally takes us through a revelatory recognition of their complex similarities and differences. By following the rise and fall of their attempts to be for and be with each other in the text, our own neighborly abilities can be strengthened.

Literary fiction like Adichie’s has been shown to be especially effective in increasing empathy, in contrast with popular fiction or non-fiction texts, as an influential study conducted in 2013 found.37 The investigators hypothesized that popular fiction relies on simple and predictable characters that affirm readers’ expectations. Literary fiction, on the other hand, depicts more psychologically complex characters. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd says.38 From a narratological perspective, literary fiction contains more gaps than popular fiction, which prompts readers to work harder to imagine and understand. Kidd elaborates,

Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration. … More critically, whereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations. Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters.39

Such work undermines the prejudices and stereotypes found in single stories, prompting us to work harder to understand those who are different from ourselves. Similar effects may be prompted by the complex movement between story and discourse and the gaps such movement creates, which is so often found in literary fiction and is on dazzling display in “A Private Experience.”

These scientific studies complement the long-held humanistic belief in the power of stories that has witnessed new energy during the past two decades with the so-called ethical turn in criticism.40 Postcolonial criticism shows such priorities in its concern for voices and perspectives that were previously silenced and marginalized. Other literary scholars have drawn on philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Charles Taylor to discuss the ways texts contribute to our relationship with and recognition of the other. One prominent ethical critic is Martha Nussbaum, who has persistently and ardently argued that literary texts provide a crucial way to think about ethical values and behavior. She claims that a literary text as a whole is capable of tracing the history of a complex pattern of deliberation, showing its roots in a way of life and looking forward to its consequences in that life. As it does all of this, it lays open to view the complexity, the indeterminacy, the sheer difficulty of actual human deliberation.41

Immersion in such messy inquiries, as we have seen in “A Private Experience,” illuminates the way we ought to live in relationship with our neighbors. The potential that reading fiction has for increasing one’s empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence suggests how it can help to form us as better neighbors.

However, we should not be overly idealistic about the capacity of literary fiction. Armstrong sounds a perceptive cautionary note: “The secret of morality is not to be found in our neurons, and reading by itself will not make us better people.”42 While neuroscience shows that reading can change our brain, the effects are neither global nor instantaneous. Reading competes with other activities and practices in our lives and does not have a unidirectional effect.43 Furthermore, although several studies have shown the way in which reading fiction increases empathy, we should not confuse empathy with compassion. Most psychologists agree that empathy refers to “a shared affect between self and other,”44 but as Armstrong points out, empathy can have a dark side, as when a sadomasochist feels glee at the pain someone else is feeling. Pfeifer and Dapretto caution, “Reading may make it possible to live another life ‘from the inside,’ but there’s no telling in advance what the consequences of such doubling might be.”45 Zunshine similarly notes that seeing the world through another’s eyes does not necessarily translate into compassion; the reader still can discount, manipulate, or distort the other’s perspective.46 Empathy does not necessarily translate into neighborly compassion or action. Even Jesus’s stories did not change everyone’s minds and hearts; as Augustine repeatedly insists, the human will must be turned toward God before neighborly action can occur.

Narratives and neighborliness thus exist in a complex matrix of actual and potential effects. Fictional narratives like “A Private Experience” can provoke us to reconsider, expand, or even transform our ideas about neighborliness through their content and form, affecting both our intellect and our feelings. In a world in which tensions and suspicions between self and others seems to be increasing exponentially every day, a world in which Syrian refugees and Muslim Americans are regularly demonized through abstracting generalizations rather than welcomed as neighbors with attentive particularity, such narratives are needed more than ever. The metaphorical experiment of thinking about narratives as neighbors should also encourage us to read more widely and with greater openness and attention. Finally, with a better understanding of the ways in which narratives can mold us, we can read with the constant prayer, “Lord, help me to love my neighbor.”

