We Shouldn't Look Away from Stories like Beloved

When 12 Years a Slave came out in 2013, people were shocked at the violence and atrocities they witnessed on screen. They sat in disturbance as they watched Solomon Northup be forced back in to slavery and endure the cruelty of a vile slave owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

Looking back, the oscar-worthy buzz surrounding it reminds me of the controversy surrounding Joker. It’s brutal and far from comfortable, but it boasts fantastic acting, seamless transitions, and  necessary origin stories. But, in both cases people were saying that they had to look away during especially violent scenes. It’s no surprise as in 12 Years a Slave you saw the cruelty upfront with lynching, brazen whippings, and painful sexual encounters. It was a landmark movie because for one of the first times in Hollywood, the story was told from a slave’s first-hand perspective . Unlike Gone with the Wind or even The Help, slavery is not whitewashed or romanticized in any way. The same holds true for Morrison’s Beloved. Since they are from the perspective of former slaves, it can be hard to watch and read at times, but it’s important that we do.


When someone told Morrison at a book reading that they couldn’t read parts of novel because its was so terrible, she responded, “People had these things done to them, they experienced them and they survived them. The least we can do is to write them, and read them, and talk about them.” Beloved, though in the 3rd person for most of the novel, is largely from Sethe’s perspective as we are taken through her intense flashbacks of Sweethome and her journey to 124. Morrison’s language captures the trauma that Sethe went through decades after escaping. As readers, we get the sense that the kind of trauma Sethe experienced is inescapable. Beloved was definitely hard to read at times.  12 Years a Slave was hard to watch. But it’s important to see the full story and actually read from the perspectives of people who went through such horrific things. Morrison was able to recover a story from the past that is often overlooked in Hollywood and even history classes I’ve taken.

The Nuance of Relationships In Exit West

In Exit West, Hamid explores various different themes by subverting the reader’s expectations about relationships, Muslims,  and migration. I specifically liked the way he showed the nuances of relationships and developed a theme of how along with a change in place, comes a change in people. As he explained in his book talk, often times migrants are dehumanized and characterized solely as “the other” by westerners. Thus, we tend to forget that these people have intense relationships, homes, and families that are all hard to leave. 

I found it really powerful how he went through the different stages of romantic relationships between Saeed’s parents and also Nadia and Saeed. The inclusion of the passage about Saeed’s parent’s sex life subverted my preconceived notions about how parents and devout relgious people normally act. The mom initated sex more often and shared a passionate relationship with her husband in the beginning stages of the relationship. Overtime, their sex life fizzled down, but the they were still each other’s best friends and thus stayed together until the mom got killed. Additionally, I liked how in both the description of Saeed’s mother and Nadia, Hamid characterized the women as more sexually aggressive and thereby flipped the male/female binary. 

Although I didn’t want to see Nadia and Saeed grow apart, I thought the ending was both fitting and realistic. It’s no question that going through such a large event like migrating to a different country changes people, so it makes sense they separated. I also liked that they were able to amicably separate, something that is rarely seen in movies or books today. It is expected that relationships have to end when people develop a deep hatred for one another, but in this case they chose to end on good terms and still have occasional contact. I thought it was a very sweet ending where they were able to reflect on their time together and be at peace that they didn’t marry, but still smile at their past.

“The Good Place” Is an Existential Comedy

*small warning* like super low key spoilers if you haven’t finished season 1

In recent years, network comedy shows and sci-fi dramas have emerged as part of an existentialist sub-genre. Black Mirror and The Good Place alike explore the human condition in their own alternate-universes. These and other shows, such as Lost and Forever, have an existentialist nature that breed characters who question the true meaning of life. In one way, Black Mirror takes a more dramatic approach that has twisted story lines, while Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in The Good Place offer up a way to laugh at the idea that maybe life is meaningless (i.e Chidi making candy chili during a mental breakdown). The supernatural elements combined with a strong comedic tone make it more comfortable to confront the deep, philosophical themes similar to what we see in The Stranger.

In the opening scenes of the show Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in what appears to be heaven, prompting herself to ask a lot of broad questions. She is quickly introduced to her “soulmate,” Chidi, an ethics professor. The questions Eleanor asks in the beginning like “Where am I? Who are you? And what’s going on?” are questions that really explore the meaning of life.  The show continues to raise deep, existential questions as Chidi tries to answer “what do we owe each other?”

The ethics lessons that Chidi gives Eleanor also serve as lessons for the viewers. He talks about John Locke, popular philosophy books, and infamous moral dilemmas that all debate what constitutes a morally good human. The whole idea of the “good place” is also a contradiction. We see Chidi, someone who should’ve been the paragon of a morally flawless person, torture the people around him. We also see the seemingly perfect Tahani turn out to be selfishly motivated. Eleanor is supposed to be the morally worst character, but is actually clever and kind. Yet, they all end up in the same place (you know what I mean if you are past season 1). In recent seasons, The Good Place makes us question if what we do on earth really matters. 

Terrans and Women Face Similar Reproductive Pressures

When we know something is science fiction we are quick to write off any weird characters or unnatural worldly elements. We see them as something that would never happen in real life because it’s a work of fiction. However, when looking at the underlying themes of “Bloodchild” and analyzing the role reproduction plays in it, there are similarities to the world we live in today. The people who are in power are also the ones who can’t have children, thus they make reproduction the sole purpose of the ones who can.  Though that may be a little bit of an exaggeration (but not really), there are clear gender roles in Octavia Butler’s story, but the reverse of the ones we see today.  

Today, women are constantly fed this image of a glorified homemaker and are told that their place is in the home, caring for children. The paragon of a woman is conflated with the paragon of a mother. Women are expected to be the submissive one in a heterosexual relatioship and bear the children. After all the baby comes out of a female reproductive organ. Thus, women feel the pressures of having a baby all the time. 

I saw this as my sister recently got engaged and after 6 years of dating the constant question from family members changed from “when’s the ring coming” to “when’s the baby coming.” Similar pressures are existent in this story as Gan has no agency over his body. He is brainwashed into having T’Gatoi’s baby because that is what he sees as normal in society, specifically his own family. 

Gan’s mother was one of the few people in her family who never hosted eggs before. After Gan eat his eggs, T’Gatoi convinces his mom to take the rest of his so she can enjoy the anti-aging benefits. Butler writes, “Unwillingly obedient, my mother took it from me and put it to her mouth. There were only a few drops left in the now-shrunken, elastic shell, but she squeezed them out, swallowed them, and after a few moments some of the lines of tension began to smooth from her face”(65). Here, the mother is pressured by T’gatoi to take the rest of Gan’s egg even though she never really wanted to in the first place. After taking it, Gan recounts that his “mother cried out- probably in surprise”(66). This is just a glimpse of the pain that the Terrans experience while taking the eggs. They were also described as “convulsing” and “bloody” since all births are via painful  c-sections. The pain that they endure while giving birth is similar to what a lot of women go through today, especially given the fact that about 30% of births are via c-section. 

Gan also sees the standard of hosting eggs many times within his family. Gan’s “father, who had never refused one [egg] in his life, had lived more than twice as long as he should have”(65). Similar to today, there is a standard of having more than one child as women are expected to go through the process of giving birth 2, 3, 4 times. Here, the father had gone through the process multiple times, another reason Gan normalized the process of hosting eggs.