When is empathy evil? Appreciating others’ experiences carves out the space for solidarity in which people with privilege take action. But imagining others’ experiences implies the possibility of understanding their trauma. Stepping into the shoes of others” requires one to assume they know what trauma is happening and how others would react.

People’s pain is often situated across boundaries of race and class. To empathize across those lines, one must squint to make out a fuzzy image of what is happening to others. They must further distort their own experience, alter their assumption of how the victims should react. On top of this, advocacy through publicizing others’ trauma can erase and paper over the reality of others’ experiences. 

But then, what’s the alternative? Not empathizing whatsoever means victims’ stories aren’t heard. Could literature help create a more innocuous empathy? 

Obioma’s “An Orchestra of Minorities” gracefully sheds light on how class and race affect the effability of another’s pain. At heart, it’s a charming love story. Chinonso is a Nigerian peasant farmer who meets Ndali, an upper-class woman. Obioma shows his mastery of class-based symbolism right off the bat: The two meet as Chinonso saves the upper-class woman from an attempted suicide.  

Despite their differences in status, the two fall in love after a chance meeting following the incident. Naturally, Ndali’s upper-class family disapproves of their relationship, and the novel focuses on Chinonso’s attempts to win the affection of her family. 

Here, the author begins to hint towards his mastery of remixing classic English stories (Romeo and Juliet,” in this case) with tales of contemporary race and class. Chinonso’s journey to redefine his ascribed status is defined by humiliation at every turn. In a particularly difficult chapter, he’s made to valet a party that Ndali’s brother invited him to. 

Eventually, though, Chinonso makes a journey to Cyprus to obtain an education and better match Ndali’s class (she plans to become a pharmacist). If the story in Nigeria highlights his class identity, his time in Cyprus showcases his racial identity. Obioma shows how Africans must continuously be aware of their ethnicity, with people confusing him with Black celebrities or asking to touch his hair.

The story is explained through the narration of Chinonso’s “guardian spirit” or chi.” This spirit must recount and justify his actions in a trial” to Nigerian Igbo deities. Through his narrator’s omniscience and bias toward the protagonist, Obioma subtly parodies and pokes fun at usual Western storytelling.  The trial is also a brilliant symbol for society’s judgment of Chinonso while showing the shortcomings of empathy. This is reflected in the plot, as even Chinonso’s love, Ndali, doesn’t truly understand his struggles.

Obioma offers a page spread of complex charts, graphs and lists at the start of the book to help explain the Igbo Cosmology. Heaven is broken down into domains, and the composition of man is conveniently summed up in a venn diagram. Both the universe and the process of reincarnation share their chart: The life cycle circulates the Earth and Spirit worlds.

Although initially intimidating, the spread’s significance becomes apparent over the course of the novel. This is less to do with appeasing Western Promethean impulses to box and map the Igbo Cosmology conveniently and more to help the reader navigate the book and its contents. The Cosmology is overwhelming at first like Chinosmo is overwhelmed in Cyprus. 

But, as with any novel, this empathy crafted by Obioma has shortcomings. A privileged reader can simply close the book. Chinosmo is trapped in his situation. 

Throughout the novel, Obioma masterfully balances the reader’s empathy and their realization of the fruitlessness of the relating. The story’s similarity to “The Odyssey” and “Romeo and Juliet” allows the narrative to be tangible and understood for Western audiences. Obioma’s brilliant prose and descriptions reinforce this. 

Still, the deities’ trial reminds the Western reader of their inevitable shortcomings of real understanding. The meta-commentary of the trial does a great job of making readers acutely aware that Obioma sees them as an agent in this story.

Moreover, the fragility of pure empathy is reflected in the story: Throughout the story, Chinonso finds it difficult to communicate his situation to Ndali fully. This is most apparent through their correspondences while Obioma is in Cyprus and at the story’s conclusion. This empathy compels readers, giving them a glimpse of a (well done) perspective they haven’t experienced.

As a whole, Obioma’s book showcases the complex interactions involved in empathy. Communicating one’s genuine experience is difficult even to omniscient deities or the ones people love the most. It must be even more complicated between people one has never met. 

The book’s prose, groundbreaking commentary and experimental narration style more than earn its place in the 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist. Whether or not it takes the prize, “An Orchestra of Minorities” is a gripping read. The book leaves a lasting effect on the reader’s perception of how race and class affect every aspect of one’s lives — even something as pure as love. 

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