Cite this article
Susan VanZanten, “Narrative and Neighborliness”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 10–25


  1. Mark Roncace, Teaching the Bible through Popular Culture and the Arts (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).
  2. For a discussion of Adichie’s accomplishments see Susan Z. Andrade, “Adichie’s Genealogies: National and Feminine Novels,” Research in African Literatures 42. 2 (2011): 91- 101; Connor Ryan, “Defining Diaspora in the Words of Women Writers: A Feminist Reading of Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing around Your Neck and Dionne Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon,” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters 37.5 (2014): 1230- 1244; and Susan VanZanten, “‘The Headstrong Historian’: Writing with Things Fall Apart,” Research in African Literatures 46.2 (2015): 85-103.
  3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “A Private Experience,” in The Thing around Your Neck (New York: Knopf, 2009), 43. Subsequent references are to this edition and will occur parenthetically in the text.
  4. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 198.
  5. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, 1847, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: Harper, 1998), 27.
  6. Ibid., 69, 68.
  7. Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001), 14.
  8. Summa Theologica, Volume 3 (Part II, Second Section), question 26.
  9. John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, Volume 3, 30, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed December 21, 2015, html.
  10. John Calvin, Commentary on Acts, vol. 1, 36, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed December 21, 2015,
  11. Abubakar Atofarati, “The Nigerian Civil War: Causes, Strategies and Lessons Learnt,” US Marine Command and Staff College paper, 1992. Accessed December 21, 2015, http://
  12. Michael Peel, “Love in Time of War,” interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Financial Times September 2, 2006. Accessed December 21, 2015, cms/s/0/a75b325e-3fa0-11db-a37c-0000779e2340.html.
  13. Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owens, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 29.
  14. Ibid., 30.
  15. Ibid., 25.
  16. Ibid., 42-43.
  17. Scott C. Alexander, “Knowing and Loving our Neighbors of Other Faiths,” in On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life, eds. Dorothy C. Bass and Susan R. Briehl (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010), 153-154.
  18. Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 175.
  19. Ibid., 39.
  20. Ibid., 177.
  21. Alan Jacobs also rejects Booth’s governing metaphor in favor of one of neighborliness: “A hermeneutic of love requires that books and authors, however alien to the beliefs and practices of the Christian life, be understood and treated as neighbors,” 13.
  22. Wells, 39.
  23. Rita Felski, “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” M/C Journal 15.1 (2012). Accessed December 21, 2015, article/viewArticle/431. For a more complete discussion, see Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  24. Ibid.
  25. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TEDglobal, 2009. Accessed on December 21, 2015, of_a_single_story?language=en.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Adichie, “Jumping Monkey Hill,” in The Thing around Your Neck, 106.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid., 112.
  30. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 1951, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper, 1973), 64.
  31. Ibid.
  32. David Herman, Storytelling and the Sciences of the Mind (Boston: MIT Press, 2013), 10.
  33. Brian Boyd, On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 86, 124.
  34. Herman, Storytelling and the Sciences of the Mind, 294.
  35. Ibid., 291.
  36. Paul Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 144.
  37. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science (October 18, 2013): 377-380. DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918.
  38. Quoted in Julianne Chiaet, “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy,” Scientific American 4 (October 2013). Accessed on December 22, 2015, http:// empathy/.
  39. Kidd and Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.”
  40. For example, see Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack, eds. Mapping the Ethical Turn: A Reader in Ethics, Culture, and Literary Theory (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001).
  41. Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 14.
  42. Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain, 175.
  43. Ibid., 119.
  44. J. H. Pfeifer and M. Dapretto, “A Mirror in my Mind: Empathy and the Mirror Neuron System,” in The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, eds. J. Decety & W. Ickes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 184.
  45. Ibid., 159-160.
  46. Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction, 98.

Susan VanZanten

Valparaiso University
Susan VanZanten, previously a Professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, is Dean of Christ College at Valpraiso University. Dean VanZanten specializes in African literature, American literature, and literary criticism.