Get Out: A Film Deserving of the Hype

Horror cinema is an ideal format for illuminating and discussing mass anxiety. Zombie film comes to mind as one representation of “fear-of-the-crowd”, i.e. the fear of being engulfed or overtaken. In 1976, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was shot in a shopping mall replete with lumbering zombies whose sole purpose was to consume. In the 2004 remake, the zombies returned to the shopping malls in which they spent their human lives; but they were super-charged and stronger than ever. 21st-century zombies lack personal agency, wit, and intellect like their slower-moving predecessors; but you can be sure they own and can operate their cell phones.

Get Out , a break-out film written and directed by Jordan Peele has been classified as horror, thriller, and comedy and I’d say it’s a type of zombie film. (You may remember Key & Peele–a sketch comedy television series featuring Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key).  Peele’s film has been a sensation: Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 99%!   Although you won’t find prototypical, grey-faced zombies mindlessly lumbering through a mall, the main protagonist must fight for his life….and his brains. If we look at Get Out in terms of how it fits into or critiques the culture and society that produces it, what current social or cultural issues might be present? (The inimitable Nina Simone sums it up well: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”) What cultural or social issues does Get Out bring to the forefront or interrogate?

Cinema that enables viewers to experience life from the perspective of another is powerful. As a white woman, I watched Get Out  from the point-of-view of a young black male. In watching from this perspective, I stepped into the shoes of Chris, the lead character. You will certainly sympathize with Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya), as he begins to unravel how his white girlfriend’s family (The Armitage family) and their affiliates are entangled in a twisted and evil operation. Get Out  presents an ominous view of human nature and confronts issues of overt and subtle racism.  Despite some much-needed moments of comic relief (after all, comedy is often a medium for acknowledging & coping with the absurdities and injustices of life), the tone of the film is decidedly morose.  Early on, viewers watch as a young black man is kidnapped–a foreshadowing of chilling and disturbing events to ensue. Horror cinema–unlike Rom Coms or even Drama (in my opinion) most effectively acknowledges and critiques society and culture. Horror effectively conveys and validates terror in a way that no other film genre has been able to do.

In a similar vein as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a supplanting operation of the creepiest kind is underway in Get Out  when Chris notices how strangely his black contemporaries are behaving. The speed of the film coupled with the unmistakable feeling  that something horrifying looms in the not-so-distant future contributes to the paralyzing anxiety experienced by Chris as he meets his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. I was not surprised to learn that Peele was heavily influenced by Stanley Kurbrick as Get Out presents several bizarre and anxiety-producing scenes in which you’re not exactly sure what’s going on, but your gut tells you to get out! Subtlety itself takes on a very important role and purpose in this film: sometimes the most terrible realities are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Subtle terror creeps in undetected (but not unfelt, necessarily) until it’s too late. Like Chris, viewers begin to feel a bit crazy as self-doubt sets in. After all, the Armitage family initially appears relatively harmless; but their ignorance is also immediately palpable.

Get Out  effectively uses cinematography, scoring, acting, and directing to produce an undeniably paranoid & distrustful atmosphere. You see and feel what Chris feels. Every detail in this film was carefully considered — even down to the opening song, Redbone, by Childish Gambino: “Well, first of all, I love the ‘Stay Woke’ [lyric] — that’s what this movie is about,” he (Peele) explains to HipHopDX Editor-in-Chief, Trent Clark. “I wanted to make sure that this movie satisfied the black horror movie audience’s need for characters to be smart and do things that intelligent and observant people would do.

This film is not just a run-of-the-mill horror flick designed to give you a thrill: it sticks with you. We don’t do a good job of collectively discussing issues racism in this country, but this film prompts another discussion. The Director stated poignantly in an interview: ” ‘Part of being black in this country, or being a minority in this country, is about feeling like we’re perceiving things that we’re told we’re not perceiving,” said Peele. “It’s a state of mind. It’s a piece of the condition of being African American, certainly, that people may not know. They may not realize the toll that it does take — even if the toll is making us doubt ourselves.'”

When  your fellow human beings experience something on a mass scale, listen to them. Listening–not denying & not being silent–is revolutionary.

