Experiences of otherness

'Others: Writers on the power of words to help us see beyond ourselves', edited by Charles Fernyhough (Unbound; £10); reviewed by Simon Duff.

Others is a collection of works considering ‘otherness’; what sets one apart. Otherness can be permanent, like disability, or contextual, like the father at a mother-and-baby group. Here, the authors write on the topic with powerful words (not on as the title suggests). Fernyhough’s introduction can’t capture the clarity, subtlety, and honesty of the contributors. Some chapters were unbearably touching. Persevere and you will find your own triggers to reflection, value and beauty.

We learn of otherness via routes and consequences. Ho Davies lost a friend, Mann gained a new identity, Hussein experiences distance, Preston plays cricket, Tom Shakespeare welcomes anonymity. It’s not relentlessly negative; it’s recognising, describing, and compelling us to acknowledge the simple, mundane, insidious nature of othering. It is impossible to read without recognising one’s own othering and having been othered. These processes underlie our daily interactions. Most of us, when othered, have various sources of comfort and support. When othering, we don’t recognise the consequences. What we perceive as only a brief moment may contribute to a lifetime of marginalisation.

For a flavour of the book try Storr’s Original Sin, captured by two sentences: ‘We’re groupish. And not harmlessly, like starlings or sheep or shoals of mackerel, but violently.’ This premise is examined most poignantly by Shakespeare, who speaks of his underlying experiences of being just like everyone else: ‘I speak the same. Hear, the same. Feel, the same.’ And yet, he is so used to himself that he is both surprised and othered when his one difference is momentarily or relentlessly the focus of attention.

The experience of othering can be felt by those who see it on behalf of another. Godden writes of her sister, Jo, who lives with Williams Syndrome. Differences are used, possibly unwittingly, to ungroup and separate people. Both Godden and Jo describe how this can result in experiencing the world as more complex than it needs to be, more frustrating, more unforgiving. Godden asks Jo what she thinks people think of her when they first meet her and Jo replies, ‘they probably just want to run away’, and later, ‘people look at you, like weird’.

It is hard not to other. I have done so in my comment on this book’s introduction (my apologies), have done so throughout my life, and sadly may well continue to do so. However, this extraordinary collection of works has made me see it, understand it, and hopefully recognise it before I speak or act. That is what makes these words powerful, and more of us need to become empowered.

Reviewed by Simon Duff, Forensic Psychologist, University of Nottingham


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