CreativeMornings is a breakfast lecture series for the creative community. They invited me to do a 30 minute long talk, I said yes and on the morning of December 14, I talked about how Pippi Longstocking helped me to become less shy as a kid. I talked about the importance of reading books. The power of imagination and empathy, how persuasive stories can be and why this can be a dangerous thing. And I told the audience about my obsession with Africa and how nobody is ever just one thing.
This is a transcript of the talk.
Pippi Longstocking was a 9-year-old girl. She was red-haired, freckled, unconventional and superhumanly strong. She was brave and unpredictable and social and playful but most of all, she was everything I wasn’t. I was an extremely shy kid. I didn’t look people in the eye when I talked to them. I had a hard time making friends, because once I finally got up the courage to walk up to a kid I didn’t know, my legs turned into jello. When the teacher asked me to answer a question in class I just kept silent and stared at my hands instead, hoping she would pick someone else.
There was nothing my mom and I loved to do more together, than read. Every night, we would run upstairs, an hour before my actual bedtime, curl up in my bed and she would read to me until her voice got all raspy and weird sounding. One of our favorite books was ‘Pippi Longstocking’. Pippi Longstocking lived in a small Swedish town, in a big, coollooking house called ‘Villa Villa Kula’, where she lived with her horse and her monkey called Mr. Nilsson. Her mom had passed away when she was born and her father was a retired pirate, who had turned his live around to become a cannibal king who would financially support his child by regularly sending her suitcases full of golden coins, so she was her super rich. She once bought up a whole candy store so she could give candy to all the kids in town.
One night I lay in bed, thinking of Pippi and imagining how different my life would be if I was like just as brave as she was. What if, I thought, everytime I’m in a situation that makes me anxious, I imagine I am Pippi. So, the next morning, I asked my mom if she would braid my hair just like Pippi’s. I would eat my spaghetti like her, with a pair of scissors and I would make it a point to always wear unmatching socks.
Whenever I had to do something scary, I only had to touch my braids and think of my unmatching socks and I would be brave just like my heroine. And that was enough to make me believe in myself. And slowly, I started to confidently answering questions in class, and I made new friends, because finally I was able to walk up to other kids without my legs turning into jello.
One night my mom read me the story of Pippi flying off a mountain, to catch two thieves that stole money from her.
Now, before I continue this story, it’s important to know that my mom was studying to become a teacher at the time. She had an internship at a kindergarten and one of the most important things she did all day, was reading to kids.
When my mom reads out loud she uses a different voice for each character, she pauses at the right moments, she whispers when a story gets a little more scary. She’s able to make you forget about your own life within seconds and transfers you to the place where the story is set. If she would read Marcel Proust to all of us right here, right now, we would hang upon her lips, begging her to never stop reading that dry boring pretentious piece of literature.
While listening to my mom reading that story of Pippi flying I felt the air blowing through my hair and the feeling of freedom that I imagine comes with flying.
The next morning at breakfast, I cleared my throat and asked: ‘Mom, can I fly just like Pippi can?’
She looked up at me and gave me some unsatisfying answer like: no, you can’t, please eat your apple, finish your breakfast.
And of course, deep down inside I knew she was right, I knew I couldn’t fly. But I also knew that I could. I was in this in between world, which I like to call, imagination. And at the age of four, the will to believe my imagination was stronger than the will to believe my mom and thereby the truth.
So, that afternoon, I was ready to prove her wrong, I carried a little chair out of my room and put it on the edge of the top of the stairs. I stepped on it and right at the moment my brother walked out of his room, he looked at me, sensed I was doing something immensely stupid and before he could snitch on me and call my mom, looked into the sky, without even noticing the concrete floor beneath me, and jumped.
This happened 22 years ago and in those years, I’ve learned two things to be true.
1. Don’t believe everything you read.
2. The power and importance of reading and imagination is often underestimated.
Although I learned these things to be true, there are still plenty of things I have trouble understanding. So I read books, to try figure these things out. Sometimes it’s non-fiction books, like when I was invited to this talk. After, I couldn’t sleep because public speaking makes me nervous. I mean, how the actual fuck do people give 30-minute-long presentation. So I ordered books at 4am about public speaking. Because I knew that just wearing breads and unmatching socks wouldn’t be enough to give me courage, and now as 25 year old, I again felt like that kid standing on the top of stairs, but this time all I could see was that concrete floor beneath me.
But the books that help and teach the most are fiction. When I was 4 years old a fictional character taught me how to believe in myself. Now, reading literature teaches me about the world around me in ways movies, friends, family, news outlets and blogs can’t. Reading a book can feel like an author reaching out his hand to you and saying: hey, I get it, let me show you how it is for me, maybe I can help you.
And I want more people to experience the benefits of reading. So a little more than a year ago, I created an Instagram account called Lees een Boek (read a book). With Lees een Boek, I try to inspire people to read more. I do this by showing people what to read, to use humor or by telling things like: hey, did you know that Tupac was actually a poet and at one point made his poems into raps? With Lees een Boek I want to make literature and poetry more accessible.
