What does a different world feel like? How do we get there?
The protagonist of Pet is 15-year-old Jam, living in post-revolution Lucille.
A little tidbit I learned: Jam’s name is a portmanteau of the Igbo words ja mu, meaning “praise me.wp_postsJam spends her time like most kids her age: at school, hanging out with her best friend Redemption, going to the library, and accidentally summoning an angelic (in the biblically accurate sense) monster hunter, known as Pet.
So, what is a monster? And how do you find one? Jam knows what she’s been told: A monster is someone that hurts others, feeds off hurt, or willfully contributes to it. Problem is, according to the adults in Lucille — especially Jam’s parents Bitter and Aloe — there are no (free) monsters.
Another difficulty is that a monster doesn’t look like anything specific and can be anyone. To see the monster, you have to see the hurt. To see the hurt, you have to be open to seeing what fear and conditioning say to look away from. How do you look at what you’ve been told doesn’t exist? How do you “see” what isn’t real (to you and your society)?
Let me take a step back. If these questions sound familiar, it’s because, despite Pet being placed a few generations past 2022, they’re grappling with a lot of the same problems of this time. Like Jam discovers, it can be a struggle to see the hurt we’re conditioned to think isn’t there.
As children, we’re taught to see the world in this way: With a few rare exceptions, society rewards good. Similarly, Jam is raised to believe that the monsters of her world are gone — rounded up and sent to rehabilitation programs in the revolution that thrust Lucille into a new world. In both cases, what’s being taught isn’t as simple when you look closer.
In our world, societal concepts of what is good, bad, or monstrous are complex. Generally, wealth is a signifier of virtue, yet a majority of the world’s resources and systems are obtained and managed through extractive, oppressive policies and ideologies. The state of global resources makes wealth a poor reflection of virtue since its acquisition is layered in harm.
Next, ideas of beauty and ability are warped to such an extent that people outside of a certain (prejudiced, supremacist) standard are villainized, especially in comparison to people within the standard. What you look like, sound like, or how your brain works are signifiers of monstrosity as much as whether or not you hurt anyone.
Further, the groups of people that are isolated or ostracized from communal and public spaces en masse are disenfranchised and targeted groups — like unhoused people, migrants, and prisoners. These are people who might be hurt or poor or a threat to capitalism, but not necessarily a threat to other humans.
We’re taught to believe we live in a world that rewards good and condemns bad, but much of societal authority is in the hands of hate-mongering, callous people and institutions. The people being punished by society are often the most vulnerable. I find myself asking the same questions as Jam. What is a monster, and how do I see one?
In Jam’s world, it’s difficult for her to find a monster when she has been raised to believe they’re nearly extinct. In our time, it can be difficult to see what is monstrous when monstrous is used as a code for different or targeted, while the people that kill masses of people and cause resource shortages are called leaders and heroes.
Even though the questions are similar between this world and the world of Lucille, the state of the worlds themselves are different.
Jam lives in post-revolution Lucille, a world that human angels, revolutionaries, helped birth through decades of work. “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,” Emezi writes. Jam lives in a world where a whole community made it safe for people to label their hurt and made a commitment to healing and accountability.
Because of their work, toddler Jam is safe enough to announce her gender to her parents and grows up receiving informed and respectful care. The scene where Jam describes her first (and only, she clarifies) tantrum as a toddler — her screaming “girl” at strangers that misgendered her and Aloe (Jam’s dad) comforting her in Igbo — probably did about ten months worth of therapy for my inner child.
I’m grateful to Emezi for the line “people started by believing the victims” to describe the onset of the revolution. That is one way I learned to see. A lot of the work of seeing is internal. For me, it’s difficult to engage with the massive amounts of hurt in this world. It’s painful on my mind, body, and spirit, but with time and patience I’ve learned to broaden and develop my tolerance window.
I think Pet put it best: “the truth does not change whether it is seen or unseen … a thing that is happening happens whether you look at it or not … maybe it is easier not to look. Maybe it is easier to say because you do not see it, it is not happening.” But it is happening, and I found that I couldn’t tell myself otherwise without either going numb to what I’m feeling or engaging in some sort of cognitive dissonance.
I know and understand the “science” that justifies the state of the world and capitalism, but it doesn’t make any sense that billionaires exist while people go without food. It doesn’t make any sense that so much of my community works eleventeen jobs only to barely afford rent (if that).
It’s incomprehensible that the United States, Canada, and countries within the EU account for over 25 percent of global CO2 emissions (in comparison, the entirety of Africa and South America contribute about seven percent), yet the governments and some citizens of these regions show ambivalence and a lack of responsibility to the people displaced and dispossessed by climate change.
Within the United States, the people struggling with the impacts of climate change, natural disasters, and government negligence are, once again, targeted classes. It’s overwhelming that so many of us (globally) are struggling, systemically, individually, on all levels. So I also have to work to remember that despair is not a resting place for the heart.
I can’t allow numbness — a useful coping skill when I’m overwhelmed — to become my primary state of being either.
Why? A lot rides on our collective numbness.
Being numb can mean being numb to hope, a vital ingredient to charge a revolution. A new world isn’t possible without people believing it is. It’s part of why artists are so important. Art can channel faith; it can make something real from a possibility.
It matters to move beyond numbness and feel, because belief can be action, but belief is also a feeling. “Believe victims” includes feeling and tending to the hurt that is easier to block out. This includes other people’s hurt and your own.
A part of learning to see hurt is feeling it. Another part is information. As Redemption would say, “all knowledge is good knowledge!”
