Book Review: Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy

“To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps. Not even the ones holding betting slips, the ones who are usually beyond caring. Possibly because they know me from the Hob, or knew my father, or have encountered Prim, who no one can help loving. So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.

Then something unexpected happens. At least, don’t expect it because I don’t think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim’s place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.” (Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games)[1]

About a year ago, I finished reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, one of the popular young adult dystopian series of recent years. Though it was originally published from 2008 to 2010, I read it after all the books had been released. I decided I should finally write a review and have decided to review the entire trilogy in one essay.

Our main character and narrator is Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old teenager living in District 12 of Panem. The Capitol rules Panem and suppresses most of the population, with the exception of a select few who live in luxury. Most of the people in the Capitol and each district never meet anyone from a different area of Panem, and all they have is partial (and sometimes inaccurate) information about what happens outside of their own homes. Twelve is a coal mining district and many of the people who live there are very poor, especially those who live in the area called the Seam, including Katniss’s family. Katniss lives with her mother and her twelve-year-old sister Primrose; her father died when she was eleven years old, before the beginning of the story, in a coal mining accident. Katniss is friends with eighteen-year-old Gale Hawthorne, who lives with his mother and three siblings, and who also lost his father in the same mining accident. Katniss and Gale help to support their families after the deaths of their fathers. They go hunting together to provide food for their families and sell some of the meat on the local illegal market at the Hob. Generally, they are trying to survive in desperate circumstances and are incredibly loyal to their loved ones.

At the beginning of the first novel The Hunger Games, it is reaping day. As part of its authoritarian rule over the districts, the Capitol forces its citizens to participate in a brutal yearly event called The Hunger Games. Each of the twelve districts must send two child tributes (one girl and one boy, between the ages of 12 and 18) to participate in The Hunger Games, which is a fight to the death in which only one person can survive. Tributes are selected at the reaping ceremony, by pulling out a name each from two glass balls. Older children have their names on more slips of paper than younger kids, because one slip is added for each year they are within the age range. Since a person can get tesserae (rations of grain and oil) for their family members by adding their name more times, children from poorer families often have their name entered many more times (and are therefore more likely to be chosen) than those from wealthier families. Both Katniss and Gale have entered their names more times in order to get tesserae for their families; at the beginning of the first novel, Katniss’s name is entered twenty times and Gale’s is entered forty-two times. On reaping day, against the odds, Katniss’s younger sister Prim (whose name was entered once, as required, with no extra entries) is chosen as the female tribute. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark. Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place, because she knows that Prim will almost certainly die if she goes into the arena. Katniss and Peeta, along with the twenty-two tributes from the other eleven districts, are taken away from their homes to participate in the 74th Hunger Games.

When I started reading the series, I was absolutely amazed and pulled into the story. Have you ever read a book that made you want to cry, that made you feel ill because you could recognize the horrors described in the story in your own world? And have ever felt that, perhaps, you (or your demographic) are in some way more like those who are more privileged in the story, that others are treated badly while you are encouraged by Capitol-like governments to look down on others? There are certain standout books which meet this description, and the novels in The Hunger Games trilogy are among them. Right from the beginning, I think Collins does a good job of describing how growing up in the poorest section of one of the poorest districts, under the rule of an authoritarian government, has affected Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones. Readers feel empathy for the characters, recognizing that sometimes they have to break the rules in order to just get by.

During the Games, the tributes are in a horrific situation in which they must kill or be killed. The horrors are described quite clearly, but we unfortunately do not get to know many of the tributes very well. The Games are designed in a way that discourages attempts to disobey the rules by refusing to participate in the fighting; if a tribute tries to stay out of the fighting, the arena has certain technology to change the environment in a way that puts them in danger or forces them to move closer to each other.