When preparing for this talk I asked my followers for the main reason they decided to follow Lees een Boek and more importantly, why they have not unfollowed me yet. I’ve got a lot of different answers, but one that just kept on coming back was: because of the passages and literary quotes you share.
And I do do that, every morning I share a literary quote in my story, I share quotes in my feed weekly and I hang up posters all over Amsterdam, because I don’t want to tell people how cool reading is, I want them to see it for themselves, I want to show them.
But there are more reasons I think reading is fundamental. Reading also has a lot of health benefits and can even make this world a kinder place. Reading can:
- Increase intelligence
- Prevents memory loss
- Lowers blood pressure
- If you only read for 6 minutes, your stresslevel will be reduced by 68%.
So, in other words; if you hate mediating, read a book.
Imagination and empathy
But the best benefit is that by reading fiction you’ll develop your imagination and thereby increase your empathy level. Researchers even found that by reading fiction you will experience an immediate boost in empathy.
There is a moment when a story, no matter how strange, has some resemblance to the truth.That’s when you’re able to believe it. Even though the imagination of kids is awe-inspiring, it’s not just kids who can develop one. We, as adults can too. And it happens when we read a book.
I studied Journalism and Creative Writing and when I was in college, so I had to write a lot. And I often wondered if the things I wrote were believable. It’s not that I wrote about magic or a war going on somewhere in a galaxy far far away. But still I was worried. When I shared this worry with my professor she sat me down and said: ‘Listen, don’t worry about the believability of your story. It’s not important. The reader believes everything you write. You don’t have to explain why they have to believe it either. They are smarter than you know. The only thing you have to do is to make sure that you create a character in which the reader will recognise something of themselves.’
And it’s true, we do believe everything. We root for a white haired girl, that flies around on one of her dragons while trying to conquer the world. We mourn the death of the house elf of a young wizard. And that’s interesting isn’t it? How we don’t even question how Daenerys was able to walk through that fire and be the mother of three dragons, how we sobbed when Dobby the House Elf died, even though we’ve never even met another house elf or even a creature that somehow resembles him.
Imagination is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we’ve never shared. Some famous neuroscientists believe we are hardwired for empathy, that it’s the social glue that holds society together.
Harry Potter, empathy and sympathy
Of course you can watch TV and movies and feel something, but film doesn’t have the same effect on the human brain. It’s a non-thinking activity. Whilst, when reading books, we have to imagine what it’s like to be the character. When reading Harry Potter we are in his mind, We experience all the events happening to Harry, as harry, we see the things as he does, through his eyes. When watching the Harry Potter movies, we can still feel something and laugh at Ron’s jokes and hate Voldemort, but whilst watching we don’t see the movie through Harry’s eyes. We still it through our own. We are still us. When reading we feel empathy for Harry. When watching the movie we sympathise with him. And sympathy is something completely different from empathy. All though the two are often mistaken.
Okay, so imagine you’re walking down the street. Your bus is going to come in 3 minutes and you’re in a bit of a hurry. Then suddenly you hear a scream for help. You walk over to where that voice comes from and then you see a big black hole in the road. You walk to the edge and you see a man lying there.
“I fell,” the man says to you. “And I am scared and hurt from that fall.”
Empathy is grabbing a ladder, climbing down into that scary big dark hole and saying: ‘hey, shit, you’re right this is scary, I know what it’s like down here. But you’re not alone.’
Now forget that for a second. Imagine yourself again walking down that same street. Again you’re in a hurry. And then you hear the scream for help. You’re curious, so you walk over there, see the hole in the road and look down. The same man looks up to you.
He looks bruised and scratched and says: ‘I fell and I am scared and hurt and I think there are rats here, but i can’t clearly see because it’s so dark down here.’
Sympathy is you looking down and saying; shit, that does look scary and indeed, you’re right, I think that’s a rat next to you, but you know I am already late for and I have to catch by bus but ehm, I’m you’ll figure something out to get out of here. Anyway, good luck!’
Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It’s going inside yourself and searching for a feeling that connects with that same feeling as the man in the hole has. Sympathy is understanding someone’s suffering.
Reading fiction helps us understand other people. It cracks open locks in our mind and heart. It makes us kinder. It’s about what it means to be human.
Stories and the telling of stories
Not only is reading extremely powerful and therefore fundamental. So are stories and the telling of stories.
Uri Hansson, is a psychologist at Princeton University and one day, Hansson and his colleagues decided that they really wanted to know more about how the brain processes complex information. So they did experiments, which included activities such as watching movies or listening to stories while their subjects were connected to fMRI machines.
They measured the brain activity of the speaker telling stories. Next, they measured the brain activity of the person listening to the story and asked the listener to fill out a detailed questionnaire to measure comprehension.
They let a student tell a story about her going to prom. Meanwhile the researchers scanned her brain and the brains of the 11 students who were listening.