 

 

 

 

The Subtle Art OF Not Giving A F#*K: A Countnerintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

What is bright orange, shiny, and maybe half as cool as Miles Davis? (and that’s pretty cool–just sayin’).  Though the title of the book itself isn’t an obvious indication, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F%ck isn’t exactly a throwback to 90s slackerdom. On the contrary, my contrarian friends, this book is for anyone who could benefit from being strategic and mindful about prioritizing how–and to whom–we give our precious time.  And that’s probably just about everyone. This book is for those of us who care too much.  This book is essentially about choices and in turning a widely-held assumption about happiness on its head.

In many ways, Mark Manson concisely re-packages the basic tenants of Eastern philosophy and religion in a hilarious and concise self-help guide . “In case you haven’t heard of him,” Manson says of the Buddha, “he was kind of a big deal.” Manson continues:

There is a premise that underlies a lot of our  assumptions and beliefs. The premise is that happiness is algorithmic, that it can be worked for and earned and achieved as if it were getting accepted to law school or building a really complicated Lego set. If I achieve X, then I can be happy. If I look like Y, then I can be happy. If I can be with a person like Z, then I can be happy. This premise, though, is the problem. Happiness is not a solvable equation. Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and, as we’ll see, necessary components to creating consistent happiness (26).

What Manson offers in his book is the strangely comforting idea that striving for happiness is itself a negative act. Yep. And his ideas make a lot of sense. Manson seamlessly weaves in Alan Watts’ “backwards law” which says that “the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place” (9). Kind of makes sense, right? Manson ultimately rejects the established dogma in the self-improvement literature in favor of recognizing and even embracing suffering. You can thank the Buddha for that.

Charles Bukowski, a poet known for his irreverence and salt-of-the-Earth writing style kicks off Manson’s book, and for good reason. Bukowski–offering up all kinds profane-yet-sage wisdom noted that there is no way around the fire: “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire”. No sugarcoating here, folks. And that’s a welcome and refreshing approach to the happiness conundrum. Is it at all ridiculous and miraculous that Charles Bukowski turned out to be a self-help guru? (And not the self-appointed kind). If you haven’t read any of the late great Bukowski, do yourself a favor. Sometimes the sacred & profane are two sides of the same coin.

If suffering and struggle is inevitable, Manson frames the happiness dilemma like this: for what are you willing to struggle? Those things–the things you’re willing to do the hard work to attain–those are the things that define you. In other words, you have to choose where to ration out your four letter words. And this book has all the 4-letter words, be sure. You know how your mother or sister or aunt or best friend told you to choose your battles” ? Yeah–that. Because life is short. Maybe you figured that out already, and maybe one of your employee-sponsored motivational speakers reminded you that you yourself are what appears between the two dates on your tombstone. You are the hyphen. Make it count.

Allow me to digress for a moment. I found Manson to be a sort  of new-breed George Carlin, and if you are a fan of comedy and satire, look into adding some George Carlin comedy sketches to your list of library holds (of course, not if you’re easily offended by expletives and socio-political satire). One of my personal favorites, George Carlin,  makes no appearances in Manson’s book but poignantly asks in one of his comedy sketches: “why do we call them self-help books when we didn’t write them ourselves?” Aw, the best comedians were and are some of the most insightful poets and philosophers of our time, indeed.  But for a moment ponder the implications of writing your own self-help book. Writing it would require the type of self-reflection and self-awareness (and Manson would say self-doubt) required of self-improvement and even, ahem, tracking down the big, elusive Happy Dragon that lives in the distant castle of your mind. Even more: Manson discusses how the “pursuit of certainty” is a barrier to living a good life.

While this little book contains many noteworthy nuggets of insight, I’ll highlight my other favorite: namely, that action is not the result of being motivated, but rather action is itself motivation. Mmm hmmm. I’m sayin’. Do you feel inspired by that? Manson outlines a sort of flow-chart to illustrate his point, and it looks like this: Action ——>Inspiration——>Motivation. Instead of waiting around for the spirit to move you or for a lightening-strike of inspiration, just simply do and the rest will follow. And the rationale is quite simple. Manson calls this recipe for motivation the “do something” principle, and he credits a former Math teacher. Many of the impediments to living a good life can simply be removed by the “do something” principle.

A personal example of the do-something rule in action in my life: when I’m not doing work in the library, I’m a songwriter and performer. I personally enjoy the satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment I derive in bringing a song into the world–in crafting something completely new and original that only I can produce. And the way to craft something new and original is not to wait. On the contrary: I write. so. many. songs. They’re really just poems or short stories or sketches, anyway. Or notes on my iPhone app. Or doodles. But that writing begets more writing. And one idea or concept leads to the next, and so forth. And before you know it, you’re a writing machine, churning out all kinds of new songs. Like, lots of new, really crappy songs. But guess what? The more songs you have, the higher your chances of writing a song that is great.

