Edited by: Zenya Siyad
Sometimes, we read things that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, we read things that make us feel like something is very very wrong, that make us pace up and down in agitation. Sometimes, we read things that creep up on us when we’re alone, an insidious presence that settles itself within, making us doubt ourselves, our actions, our lives. Sometimes, we read things that make us want to put down the book and banish it from our sight forever. The question I’m asking is, should we put down that book? Should we turn away from the things that make our skin itch and our brains revolt? Or is there merit to fighting that impulse and continuing? I think there is.
As a third-year English Literature major, I’ve encountered many texts over the course of my college career that have invoked in me all of the feelings I’ve just described to you and more. The visceral physical reactions, the deep sense of wrongness, the reluctance to delve further—these are all legitimate responses to have. Very often I find that these are all also very important reactions to have; they not only tell you something about what you’re reading, they also reveal to you things about yourself. Encountering discomfort in literature is uneasy, awkward, anxiety-inducing, but it is also an opportunity. Examining that discomfort—thinking about what it is, how it happens, why it happens—can lead you to some insightful conclusions that, at the very least, enhance your reading experience and, at their best, can change the way you view the world around you.
Although I have used discomfort as a blanket term, not all discomfort is the same. I want to be absolutely clear here in saying that by uncomfortable literature I don’t mean writing that can be triggering—that goes beyond and enters the territory of trauma. I don’t think one should attempt to read work that may be harmful to them simply for the sake of thinking about its effects. By discomfort, I mean a general feeling of being bothered or disturbed by a piece of literature, texts that trouble you. These things can be familiar or unfamiliar to us, or maybe even be a combination of the two. It is the blurring of these distinctions that causes our discomfort—the most familiar actions can be twisted into something unfamiliar and situations that are alien to our lives can seem to have uncomfortably close resonances with our own experiences.
When I was in my first semester of college I read Vivek Shanbagh’s Ghachar Ghochar, an excellent read that I’ve gone back to many times since. The novel in its entirety is a study in discomfort, but there is one section in particular that sticks in my memory. The protagonist talks about how, in his childhood, his family’s home had an ant problem. He describes, in excruciating detail, the waging of war on these creatures—the crushing and the trapping and the endless usage of pesticide. He tells us about the sick pleasure he got from killing the ants, watching their little bodies die. It’s a deeply unsettling thing to read because it speaks about an attitude that we all know intimately. As children, we’ve all enacted harm on ants, bugs, or creatures that are weaker than us. It’s the kind of casual violence that we tend to forget but seeing it on the page reminds us, the readers, that we were once the protagonist. It engenders a kind of discomfort with oneself, like zooming in on a picture and realising that what appears to be perfect is actually grainy, bumpy, messy.
Not all disquieting literature, however, is so closely associated with the self. Leila Slimani’s Lullaby is a great example of a story that is both connected to oneself and yet so removed. The book begins with the news of the death of two young children who were murdered by their nanny. The very idea that a nanny, a caretaker of children, could so violently treat her wards is perturbing. It feels almost unnatural for a protector to themselves be the agent of destruction. It makes you think of other such people—mothers, fathers, older siblings, teachers—who are supposed to shelter the innocent and vulnerable but may not always do so. The thought is a scary one and so there is the urge to dismiss it as mere fiction. The discomfort stays though—because you know that it is not untrue, that real-life sometimes (or rather, a lot of times) operates like this. The people in your life, and even you yourself, have the potential to become the nanny who kills and that is the most uneasy thought of all. In this situation, the unfamiliarity with being a nanny doesn’t stop the reader from recognizing that nothing is impossible. Lullaby as a book creates discomfort with people. It tells us that people could be anything, could do anything—they are unpredictable and when pushed to their limits, capable of extreme violence.
Encountering discomfort in literature can be a challenging thing. It can make us confront parts of ourselves that we’ve hidden away, aspects of the world we live in that we’d like to ignore. But perhaps that is exactly why it is important for us to face it. Discomfort forces us to think more deeply about our reality, to have insights and make connections that we didn’t before. It tells us what is wrong with the world and can urge us to try and make it better, in our own way. We can’t, and shouldn’t, be ostriches, sticking our head in the sand while bad things happen around us. We have an obligation to not look away. We as readers are called upon to witness and sometimes also to change those things that cause the discomfort we encounter in literature and I think that is worth considering.