Stories, Monsters & Anti-racism
“There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.”
This is the first line of Pet, a young adult book by Akwaeke Emezi. It is the story of Jam, a teenage girl, and a creature called Pet, who has crossed worlds to hunt a monster in a place called Lucille. But there shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille, so Jam struggles to believe it when Pet tells her that there is a monster in her best friend’s house.
I read this book earlier this year and it has stuck firmly in my mind. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read. It is astonishing, brilliant and devastatingly important. And I wanted to write about it here in relation to the events of the last few weeks.
Pet isn’t explicitly about racism and it isn’t explicitly about police brutality. It is about monsters, angels, rehabilitation, friendship and seeing the unseen. It is about how evil thrives when people refuse to see it or to admit it exists. It is about bravery and justice.
The murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May has triggered a wave of ongoing worldwide protests not only against police brutality but also against the systemic racism embedded in our societies. The Black Lives Matter movement fights for equality and against racial injustice. It is a fight we should all be part of.
This paragraph is from the beginning of Pet.
“The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down those horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people. The angels believed and the people agreed that there was a good amount of proper and deserved shame in history and some things were just never going to be things to be proud of. Instead, they put up other monuments.”
What Akwaeke Emezi wrote about in Pet is happening across the UK. In Bristol, a statue of Edward Colston was toppled and pushed into a river. Edward Colston traded thousands of enslaved people across the Atlantic, many of whom died en route. There is proper and deserved shame in this history. In removing this statue, a space is carved out for someone else’s story to be seen. Yet some people and politicians feel that removing statues such as this one will erase our history.
You might have heard the word herstory before. It is a response to the fact that his-story has been written by men, women have been written out of it over and over again (how many statues of women do you walk past?). And the men who have written history, who have told their version of events which we are still taught in school, are white. The word “marginalised” means pushed to the margins. This is a good word to think of when you imagine a history book and consider whose stories aren’t being told. The Black Curriculum is doing incredible work to change this. Let’s work towards a world where the statues in our towns and cities tell stories we are all proud of.
In Pet, Jam is reluctant to hunt the monster in her best friend’s house. She doesn’t want to believe the monster is real. Pet tells her…
“The truth does not change whether it is seen or unseen, it whispered in her mind. A thing that is happening happens whether you look at it or not. And yes, maybe it is easier not to look. Maybe it is easier to say because you do not see it, it is not happening.”
It is not always easy to look at something painful, something upsetting or something that makes you feel uncomfortable. But, as Pet says, not looking won’t make it go away. In fact, that way it will continue unchallenged and grow stronger.
Pet taught Jam to question what she had been told, and that’s what we must do. We must question the stories we have been told, to question the language of the news headlines. We must look at them, shake them out, find out who’s telling them and what is missing.
Why, what, how, who, when, why, but what about…?
Questions are vital. Children and young people are filled with questions. Don’t stop asking them. These are a source of strength; they are powerful.
Jam is a Black trans girl, she is young and she is brave. She is brave enough to speak up when something is wrong. She’s brave enough to stare the unseen right in the eye, and to admit that monsters exist but that she does not need to be afraid of them. I learned a lot from her and from this story and I encourage you to read it.
“The revolution had been slow and ponderous, but it had weight, and that weight built up a momentum, and when that momentum finally broke forth, it was with a great and accumulated force.”
So what to do? Begin with stories and conversation. Chat to your friends over lunch and explore your local library. You might like to begin with Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. Get in touch for more reading suggestions and let me know what you’re reading.
Fill your pockets with questions and use them. Look at the stories you are told. Is your story missing? Is your friend’s story missing? Write it back in.
Walk around your city, your village, down your street. What do the statues around you commemorate. Whose stories are held up, and whose are forgotten?
In 5 years time, whose stories would you like to be celebrated in the streets around you?