You remember the 10,000 hour rule from the wildly popular book Freakonomics? The rule is simple: what you practice, you become. If you practice something for 10,000 hours, like the Beatles relentlessly practiced and performed their music, you’re bound to get really good at it. Manson has a similar idea which is namely this: “The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement” (61). Here again is the resounding mantra that what defines us is what we are willing to struggle for–whether that be in cultivating a family, excelling in our careers, painting a masterpiece, or juggling flaming tennis rackets while balancing on a unicycle.

It’s no-doubt time for me to wrap up my ramblings. Check out this book if you like Eastern philosophy, suffering, pleasure, pandas, inspiration, self-defeat, self-improvement, the F word, Pakistani freedom fighters, the other F word: fun, Dave Mustaine from the band Megadeath, and hilarity in general.

You’re welcome!

 

 

 

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat“You have the best kids books!”, exclaimed a library patron with her son in tow. Smiling, I thanked the patron and stole a quick glance of the title in her hand. Javaka Steptoe’s Caldecott award-winning Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat  is as beautiful as you might expect a book about Jean-Michel Basquiat to be. What is particularly unique about this book, in addition to the messages it conveys, is that Steptoe’s illustrations emulate the kind of street art you might find Basquiat himself producing in New York in the 1980s on various organic textures & surfaces. The book itself is a literal work of art.

The dominant message Javaka conveys in this book is simple: imperfection is beauty.  Is this not an important and timeless message that we can and should celebrate and teach? Adults and children alike stand to benefit simply by acknowledging this pure and simple wisdom. Determined to create a masterpiece, the narrator notes that young artist Jean-Michel’s pictures “are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird” but they are nonetheless “still beautiful”. I’ll definitely be reading this book to Pebbles, my 8 year-old Blue Heeler dog since I don’t have any human children. I’m a dog mom — does that count? Also, Pebbles embraces the “imperfection is beauty” credo because she likes to rip holes in comforters and knock the trash can over. She gets it.  But in total seriousness, spread the aforementioned important message! (Especially in today’s Black Mirror world in which the bizarre expectation and practice is that the images we project of ourselves on social media are disproportionately perfect, happy, and overflowing with rainbows and unicorns). Let us remember that what is flawed is real. Even more?: what is flawed is beautifully and uniquely human.

Other representations of Jean-Michel Basquiat are also available at Davenport Public Library if you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating and legendary artist! For example, check out the 2002 film entitled Basquiat  that features David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Benecio del Toro and others alongside Jeffrey Wright who plays the unforgettable part of Jean-Michel. (The late great David Bowie, playing the role of the quirky and iconic Andy Warhol easily makes Basquiat one of my absolutely favorite films.) One particular scene in this film perfectly summarizes the idea that imperfection is beauty when Jean-Michel takes a paintbrush to his girlfriend’s new dress because he thought “it needed something”. In short, this film does an excellent job of illustrating 1980s Brooklyn and how Basquiat went being homeless to a wildly successful artist overnight. Sadly, and as is the case with so many inimitable artists of our generation, however, Basquiat struggled with a drug addiction that would derail him and his career.  What Basquiat left behind–his legacy–is far greater and more memorable then any of the challenges he endured in his lifetime.

Also amazing? Check out Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, a book of poetry by the amazing Maya Angelou with illustrations by the one and only Jean-Michel Basquiat!

Let Food Be Your Medicine by Don Colbert

Let Food Be Your Medicine: Dietary Changes Proven to Prevent or Reverse Disease

Physician-turned-journalist Don Colbert, MD offers intriguing and practical advice for optimum nutrition and wellness in Let Food Be Your Medicine: Dietary Changes Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease. Early on, Colbert shares the deceptively simple insight that we catch colds but we develop chronic diseases like Type II Diabetes or Cardiovascular disease. That is not a coincidence, either. In Latin, “Dis” refers to being “apart”, disjointed, or having a negative or “reversing force.” Ease refers “freedom from pain” or being in a tranquil or peaceful state. In essence, disease signifies a breaking away from a peaceful or tranquil state. The process of developing and solidifying disease, however,  is complex and involves lifestyle & environmental factors, as well as the interplay of all systems of mind, body, and spirit.

