Real Life with RealLit

How RealLit is using fictional books to grapple with the very real experiences and emotions of students on campus.

As the quarter progresses, RealLit[erature]’s own Alaina Bull, Johanna Jacobson Kicciman and Nedralani Mailo discussed how their program is doing. Building on research that indicates reading fiction improves both social connectivity and empathy, the Real Lit[erature] Book Club aims to tackle sociopolitical discussions in a rare space where vulnerability is a choice. 

The team spoke about the role this club plays on campus and how it can help campus members discuss important concepts. Here, one can speak fearing neither the pressure of being graded for what they say, nor any obligation to overexpose their own adverse experiences. That said, discussions have naturally taken a more personal and enriching turn during many sessions. 

“People are willing to have those conversations when we create a space where it is no longer about you exposing yourself,” says Bull. “It’s about engaging with a narrative.”

Material is largely chosen through a voting process. While the club is mainly focused around the student voice, staff and faculty members are also welcome. Many attend, allowing a less formal and more open dialogue with students to take place. The group has also linked its programming with high school book clubs for certain sessions, and on occasion, even authors and mental health professionals have come to engage with dialogue. 

Discussions are rich and often challenging, allowing for an uncommon exchange of information from many different perspectives. Members have the opportunity to listen deeply to the experiences of individuals from all different demographics while also being free to pitch in and add their own at any time. This, combined with the diversity of the turnout, has created a strong foundation for empathy and equality in the group.

Current events are a centerpiece of many discussions and are traversed according to community guidelines voted for by the group. 

“What makes the space work is that it is intentional and fluid at the same time. We adapt to the needs of the current membership,” Jacobson Kicciman recounts. 

This has provided an environment for some uniquely emotional dialogues. 

“They’re some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in higher ed,” Kicciman continued. “I’ve been in higher ed for a really long time.”

While in-person meetings have been postponed during this time, the club continues its streak through Zoom. In this way, it is more accessible than ever. As an extension of its free and abstract approach to discussion, the group has agreed that participants do not need to activate their cameras during the meetings. 

Dialogue begins centered around the book at hand, but always branches out into discussion of “realer” topics, hence the namesake. Bull believes that being able to divert some of the discussion onto a fictional soundboard helps people delve into topics they would ordinarily find difficult. This emotional deniability may be the secret to the group’s openness and empathy. 

“I think that’s the beauty of fiction as a genre. When you’re reading it, you have agreed to suspend disbelief,” Bull said. 

The blending with fictional works appears to go a long way when discovering narratives in the real world, familiar or otherwise.

Although Real Lit[erature] is a book club, it is sensitive to the fact that not everyone is fully comfortable with all of the material being explored. In other cases, they may be too busy to. Even those who were unable to read the book, or those who are new members, are welcome to involve themselves in the dialogue. 

“We still invite them to come in and join in the conversations,” Jacobson Kicciman said. “We try to provide a lot of entry points.” 

Individuals of RealLit can share their interpretations without being defined by them. Discussions highlight important differences in experience. At the same time, they cultivate a deeper understanding of the similarities between readers. All things considered, Real Lit[erature] appears to be hard at work to create a context in which everyone can learn a thing or two.