The Importance of “Discomfort Reads”

When I first read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, I thought it was one of the greatest books I’d ever read, and I would never pick it up again. I set it on the sell-back table with a shudder of deep respect, knowing the harrowing journey of a modern African-American woman mysteriously transported back at intervals to the antebellum South, with its unrelenting cruelty and injustice, was burned into my brain. Like Orwell’s 1984, it left me feeling I’d been punched in the stomach repeatedly and only after several hours would my normal comfort level reassert itself. And, in both cases, I wouldn’t have traded that feeling for anything.

Some years have elapsed since then, and I find myself revisiting Kindred after all. I picked up a copy at McKay Used Media Store in Chattanooga on Black Friday 2021, thinking I might soon reread it with a teacher’s eye. My decision feels almost prophetic now, for as my holiday break was ending, I got a call from my supervisor at Life University. One of my colleagues was having a surgical procedure in January and wouldn’t be able to teach his literature course, ENG 212 (Identity and Otherness); would I fill in for him? While having to create a syllabus at the last minute is far from ideal, I couldn’t deny a tremor of excitement. Here was the perfect opportunity to teach Kindred. I contacted the friend and colleague from whom I was inheriting the course to find out which books he commonly used, so I could decide which ones I would keep and which I would replace with choices of my own, Kindred among them.

One work I decided to keep was Art Spiegelman’s Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, an allegorical depiction of his Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust.

I have a shameful confession: I tried reading the acclaimed graphic novel once before and couldn’t finish it. I’d chosen it as a leisure read, and after reading almost half the book and seeing no significant female character emerge, I decided it wasn’t working for me and set it aside. But I don’t read as a teacher the same way I read for leisure. Teacher-Me can get excited by works like Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Poe’s short fiction, and Miller’s Death of a Salesman, all dominated by male characters but fun and fascinating to discuss with students. Seeing no reason why Maus wouldn’t join that company if I gave it another try, I left it on the ENG 212 syllabus.

In light of recent events, if I had decided to cut it, I’d feel the need to restore it.

The McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee recently voted 10-0 to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book from the district’s curriculum. According to nbcnews.com, “The district had sought to use the novel. . . as an ‘anchor text’ for eighth-graders studying the Holocaust.” The board, however, decided the book wasn’t fit to teach due to “eight instances of profanity and an image of a nude woman.” (Mouse, actually; the characters are animals in this allegory.) I can’t help thinking back to the time when a Republican U.S. Senator raised a similar hue-and-cry when NBC aired the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Schindler’s List without the usual television edits. His comments were met with well-deserved mockery, but more than two decades later, a school board comprised of apparently like-minded individuals decided the sight of an unclad mouse was too much for thirteen-year-olds’ fragile psyches to handle — and the most disturbing part of the whole business is that they’re far from alone.

In “The War on Library Books,” journalist Judd Legum describes a proposal in the Oklahoma State Legislature that would prohibit public school libraries from carrying strong sexual themes or content. How strong is too strong? That’s up to parents, and parents alone — many of whom are less interested in their children learning anything than in “protecting” them from any ideas or information that might challenge their world views. The author of the bill, Republican Rob Standridge, told local media that he specifically “wants to empower parents to purge ‘transgender, queer, and other sexually related books’ from school libraries.” So much for A Streetcar Named Desire and The Color Purple. In Virginia, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved is deemed too much for AP English students — for its sexual content, or for its raw, brutal depiction of slavery? Both, I expect. So much for Kindred, then.

An even more disturbing, because more vaguely worded, initiative is being spearheaded by Texas State Representative Matt Krause (R), who has asked several districts in his state “to identify . . . books in their libraries that ‘might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, and any other form of psychological distress because their race or sex.'” The idea seems to be that students should read only what is comfortable — that is, only what affirms what they already know and won’t demand they confront the more sinister aspects of history, society, and/or psychology. They shouldn’t look at the darkness, or swim where they might feel an undertow. They should stay in the shallows of learning, where it’s safe.

But can a good story ever be safe?

In a fun and informative TED Talk I’ve used in my Public Speaking classes, “How to Have a Good Conversation,” Celeste Headlee points out that “listening requires a setting aside of oneself” (emphasis mine). Reading is a form of listening — listening to the author, listening to the characters. A good story, like a good conversation, asks you to set yourself and your own preconceived notions aside and see the world through the eyes of someone else — someone who isn’t like you, who carries the weight of a different set of experiences, who may have values and opinions that challenge or even contradict yours. It asks you to walk in their shoes, to love and fear and suffer as they do, to endure violence and injustice you may be protected from in your own life, but also to feel the elation of triumphs beyond your own reach. It’s not easy or simple. It’s not meant to be. But the rewards are boundless. You become wiser, more knowledgeable, more understanding, more empathetic. It’d take that over being “comfortable” any day.

That’s why I’m reading Kindred again, along with my students. That’s why we’ll be reading Maus later in the quarter, and watching Schindler’s List afterwards. And that’s why all of us who value good stories need to stand up and fight for them, personally, socially, and politically.

For more on recent book-banning initiatives and concern with students’ “discomfort,” see these reports.