I tend to gobble up books about food, nutrition, and wellness and am naturally obsessed with how the gut or the “microbiome”, i.e. the ecosystem living in the core of your body, is more powerful and influential over our general health & well-being than we once imagined. A discussion about the microbiome is another conversation entirely and is far beyond my scope of knowledge; but Colbert does not overlook discussing current research about the delicate ecosystem living between our brain and bowel. How curious that we may even begin to view our food cravings as tiny demands from the bacteria in our guts who have lives of their own? In essence, we are feeding them. You better believe they don’t always have your best interests in mind, either. The little “voices in your head” (or, gut, in this case) take on a whole new meaning. Read this book to dig in a little deeper as to how and why our microbiome is so influential and critical to our overall health.

Colbert mixes testimonial with current medical evidence to present a compelling argument for being mindful and deliberative when it comes to what we put into our bodies. Learn about his struggle with autoimmune disorders and how his quest to heal himself resulted in weeding nightshade foods (peppers, eggplants, tomatoes) out of his diet. Not all food is equal in its ability to nourish, heal, or harm, either, as you may know. We often take for granted that we do not innately know what foods are harmful or helpful. Many of us grew up in homes in which our parent(s) worked and perhaps did not have the time to prepare and cook whole, nourishing meals all week long. In short, eating “healthy” is not common sense. Failure to meet your daily nutrient requirements or to altogether make harmful dietary choices is not therefore some testament to your lack of willpower. Quite simply, many of us have to learn how to make better food choices, and that starts with education. If you have any curiosity whatsoever in how you can better yourself simply by changing what you put into your body, read this book.

This book is not a fix-all for all that ails you, nor does it substitute for the relationship you have with your primary care physicians or doctors. Part of what is working about healthcare is that we acknowledge that wellness involves the alignment of mind, body, and spirit or the non-physical part of a human being. Grey’s Anatomy sums up the dilemma well in one episode in which Dr. Preston Burke, esteemed neurosurgeon, argues with Dr. Cristina Yang that nurturing a  patient’s spiritual state is equally as important as the medical intervention being performed, for the reason that human beings are not merely physical bodies. The non-physical parts of us require care and respect, too. Though Colbert’s book does not discuss the role of spirituality in health in great depth, he no-doubt weaves his own faith into the book (but it is not oft-putting for non-Christians). I can most certainly recall a time in my lifespan of thirty-six years when the words “soul”, “spirituality” and “Ayurveda” would have never made an appearance in a discussion about disease, illness, or health & wellbeing. But today? We are becoming more interdisciplinary & holistic in how we not only view but “treat” illness — and how we care for whole human beings (not just symptoms).

If you are even the slightest bit curious about how food can harm or heal, read this book. If you would be amazed by the prospect of eating a diet that custom made to fight diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, auto-immune disorders — read this book. Believe it or not, one of the most powerful statements that Colbert makes in this book is this: cancer, depending upon the type and staging, can and  very well does constitute a chronic disease that can actually be managed like other chronic diseases not unlike COPD, heart disease, and diabetes. I don’t know about you, but aside from a cure that’s the very best next thing!  Bear in mind, Colbert is not claiming to have a cure for cancer; but he lays out, in one case, a diet plan that is tailored not only to the cancer patient but to the specific stage of cancer in order to increase the chances of putting the cancer into remission…and we can do this with vegetables, micronutrients, plants–with the plentitude of healing, delicious foods that are available to us should we be inclined.

Hole in the Heart: Bringing Up Beth by Henny Beaumont

Henny Beaumont’s Hole in the Heart: Bringing Up Beth was immediately relatable and bold in how it approached the subject of raising a child with a disability. This work of Graphic Medicine happens to be my first and it most certainly will not be my last. The editorial page notes that “For healthcare practitioners, patients, families, and caregivers dealing with illness and disability, graphic narrative enlightens complicated or difficult experience”. The are other titles in the Graphic Medicine series that may also interest you. Try The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life and Times of Dr. Iwan James or My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s.