Meanwhile, there are cameras everywhere, recording the event in the arena and broadcasting it to all of Panem. Though we read the story from Katniss’s point of view, her narration gives us information about what is probably going on, based on her experience watching the Games in past years and her experience talking wither others while preparing for the Games. People are forced to watch, and family members of the tributes obviously worry about them. Some of the people in the Capitol, who don’t know anyone who’s in the arena, see it as an enjoyable show, and it’s strongly implied that the government uses these kinds of events (as well as the various luxuries available to the people in the Capitol) to keep the population complacent. They are encouraged to enjoy the show. (Readers find out later, in the third book, that the name Panem is taken from the Latin phrase “panem et circenses”[2] from Juvenal’s Satire X.[3] Plutarch Heavensbee uses this phrase when describing the people of the Capitol, telling Katniss, “It’s a saying from thousands of years ago, written in a language called Latin about a place called Rome. […] Panem et Circenses translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”[4]) It’s an indictment of a culture which tells a select few to be unconcerned about the rest of the population, placing their own comfort and luxuries above the needs and rights of others. It is a critique of a society in which the pain inflicted on certain people, especially the poor, is seen as justified both as perpetual punishment for actions of their ancestors and as entertainment for the few privileged people. There are many times in the first book, as well as throughout the series, when readers are reminded of our own society and recognize, with a sickening dread, the familiarities between our world and Panem.

Amidst the horror, there are some great moments of friendship and comraderie. The friendship between Katniss and Gale is great; we see how they have grown close while hunting together over the years and how dedicated they are to their families. When Katniss is being sent to the Hunger Games, she feel reassured that her family will be fine, because she knows Gale will help take care of them. Katniss’s love for and concern for her sister is very touching right from the start, as Katniss volunteers to be a tribute in her sister’s place; that passage nearly brought me to tears. In the arena, Katniss works together with and befriends Rue, one of the tributes from District Eleven. Rue is the youngest tribute and reminds Katniss of her sister; she is intelligent and resourceful, managing to survive despite her age. Rue is surprised that Katniss wants to be allies with her, but they become friends and help each other. It’s one of the most touching parts of the book, and another one which made me tear up.

One element which I didn’t like in the series was the way Katniss and Peeta’s relationship was handled; I think it could have been done a little differently to show the oppressive nature of the society. There are sections of the book in which Katniss and Peeta are pretending to be together in order to gain fans and donors, but their romance eventually becomes a real one. I think that if their romance had been completely false, a show for the cameras (instead of turning into an actual romance), the point about the controlling nature of this society would have been made even more effectively. It also might have prevented the series from inadequately addressing some other important themes as the story continues.

The writing in the book is very effective in conveying the development of the main characters and the situations. I generally think that first-person narration is difficult to do well, but Collins manages to tell the story in a way which makes readers sympathize with the characters and feel the gravity of the danger they are in. This is less true for some of the secondary characters; a reader who tries to imagine the story from the point of view of secondary characters may gain some understanding of them, but there is not a lot of character development for them, especially as the story continues and more characters are introduced in the later books. The first two books were quick reads, though I did pause in my reading for a bit in the middle of the third book.

The second of the series is Catching Fire, and this is one of those rare trilogies in which I think that the second book is just as good as, and maybe even a little better than, the first one. The 75th Hunger Games are what’s called a Quarter Quell, and the Quarter Quell Games have some element that is different from the regular Games. In the 75th, the different element is that the rule which protects previous victors from being tributes again is changed, inverted; instead, all the tributes are chosen from previous victors of the Games.

The second book could very easily have felt like a repeat of the first, with tributes in the arena again, but Collins skillfully avoids that trap. Because the tributes are previous victors, they have a different perspective on the Hunger Games, having survived them before. They are traumatized by their previous experience in the Games. The arena design is an ingenious puzzle and also unspeakably cruel. The tributes try to work together and figure out a way to escape from the game instead of participating in it. What really stands out in this book is the feeling that a rebellion is about to begin, with hints that people are secretly working against the Capitol, even though our main character doesn’t have all the information at first. The book ends with a devastating revelation.

The third of the series Mockingjay takes a turn that makes it different from the other two. The first two books centered on Katniss’s participation in The Hunger Games, with the inklings of rebellion in the background. In the third book, the rebellion is under way, and there are many people with their own motivations participating in it. Katniss, who had become a symbol of rebellion during the first two books, now becomes the official symbol used by the rebellion in media to convince people to join the fight. She knows she is being manipulated and is trying to figure out what to do.

There are certain moral dilemmas brought up as the rebellion is underway. One of these is the question of which military tactics are justified when fighting in a rebellion, and if there is a point at which the actions of the rebellion become just as inhumane and unjustified as the actions of the authoritarian government they are trying to overthrow. This causes a rift between Katniss and her long-time friend Gale, who believes that using certain military tactics and weaponry which will cause more collateral damage is justified. Related to this is the question of whether the people leading the rebellion will be just as ruthless as the current leaders when they take over the government. As Katniss realizes that she’s being manipulated by the people leading the rebellion, she doubts that the rebellion will actually cause things to improve in Panem or just replace one authoritarian government with another one.