It was discovered that the same parts of everyone’s brain showed ‘activation’, meaning a deep connection between the person doing the talking and the person doing the listening. It also suggested that everyone in the room was experiencing a similar response.
However, this ‘deep connection’ did not occur when the listeners were told a story in Russian, a language they didn’t understand. But, when the woman told the exact same story in English, a language the listeners did know, again the brains of the listeners and the teller synchronised. When there was activity in the region of her brain responsible for emotion, the listener’s did too. By telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.
To summarise, the researchers found that the speaker’s and listeners’ brains ‘exhibited joint, temporally coupled, response patterns.’ Or, in other and more simple terms: the listener’s brain responses mirrored the speaker’s brain responses. Which means there was actually a mind-meld between the speaker and the listener.
What we learn from this is that not only reading but storytelling can cause empathy. But stories can be dangerously powerful and persuasive. They give us dignity, they humanize, make us feel heard and empowered. Stories fill in the blanks of the unknown. But they can also break people, turn them into monsters. And they do this by retelling the same incomplete negative story about a country or a people over and over and over again, until this story becomes the only truth.
The danger of a story
As a kid I had this obsession with the continent of Africa, I dreamed of going to countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria one day.
And I figured that, untiI I would, I’d just go to the library and get some books that would tell stories about the countries.
I can still remember how my mom and I searched every shelf for books about Africa, but sadly without any luck. There wasn’t a single novel about Africa at the children’s department. The only books they had were informational booklets that showed pictures of little children on the cover with big bellies caused by famine and the lack of clean drinking water.
These books were the books we as Western children would read and they told only one side of a story. And every time we would see a Unicef commercial or a news item that would show poverty, peril and disease the story that was read in those books from the library would be confirmed and therefore become more real and soon enough it would be the only story and truth we would know about the continent.
Luckily my mom was smart enough to know that knowing only a single story can be harmful and she decided that, if there wasn’t any book about the continent to find, we should make our own book about Africa. This was at a time before the internet was accessible to everyone and Wikipedia wasn’t a thing yet, so one day she told me to put on my shoes and we walked to a travelling agency nearby. Before going in, my mom told me that I should keep quiet and just go along with the story that she would tell the women that worked there. I nodded hesitantly but curiously. After being greeted, we sat down with one of the employees, my mom held up a story about her and me going to travel through Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria together for a year. That I would be homeschooled by her since she was a teacher and that we were very much looking forward to it. The woman helping us frowned while hearing this story, but she did seem to believe it since my mother can be very convincing. ‘The only thing,’ my mom said, ‘is that I need to know more about the culture and the daily life of the people of these countries. So I am looking for books, and I was wondering if you could maybe help me with that.’
And the woman did, she rushed to the back of the store and came back ten minutes later with two full plastic bags filled with traveling books, brochures, advertising folders and even a Lonely Planet.
One week later I finished making my own book about Africa. Which I called: the different lives of different people-book.
This ‘book’ contained little notes written by me in the unreadable handwriting of a 6 year old. It had pictures of people from Africa with lives just like ours. Who had cars, went to school and universities, lived in modern cities instead of refugee camps.
One of the most important things I’ve learned by reading books is that nobody and nothing is ever just one single thing. Reading books made me believe that the worst or best thing we ever did aren’t the things we are. A murderer isn’t just a murderer, heroes can be villains, villains can be heroes and Africa isn’t just a heartbreaking Unicef commercial.
That jump I made 22 years ago ended with me smashing face first into a concrete floor. Miraculously, the only damage that this caused was damage in the root of my front teeth. Which I am still reminded of everyday when I smile at myself in the mirror, since a part of that tooth is crooked and is whiter than the rest. And every time I look at that tooth, I am reminded of that decision I made 22 years ago. Not the decision to jump exactly, but to believe that the power of imagination is sometimes more important, way bigger and more beautiful than the truth.
I’m nearly finished, the thing I hope that sticks with you the most after this morning, is that reading can make your life better, more fun, more compassionate and kinder.
And because I know that it can be a little overwhelming to walk into a bookstore without having a clue what to buy, I’ve made a top 3 of the best books I’ve read this year that I think everyone will love reading, no matter your age, gender, profession, religion, etc. So, here is my top 3:
1. Educated - Tara Westover
2. There, There - Tommy Orange
3. Born a Crime - Trevor Noah
Thank you so much for listening to my story. Thank you.
CreativeMornings is a global breakfast lecture series serving local creative communities in over 180 cities. Powered by the generosity of over 180 hosts and 1,500 volunteers, events happen on a monthly basis typically featuring an inspiring talk and breakfast. The CreativeMornings team is headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. This talk was held on December 14 and hosted by CreativeMornings in The NewWerkTheater. Thanks to the CreativeMornings Amsterdam team for inviting me.
And with special thanks to Loren Snel, Joa Smits, Tim Verheijen, Daniël Kroon, Islem Mechani, Laser 3.14 and Marjan de Groot for helping me prepare, giving me feedback and for being there for support. This was honestly one of the scariest thing I’ve done in 2018.