Having an interest in medicine, I was struck by the double-entendre in the title. “Hole in the Heart” works on a couple of different levels. Quite literally, a hole in the heart in this case refers to an Atrioventricular Septal Defect (AVSD). Imagine the pain of giving birth to your child to discover that she likely has genetic heart problems that will require surgery.  Figuratively, the initial sense of loss, pain, or despair you experience is akin to having a hole in your heart. Even the subtitle “Bringing Up Beth” works on a couple of different levels. First, “bringing up” refers to raising someone from childhood to adulthood. Yet Beaumont is also bringing up the difficult subject of raising a child with special needs.  How would you react if a doctor (with the bedside rapport of a chair) approached you while you were holding your daughter for the first time only to inform you of the likelihood that she has Down’s Syndrome? And why does having Down’s Syndrome have to signify the sky falling or the end of the world? It simply does not.

The beauty of this book, and like the experience of reading books in general, is that you will see Beth and other people with Down’s Syndrome through the eyes of Hen. Sympathy–perhaps even empathy–is one powerful way reading helps creating understanding between ourselves and others who are different than we are. In one particular scene, Hen is making small talk with acquaintances who tend to tip-toe around the subject (Beth), in order to avoid talking about her as though she’s some kind of secret. Beaumont brilliantly pulls us into the conversation and shows us that referring to someone’s “Down’s baby” is disrespectful and callous. The appropriate and respectful way to refer to people with Down’s is exactly that: people who just happen to have Down’s.

As Beth matures, her family must grapple with the challenges of inclusion and acceptance in the classroom and beyond. What does true inclusion look like? Beth’s sisters joke that a school will utilize a picture of a student with Down’s just to appear inclusive in promotional and marketing materials; but truly embracing acceptance and inclusion looks and sounds different.  In another scene, Hen looks forward to meeting with Beth’s teacher. Just as you think the teacher is about to compliment Beth on her own terms, she instead gloats about “how TOLERANT” Beth’s classmates are (as though its her ability to be tolerated that makes her noteworthy.) You see the problem here: defining a person in terms of how they can be useful or tolerable for others (rather than being innately worthy in and of themselves) is de-humanizing and plain wrong.

I was working at the reference desk when I began discussing books with a patron. The topic of graphic novels came up. I mentioned that Hole in the Heart: Bringing Up  Beth  was  moving and that I cried while reading the last page of the book. The accompanying image (likely charcoal or pencil?) is beautiful–something many people can relate to. The patron looked perplexed. “You cried? ” he asked. The picture and sentiment simply embodied love & acceptance. “I did”, I replied.

If you’re skeptical that Graphic Novels can be emotionally complex and deeply moving, please read this book!

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me by Ellen Forney

In the past few years, I think it’s safe to say I’m hooked on graphic novels! I don’t make it out of the library on most days without bringing at least 1 new title home to read (though I usually bring a bag-full!). Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, & Me initially jumped out at me, like so many graphic novels do, because of the colorful artwork on the cover; but Ellen Forney’s  frank, funny, and painful reckoning with the depression & mania that accompany Bipolar disorder is honest, brave, and thought-provoking.  For the skeptics who doubt that graphic novels can be emotionally complex & deeply moving, try reading Hole in the Heart: Bringing up Beth, a 2016 work of graphic medicine about raising a daughter with Down’s Syndrome.You won’t find a summary of Forney’s autobiographical memoir here: just read it for yourself.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t touched by mental illness in some capacity, either through personal experience or knowing or loving someone who struggles–often silently-with bipolar or another mental illness. Yet it’s still an elephant in the room or–if not an elephant–some other misunderstood creature who looks a lot like your neighbor, sister, boyfriend, or cousin. Forney’s autobiographical sketch even compares identifying people who suffer from bipolar with “outing” someone –the often intentionally cruel practice of shining a light in a calculated way in order to  “expose” someone as unusual or different.  But Marbles is a victory in the fight to de-bunk the myth that people with mental illness are certifiably “crazy”, “scary”, and “dangerous”. A graphic novel like Marbles  is another step in the right direction of normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental illness. These is a genuine, candid representation of mania and depression.

One of the defining themes in this work is the interplay between madness & creativity.  Would treatment of her newly-diagnosed illness hamper her creative energy? Would treatment change or dull her creative identity? It is certainly a terrifying thought to consider that medications may not only not work, but they may change an essential part of who you are–an essential part that you may not want to change.  Forney discovers, like so many others, that should she “join the ranks” of those artists who came before her who also suffered with bipolar disorder (historically referred to as manic depression), she would find herself in good company. Great company, even. Truth be told, there is such comfort to be found in placing yourself along a continuum–of knowing of the others who came before you.  Through the act of reading, Forney also found comfort, reprieve, and solidarity. An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison, for example, is a particular book that was mentioned within the pages of Marbles. Forney does not sugarcoat the profound sense of loneliness she felt as she cycled in and out of mania and depression.

