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Walking this ‘Tender Earth’ in empathy shoes By Sita Brahmachari

To mark ‘Empathy Day’ with Empathy Lab – 13th June 2017

This article is dedicated to all those who have lost those they love in recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and all the children and young people around the world who are forced to flee their homes because of war, conflict, environmental disruption and political unrest.

In real life, I’m not obsessed with shoes, but in fiction, I am, and never more so than in my latest novel, Tender Earth.

I’m often on the hunt for shoes in charity shops that I imagine belong to my fictional characters. At events, I find myself taking a few of these shoes out on the road. It’s such a tangible way to begin to demonstrate the active process of empathy, how hard it is, and how the process of reading fiction and non-fiction can be so satisfying precisely because we are liberated from the confines of our own world view and choose to take the time and heart to feel what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.

On school visits, I often take along an array of shoes that I imagine might belong to my character. At first, it starts off as a joke. I have someone with large feet trying to force their feet into tiny shoes, or vice versa, and often there will be great hilarity as wearers will do a funny walk around a room, but when we start to discuss what it actually means not only to try on the shoes of another person but to spend time walking around in their bodies, reading their minds, speaking in their voice, feeling what’s in their hearts, then my empathy shoe collection becomes a powerful way of exploring how we can be changed by the experience of actively seeking out what it feels like to be other than ourselves. In Tender Earth, my heroine, Laila Levenson, metaphorically walks in the shoes of many people from past and present times, and it leads her to take action and protest about what she believes are unjust and unfair and should be challenged.

There is a long tradition in children’s literature of shoes as a metaphor for fitting and belonging… Cinderella being an obvious one, more recently one of my favourite characters in Ruta Sepety’s ‘Salt To The Sea’ is the ‘shoe poet’ who reads people’s histories by the state of the soles of their shoes. I think my own empathy shoe passion in Tender Earth comes from the wish to explore not only stepping into the shoes of others within our own time, but walking the paths of our forefathers and mothers. In Tender Earth Laila Levenson has an overflowing shoe rack while her new friend Pari, the child of Iraqi refugee parents has only two pairs, one for school, one for home and other characters in my story go barefoot. Laila’s Mum has kept her grandfather’s shoes as a reminder of his values, and the elderly Dara Braverman has kept the shoes she wore as she arrived in Britain so that she will never forget what it feels like to be a child refugee. Here she talks to Laila about her arrival.

‘They say you shouldn’t put new shoes on the table… but these are pretty old. We didn’t come with much, but these are the shoes I arrived in, Laila.’

They are plain little black shoes with silver buckles. They look a bit like tap shoes.

Bubbe bends down, slips off her shoes and tries them on.

‘They still fit! Your feet are so tiny!’ I laugh.

‘Do you know the strangest thing, Laila? They never grew at all from when I arrived. Not even half a size! Look -I’m still being carried around on my ten-year-old feet!’ Bubbe takes them off and puts them back in the case. ‘I don’t get them out much.’

When I look down at Bubbe’s tiny old feet it makes me feel so sad. Like a bit of her could never grow properly again after she was forced to leave her home.’    (Tender Earth)

Many different stimuli can create an empathetic reaction in us. Two images in particular influenced me in the writing of Tender Earth.

One of the most moving memorials I have ever seen is the collection of sculpted shoes on the banks of the river Danube in Budapest that marks the place in WW2 where Jewish people were forced to stand on the edge of the river before they were shot by Arrow Cross Militiamen. It will always stay in my mind as a work of art that truly evokes a powerful response of common humanity. This memorial was very present in my mind when I wrote Tender Earth.

In present times, opening the paper one day, I saw a photo journalist’s image of an Iraqi refugee child walking barefoot in the snow. That made me think about what happens when we are all stripped of the status that even a pair of shoes can bring every one of us… a bare foot shows no status and is a great leveller. It is especially poignant to see the plight of children refugees who walk unaccompanied across this bruised and tender earth today. From this image, two characters began to form in my imagination that of Pari , Laila’s school friend who is the child of Iraqi refugees and also the quirky idea for the character of Janu my Barefoot blogger…

‘The Barefoot Blogger plans to walk from the earth on which he will build his refuge, around London and New York and back to his village… collecting stories on his barefoot travels, and funds, as he goes.’

In Tender Earth, Laila Levenson and her friends try on other people’s shoes, walk in the footsteps of the past and even go barefoot in reaction to the conflicts and inequalities they face in present times; they do this in the knowledge that the footprints they lay down, and the actions they take today will shape tomorrow.

Tender Earth is endorsed by Amnesty International UK ‘because it illuminates the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity, and upholds our right to protest against injustice.’

“Inclusive Minds are delighted to welcome the arrival of Tender Earth on the children’s book landscape. We embrace a book like this that has been so thoroughly researched and demonstrates such authentic inclusion.”