Empathy Through Writing – The Bowdoin Orient

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Amira Oguntoyinbo
LITERARY EMPATHY: Visiting Assistant English Professor Zahir Janmohamed smiles as he reflects on his career and discusses his approach to teaching.

For visiting assistant professor of English Zahir Janmohamed, good literature serves as a vehicle for ambiguity. Janmohamed aims for his students to explore the texture, contradictions and uncertainties of their lives through text.

“I’m not really interested in certainties, nor am I interested in intelligence,” Janmohamed said.

This semester Janmohamed is teaching an Introductory Fiction Workshop as well as an Advanced Personal Essay course titled “The Personal (Essay) is Political”. In both classes, Janmohamed asks his students to examine their connection to a larger social context.

“I want students to think about ways the ego can never be isolated,” Janmohamed said. “How does the ego intersect with culture, state, society, our colleagues, our friends, the texts that we study? “

In his teaching, Janmohamed draws on his previous career roles in politics, international advocacy and writing. Prior to coming to the College, Janmohamed was Amnesty International’s Director of Advocacy for the Middle East and North Africa and worked as a Senior Congress Assistant in Washington DC. Michigan in 2020.

In 2016, Janmohamed co-founded the James Beard Award nominated podcast “Racist Sandwich,” which is a side door to discussions of race, food, class and national identity. While living in Portland, Oregon, the whitest city with over 500,000 residents in the United States, Janmohamed discovered that food was a lens through which he could examine contemporary social issues.

“Why my parents, when they go out to eat Italian [and] the bill is about $ 80, they’ll gladly pay it, but if an Indian meal is $ 80, they’ll complain? Why do we devalue our own cuisine, but think that an Italian meal or a French meal is worth more money? Janmohamed said. “Food was a way for me to approach these difficult conversations. “

If the political world is always a theme in Janmohamed’s teaching, then writing acts as a way to build empathy by delving into the ambiguities of life.

“The point of writing is to try to move a reader: it might bring you humor, it might lead you to sadness, to happiness,” Janmohamed said. “I think a great character, when a novel works great, I forget about the architecture of the book because the characters are so real. It’s like a good costume. A good costume doesn’t have to draw attention to itself.

Janmohamed believes that the greatness of fiction lies in how it can integrate aspects of a universal human experience – using things we know and love – in vastly different social contexts.

“What I love about literature is that there’s a book I have on my shelf titled ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ which imagines, ‘What if Frankenstein had been in Baghdad? “That’s what’s cool about literature,” Janmohamed said. “Literature allows these new possibilities.


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