This book will invite you to contemplate the controversial issues surrounding mental illness, including diagnosis (misdiagnosis is notoriously  a major cause of harm and medical error in the united states), medication, other modes of treatment (alternative & complementary therapies such as yoga).  A particularly intriguing insight related to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), a treatment modality that enables people to improve their symptoms by recognizing and challenging or calling-out the negative self-talk cycles that are a cornerstone of mental illness. Although Forney didn’t delve particularly deeply into this aspect of the memoir, it is clearly an essential part of her road to finding balance and stability in her life (and ultimately even coming to terms with wanting to find balance in the first place).  Keep in mind, this graphic memoir never claims to offer medical advice but rather is the testament of the author.

Ultimately, this book highlights Forney’s experience living with bipolar illness in a way that is especially human: raw, passionate, sanguine, and vulnerable. I was heartened by the author’s resolve throughout and by the last page and I think you will be too.

 

 

 

 

 

Octavia Butler’s Kindred


I’m blown away by the sheer density and complexity of this novel for a number of reasons, but I’d have to say Butler’s technique of “layering” is so expertly done as to require multiple readings in order to unpack the story.  In other words, reading Kindred is like cutting into an onion and peeling back layer upon layer to reveal the deep meaning within. One of the more surface-level layers is simply that Butler–the first black, female author to write a science-fiction novel–has written a book about a black, female writer who is, in essence, writing, or rather, –re-writing–history and her future.

By definition, “kindred” means to be “connected” or “related to” and maybe most obviously would connote family relationships and ties. Yet, the first mentioning of the word is a departure from that obvious definition and appears early in the book on page 57 when the main protagonist, Dana, describes her white husband, Kevin: “He was like me–a kindred spirit crazy enough to keep on trying.” The statement is both double-entendre and a foreshadowing of things to come: you must be tenacious enough to pursue the life of a writer, bold enough to disrupt the status quo, and crazy enough to keep on trying.

Dana likens the job market in 1976 Los Angeles to a “slave market”, a clear juxtaposition to the literal slave market where Dana and Kevin are mysteriously transported via time-travel. Here, in the 19th century antebellum south, Dana confronts her familial past where American slavery and the promise of freedom are as inextricably linked as black & white identities.  Will Dana’s time-travels allow her to change the course of history and influence Rufus, son of a slave owner & blood-relative of her great great grandmother, whom she is called upon to save time and again? How will Rufus and Dana embody or challenge the systems of institutionalized racism they were born into? It is absolutely remarkable how Butler masterfully stacks layer upon layer to build characters as complex and enmeshed as our troubled and not-so-distant history of slavery and racism in the United States.

Thematically, Kindred is incredibly dense and complex, but I’ll focus on the theme of “performance” or “acting one’s part” that permeates the entire novel.  In several scenes, characters must “perform” their respective “roles” unless they want to suffer the consequences of falling out of line. Time-travel itself is a brilliant way to point out how racism is a construct and not the natural order.  Should we really require the passing of time in order to recognize and challenge systems of power & oppression?

When Dana brings Kevin to the plantation with her on her second journey back through time and space (she merely has to be physically holding onto him in order to transport him with her), she assumes the role of his slave as a matter of survival.  Kevin, of course reluctant to perform his assigned role as her “owner” accepts the painful challenge in order to protect his beloved wife. That Dana even needs protecting in this way brilliantly exposes and lays bare additional gender and sexuality constructs, another way Butler will craft a specific narrative in order to question it with a critical eye. But maybe one of the not-so-obvious questions is: Who, exactly, is assigning these roles, and why, and to whose benefit?  If we ourselves do not choose the role we are expected to play or act out, what are the implications when we are complicit in carrying out the performance? If refusal to play your role could get you killed (although Dana points out that “some fates are worse than death”),what is the best method for positively effecting change? Some characters in Kindred play their parts–worn down over time and physically beaten down–while others refuse to act: one standout character, Alice, asks “Am I a slave?” and ultimately attempts to break free.

Kindred is the kind of book that will stay with you, I am of sure. The complexity and depth of characters will challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and do something that great books make you do: contemplate, sympathize, connect. I had some powerful emotional responses while reading this book which is exactly why I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in what it means to be human.