The story also shows how the people who participated in the Hunger Games and the war are personally affected by it, especially Katniss and some fellow former tributes. We see how Katniss has been affected by her experiences as she struggles to deal with her memories and emotions throughout the books. In her conversations with fellow tributes, she hears about their experiences and how they are trying to come to terms with what they’ve been through. They are often reminded of being captured, manipulated, and tortured by the Capitol government. Everyone is haunted by their memories, and their stories are heartbreaking to read about.

The ending of the story reminded me of a lesson I learned from one of my teachers in high school about the classic dystopian books: sometimes, the unhappy ending is the point. There is no glorious victory of happily ever after; there is only the horror and the characters trying to deal with it. Although the ending of The Hunger Games trilogy superficially resembles a happy ending (the main character being together with her love interest and them having kids together) it’s intended to show the long-lasting effects of being through the kind of horrors that the characters have experienced.

My main criticism was the way that the last book, by focusing on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, didn’t further develop the other themes that were in the story. (Always having been frustrated at the way the romance element was handled in the stories, it frustrated me even more when it took center stage at moments when it seemed more relevant to focus on other events and themes.) Katniss, our heroine, seems to become a minor character in her own story. Part of this is intentional, in order to show how various people are trying to manipulate her and the rebellion. Part of it, however, is due to the overemphasis on romance and the attempts to tie up various plotlines too quickly (with Katniss finding out what happened after the fact). A factor which contributed to the story being rushed at the end is that the third book is about the same length as the first two but contains much more content. There are various characters (from the various districts and the Capitol) who I wanted to get to know better, not only because they were interesting but because their perspective would have added depth and nuance to the attempted critique of the society. The overall effect of the third book is that the themes that are introduced are not adequately addressed.

Overall, I really enjoyed the series, and I think it is an effective critique of some of the problems in human societies. It’s a story about kids and teenagers who are thrown into a vicious game, but the message is broader, addressing the cruelty of the society in which they live. The message of the series is very memorable and has emotional impact; however, due to the lack of development of the world and secondary characters and lack of follow-up on some of the themes, I don’t think some elements of the story could have been written better. For its willingness to depict the problems of a society, rather than just being a violent action story with no message, I think it’s worth a read.



[1] Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008, Ch 2, p. 23-4. Print.

[2] “Bread and circuses”. Entry at Wikipedia. Retrieved on 17 April 2014 from

[3] “Satire X: Wrong Desire is the Source of Suffering”. Subheading under: “Satires of Juvenal”. Wikipedia Entry. Retrieved 17 April 2014 from

[4] Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic, 2010, Ch 16, p. 223. Print.

Book Review: Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (with Art by Ellen Forney)

“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” (Junior in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)[1]

“It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” (Junior in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)[2]

Last year, for Banned Books Week,[3] I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, illustrated by Ellen Forney. The book is fictional, but semi-autobiographical, partly based on Alexie’s experiences growing up at the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit and deciding to leave the reservation to attend Reardan High School. The book is dedicated to “For Wellpinit and Reardan, my hometowns”. I really enjoyed this book, and so I decided it was about time that I wrote a review.

The narrator of the book is fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit Jr., more commonly known as “Junior”. He lives at the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington with his family (mother Agnes, father Arnold, Grandmother Spirit, and older sister Mary). He is often bullied because of his medical conditions, but has one friend named Rowdy. Junior has just started high school and is really excited about his geometry class. On the first day of school, when his teacher Mr. P is handing out textbooks, Junior notices that the textbook he’s been given is the same one his mother used when she was at school (due to the poverty and lack of resources on the reservation). Junior angrily throws the book, and it hits Mr. P. After the resulting conversation with the teacher (who feels guilty for the way that he and the other teachers have mistreated and abused Native American students) Junior decides to transfer to nearby Reardan High School, where he hopes he will have opportunities he doesn’t have on the reservation.

