Saumya Lal, PhD '22, has recently published an article drawn from her dissertation: “Encountering Others’ Empathy Towards Oneself in Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat,” in the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Inquiry (2023), 1-21.
The article examines how Milla, the Afrikaner protagonist of Marlene van Niekerk’s post-apartheid novel Agaat, engages with others’ empathy toward herself. Theorizing empathy as a multivalent engagement with others’ experiences, Lal argues that Milla attempts to variously invite, avoid, and manipulate others’ empathy as she negotiates the anxiety of being misunderstood, the sense of vulnerability in being understood, and the dependence of her self-image on others’ opinions. Illustrating the fraught experience of encountering empathy toward oneself—a neglected topic in studies of empathy—the novel shows that empathy is neither always welcomed nor received passively by potential empathizees. Further, Lal suggests, the contrast between Milla’s approaches to empathy as empathizer and empathizee ironizes her struggles by indicating her proclivity for controlling empathic interactions. Demonstrating how power relations inform empathy, Agaat complicates the popular notion of empathy as a straightforward gateway to reconciliation by highlighting its characters’ ambivalences about receiving empathy.