On their quest to find a monster, Jam and Redemption discover that information can, with the right application, give you the tools to see the truth — ot just disseminated knowledge from institutions, but the stories of our communities. We can listen, validate, and amplify each other’s voices — including our own.
For instance, it was healing (and therefore empowering) for me to learn the ways that depression, anxiety, and chronic pain can feel like failure.
A lot changed in my relationship with myself when I started asking: Are you failing or are you hurting? My misplaced blame was preventing me from tending to myself. Blame felt easier to manage than hurt, but no amount of blame can heal a wound. Blaming myself for feeling hurt led to me blaming myself for other people hurting me, which disconnected me from my ability to direct my healing.
Things like accountability and healing aren’t actions; they’re skills to be built. It takes energy to blame myself the way I was. Energy that could be better spent learning to recognize feelings of hurt in myself and differentiate my triggers. I say “better spentwp_postsbecause when I’m in a blame cycle, I’m distressed, but healing brings peace. Even more, healing is a thing that spreads.
A world where we believe victims and hold people accountable for the harm they inflict is also a world where we allow ourselves to feel our hurt and respond to hurt with care. There is no end to this commitment. Healing isn’t finite.
Even in Jam’s world — with the revolution and its angels fresh on the minds of the adults — people still choose to look away from what they see. The commitment to communal healing and accountability isn’t one and done, but ongoing.
The possibilities Emezi presents in post-revolution Lucille include a world where people fight to do the difficult work necessary to maintain systems of care. Accountability is a significant part of care. If we ever do say “there are no more monsters,” let it not be because we won’t look.
The world of Bitter, which takes place a few decades before Pet, sees Lucille still led by monsters but thrumming with a revolution ready to change that. In the midst of this are the students of Eucalyptus, an academy that shelters talented youth, and among them 16-year-old Bitter, who has no intention of ever leaving Eucalyptus, the school that offered her shelter and the space and resources to paint.
Most of her life, Bitter only had the comfort of her painted creatures, which she’s able to temporarily bring to life. Eucalyptus offers her something new and more constant than she’s ever had: family. People who love and challenge her — and don’t disappear after a few hours.
Bitter wants to be safe behind the walls of Eucalyptus, but she wrestles with this decision as the fires in the streets of Lucille rage and the bodies pile up.
In our world, as the fires of revolution rage globally, a lot of us are relatively (if not completely) sheltered from the risks of the frontline. Bitter’s engagement with her responsibility during the revolution resonates with me, especially as an artist living within a violent empire.
Is there a role for art in the revolution? Bitter — the book and its titular character — explores this question. Bitter finds that no revolution worth fighting demands everyone to sacrifice their lives at the frontlines. The kids from Assata, the revolutionary group behind a lot of Lucille’s direct action, teach Bitter that rather than wanting her and everyone to fight on the frontlines, they’re fighting for more people to get to choose to do art or whatever feeds their soul. And there are more ways to help than being on the frontlines.
I enjoyed reading about the people that became known as angels, especially seeing Bitter, Aloe, and other residents of Lucille that show up in Pet. A lot of the bonds being formed in Bitter — bonds of love — are what gives them strength. They fight for and with each other.
The Gwendolyn Brooks quote that resonates through Pet and Bitter — “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond” — perfectly captures the heart of Assata. Their fight isn’t one that sacrifices the well being of their community in the pressure to birth a different world. They become the new world by choosing to show up with each other differently.
A conversation in Bitter and Pet that was striking to me was the one around fear. The angels say not to be afraid, and both Bitter and Jam see their fear as something to be ashamed of, but I think fear has a bad rep.
At many points, Bitter blames her fear for her struggles, but when the whole story is looked at in context, it’s not Bitter’s fear that’s her problem. It’s the difficulty of accepting her fear that creates a blockage. Bitter numbed herself to a lot of feelings and isolated herself because she was ashamed of her fear. When her community holds that fear without judgment, and gives her the care she doesn’t know how to give herself, she’s able to move through her fear.
It’s not that Bitter stops being afraid; it’s that she builds up her tolerance and does the work to move through the defensive walls of her judgment toward the Assata kids, subsequently feeling things beyond her fear. Plus, her community helps her carry what she cannot. Bitter practices the discipline of hope, and she comes out stronger for it.
She learns to fight anything that says a new world isn’t possible or feeds apathy. To listen and find the hurting thing, even if that thing was herself.
It makes sense how the kids of Lucille brought forth the revolution since they work to do the internal healing the new world needed.
Still, their fear is enough to allow them to once again turn away from the presence of monsters. It’s Jam that follows the trail in Pet even though the adults have more experience. This shows, to me, that it’s necessary to heal the common narrative that fear is something to be conquered.
Jam is also scared and, like Bitter, she resents herself for it. But her fear isn’t stronger than her love for Redemption, and focusing on that allows her to move through her fear. Jam doesn’t ever stop being scared. She just doesn’t stop at fear, and neither does Bitter.
Fear can be a stopping force, which makes it easy to reject the emotion, but I think fear is a part of love. Rather than rejecting or feeling less, we can feel more. We can learn to transmute fear into hope, to increase our tolerance, and to feel things that allow us not to stop at fear. I think all of these things are necessary for the kind of world Emezi makes possible in Pet.
In both Pet and Bitter, Emezi doesn’t shy away from the costs of a new world, but the possibilities presented by those costs are tantalizing. Emezi shows that no matter what world we find ourselves in, we often have the choice to show up for each other and ourselves.
Together, maybe we can create a world where kids have to learn about monsters secondhand.
Pet and Bitter are dedicated to Toyin Salau, who deserved a better world.
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.