Junior is an aspiring cartoonist, and both the first-person writing and artwork in the book convey his personality really well. The book manages to be hilarious, even while discussing serious topics, because of Junior’s sense of humor. The text and illustrations show that he is acutely aware of the problems in life and is using his talents to express his thoughts about them. Forney’s illustrations show Junior’s drawings, which definitely add to the novel, working well together with the text to display Junior’s observations about life. All of the illustrations are excellent, but two that have stayed in my mind are one showing what his parents could have been if people had believed in their dreams[4] and another showing the kinds of excuses that he’s had to make up when he couldn’t afford to participate in some activities with classmates.[5] Junior doesn’t fall for the deception that things will get magically better, but neither does he completely give up on the dreams that he hopes will lead him to a better future. He struggles to keep up hope, because he knows that the world is not a just place. He’s trying to figure things out, like so many of us are, and he has the honesty and humor to make the story a fascinating read.

The book addresses many issues, including racism against Native Americans, poverty, alcoholism, abuse, and death. Junior’s family is very poor, and the reservation does not have a lot of resources. There are several deaths in the book (both characters who die during the course of the book and characters who are mentioned as having died in the past). The father of Junior’s best friend Rowdy is abusive. Junior struggles to figure out how to be a “part-time Indian” as he faces discrimination at Reardan High School and accusations of betraying his tribe from some Spokane Indians at the reservation. The book shows how someone who tries to escape from poverty and find opportunities that have been systematically taken away from people of their race will face obstacles in all directions, sometimes feeling that they will be criticized no matter what they do. Some of the issues are addressed more in depth than others, leaving some topics that could have been expanded on further, but overall the book doesn’t shy away from many of the very difficult issues that children and teenagers have to deal with despite their young age. Ultimately, Junior’s story is a compelling read, and I got through the book very quickly, wanting to know what happens to our narrator and the other people in his life. I immediately wanted to encourage him as he struggles to have hope for a better future despite the bad things that keep happening to and around him. The story portrays the horrors that happen in life, but also shows that people try to keep going despite being discouraged over and over again.

There has been controversy about the book, which is how it earned its place on the list of “Frequently challenged books of the 21st century”.[6] In response to the controversy, Alexie wrote the article “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”. In the article, he points out that there are kids and teenagers who have already experienced horrific things in their lives and reading books is what give them hope. He writes, “And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because the live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books—especially the dark and dangerous ones—will save them.” Of his own writing, he states, “And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons—in the form of words and ideas—that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”[7] The article is well worth the read and a great companion to the book.

This really is a great book. It’s a story showing real-world problems that many people face, even if they are not in exactly the same situation as Junior. It’s a book that can make readers feel like laughing and crying at the same time. I definitely recommend reading it.



Banned Books Week 2014 is from 21 September to 27 September. I encourage everyone to consider taking a look at the American Library Association’s Banned Books section[8] and choosing a book to read for the event.



[1] Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007, p. 6.

[2] Alexie, True Diary, p. 13

[3] The Banned Books Week website can be found at

[4] Forney, Ellen. “Who My Parents Would Have Been If Somebody Had Paid Attention To Their Dreams”. Illustration. In: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007, p. 12.

[5] Forney, Ellen. “How to Pretend You’re Not Poor”. Illustration. In: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007, p. 120.

[6] American Library Association. “Frequently challenged books of the 21st century”. Retrieved on 1 April 2014 from

[7] Alexie, Sherman. “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”. Posted on 9 June 2011 at The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on 7 April 2014 from

[8] The Banned Books section of the American Library Association website can be found at

On Discussing the Hijab and Including Ex-Muslims

Recently, various secular and ex-Muslim websites have been sharing a four-part series on the hijab over at Valerie Tarico’s blog. After a good introduction to the issue and the disagreements about it,[1] the series includes interviews with three ex-Muslims who used to wear hijab: Marwa Berro,[2] Reem Adbel-Razek,[3] and Heina Dadabhoy.[4] These interviews were a follow-up to an earlier article by Valerie Tarico about whether the hijab is a symbol of diversity or oppression.[5] In response to the first article, Berro had contacted Tarico and suggested that she should speak with ex-Muslim women who had worn hijab, since the original article had excluded women. After the interviews, Marwa Berro wrote a follow-up piece about the importance of including ex-Muslim women in discussion about Islam. She points out that those who defend hijab have their voices heard while ex-Muslims who criticize hijab are underrepresented and excluded from the conversation.[6] I’ve written about religious dress codes in the past, including some of my own experiences.[7] I want to add some more thoughts on this issue here.

