I just finished reading Rudolph Fisher’s short story collection, City of Refuge. Each story managed to carve out a visceral experience. Expertly crafted, Fisher was able to capture the ugly beauty of life in 1920s black Harlem. In each story, the common theme seemed to be empathy. Empathy is something I’ve noticed more and more as I study all manner of writing in all sorts of ecological systems and across all time periods. Its presence and its absence are equally heartbreaking, though in entirely different ways. The absence of empathy leads to dehumanizing the Other, leads to ideological and material mistreatment. The presence of empathy, though, that can create beauty. Beautiful art, beautiful actions.
So in reading Fisher, what I found most striking was that empathy figured in every single story. A character’s redemption or fall depended largely now whether or not they were able to find empathy, or maintain empathy, throughout the course of the story.
His collection is a text I wish I had time to work with. I could easily devote a dissertation chapter, or a book, to it. But this little blurb will have to do for now.
If you haven’t read it, do, if only for the expertly crafted prose.