In discussions about the hijab and other topics related to gender equality and Islam, there are certain common tropes and arguments that bother me due to their inaccuracy or exclusion of certain people’s experiences. Even among the arguments of those who care about equal rights, and who I usually think make good points, I’ve seen some of these same problems. I’ve repeatedly seen a certain trope around, in various forms (e.g. articles, cartoons, comments) which implies that white non-Muslims (especially “white feminists”) are the ones who wrongly see the hijab as oppressive and are misguided in their attempts to liberate Muslim women from it. Well-intentioned though these types of posts often are (aiming to tell non-Muslim feminists to be understanding of Muslim women), they become very frustrating, as they repeatedly exclude the voice of both Muslims and ex-Muslims who do find the hijab oppressive, based on their actual experiences of being forced to wear it and other sexist expectations that were placed on them. Marwa Berro wrote an excellent response to one such cartoon that misrepresented opposition to the hijab and was insulting to women who don’t have a choice in the matter.[8] I came across another one of these types of cartoons recently on Tumblr, where I reblogged it and added a short comment about the fact that there are Muslims and ex-Muslims who also see hijab as oppressive.[9] These were just a couple of the latest examples of an argument I frequently see in slightly varied forms.

As I mentioned before when I wrote about religious dress codes, part of the problem is that the more socially-conservative Muslims have a certain hegemony in the Muslim community. This extends to them being considered the authentic voices to speak on behalf of the Muslim community. So, when people want to hear from Muslims, they often end up hearing from the most socially-conservative Muslims, who are all too happy to encourage the view that they are the real Muslims who represent the real interpretation of Islam. Muslims who favor hijab are quick to reassure non-Muslims that they wear the hijab by choice and downplay the concerns of Muslims and ex-Muslims who were forced to wear it. And so, the hijab has (somewhat annoyingly, to me) become a symbol for Islam, not just for conservative Muslims, but also for non-Muslims who want to show that they are being inclusive. In the essay that preceded the interviews, Valerie Tarico discussed Coca-Cola’s recent Super Bowl XLVIII advertisement. Though I generally really loved the advertisement for being inclusive and showing the diversity of the United States, I also noticed that it was yet another example of media in which showing a woman in hijab was used as shorthand for being inclusive of Muslims and therefore supportive of diversity. I find this shorthand frustrating when so many of us have experienced it at a tool of uniformity, to suppressive diversity in the choices women have. This is not to say that women wearing hijab should not be included; they definitely should, but they should not be the only representation of Muslim women or used as a short-hand to show how diverse one is being. It’s understandable for a commercial to use such a short-hand, but it becomes frustrating when hijab becomes synonymous with Muslim women despite the fact that there are many who disagree with it.

Arguments by non-Muslims that defend hijab have become a repetitive and formulaic, almost never taking into consideration the experiences of those who were forced to wear it. In their attempts to argue against anti-Muslim bigotry, they end up exclusively only defending the most socially-conservative Muslims and rarely addressing Muslim bigotry against women and other minorities. This always seems weird to me, considering that non-Muslim feminists frequently challenge sexist clothing expectations that are placed on them, but some have fallen for the deception by conservative Muslims that those who challenge sexist clothing expectations in Islam are wrong to do so. It should not be surprising that there are Muslims and ex-Muslims who find the sexist dress expectations to be oppressive, nor should it be surprising that there are those of us who wish to argue against these sexist expectations. Criticizing sexism within one’s own culture shouldn’t be forbidden, even though people in each culture will claim that their culture is the exception, so that their own beliefs and traditions remain unchallenged.

In attempts to protect certain conservative interpretations of Muslim culture, there is an unfair double standard in which Muslims are encouraged to speak up and work together with others and which are discouraged from doing so. In the views of some who say they favor equal rights, non-Muslims defending Muslims who favor hijab is inclusive and intersectional feminism, but non-Muslims defending Muslims who are against hijab is imperialistic and intolerant. In other words, pro-hijab Muslims can make alliances with non-Muslims to gain allies and get a louder voice for their views, but if anti-hijab Muslims and ex-Muslims make alliances with non-Muslims, then we’re accused of being brainwashed by the West. Culture[10] is brought up as some kind of magical safeguard to defend Islam from criticism, as though all people from any one religion or country or race should have the same views about culture and tradition, even though that’s never been the case.

Among those who say they favor equal rights, there’s an automatic negative response to any criticism of the hijab, regardless of whether the person who wrote the critical work being discussed was motivated by discrimination against Muslims or if they were motivated by a genuine concern for equal rights for Muslim women who are forced to wear it. Part of this is due to the very important concern about concern about discrimination against Muslims, and the concern that any criticism of problems within Islam can be used to generalize about Muslims, which can lead to discrimination. After I responded to the above-mentioned cartoon and also posted links to the interviews on my Tumblr,[11] I received a message pointing out that raising awareness about a couple of cases like the ones in the interviews can lead to society making generalizations about hijab being oppressive. As I pointed out in my reply, the opposite also happens; there are people who use individual stories about people who chose to wear hijab to argue that it’s not oppressive and ignore the experiences of those who were forced to wear it.[12] My concern for the ways that valid criticisms of Islam can be misused to advocate discrimination against Muslims was part of the reason why I was hesitant to share my own experiences with Islam and why I would also have an apprehensive reaction about criticisms of Islam, coming as they too often do from people whose ulterior motive is to discriminate against Muslims and not to further equality. However, I ultimately decided that the cost of not criticizing the problems within Islam is too high, and it’s not right to say to marginalized people within Islam that their rights matter less than those of the Muslims who have more power and influence within the religion. It’s more consistent to be against discrimination in the many different forms in which it manifests.

In these discussions, of course, we all have a personal view on the hijab and a certain part of the argument that we may emphasize. I often see comments saying something along the lines of the following: Of course, we are against discrimination and forcing women to wear hijab, but it’s also wrong to force women to not wear it if they want to. Following this is often a defense only of women who wear hijab, while ignoring women being forced to wear it. Being inclusive of Muslim women who wear hijab is considered the equivalent of being inclusive of all Muslim women, which is not true. And it’s extremely frustrating that someone who says, Of course, we are against banning the hijab, but it’s also wrong to force women to wear it, which happens more often than Muslims like to admit, then that person is accused of making Islam look bad. It would seem that the two people making the two statements actually believe similar things in regards to allowing women to choose whether they want to wear hijab, but the first has become a common and almost default view in discussions about the hijab and equal rights, leaving out contributions by those whose views reflect the second.

Part of the cause of the disagreement and misunderstanding in this discussion about hijab is that people focus on whatever they are affected by, but not what others are affected by. And there is an imbalance in who has a louder voice in the discussion. Specifically, pro-hijab Muslims living in the United States and other countries where Muslims are in the minority have a louder voice in the discussion compared to Muslims in Muslim-majority countries who are critical of it. Though Muslims in general are a small minority in the United States, in discussions about Islam and equal rights, it’s become the default (as Marwa Berro points out in her follow-up to the interviews) to include someone who talks about how they find the hijab liberating while not including someone who found it oppressive.

Underlying this imbalance is that there are Muslims who want to pretend that women being forced to wear the hijab (whether through the law or through societal pressure) is either a rare or unimportant problem, when compared to the opposite problem of women being banned from wearing the hijab. The fact that women who are forced to wear it are sometimes in situations in which they can’t express their views contributes to this perception, but so does the a bias within the more socially-conservative portions of the Muslim community (and other religious communities) which sees familial and societal pressure to follow a religious teaching as an acceptable way to enforce certain religious doctrines on people within the community. The same people who find this kind of pressure acceptable, of course, don’t think similar pressure is acceptable when non-Muslims try to force Muslims to stop following certain religious teachings.

All of this, I guess, is a roundabout way of coming to the point that I think interviews like the ones linked above are very important, because it’s wrong to exclude ex-Muslims from the discussion about equal rights and Islam. If we’re really going to have a discussion about these issues, then we can’t only hear from those who think that things are fine and that the discrimination is not really that bad of a problem. Excluding ex-Muslims helps to contribute to the deception that there aren’t any serious problems in the religion and (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) helps certain Muslims maintain their disproportionate influence and power as the spokespeople for the religion while silencing others. When this exclusion keeps happening, it starts to seem less accidental and more intentional, as people know that someone who left the religion may have something negative or critical to say about it, and therefore don’t want that person to participate, so that the conversation doesn’t go in a direction that is critical of the religion. Just as ex-hijabis can provide some insight in discussions about the hijab, ex-Muslims can provide insight in discussions about Islam. Muslims don’t have to agree with ex-Muslims (and in fact, we ex-Muslims don’t agree with each other, just as Muslims don’t always agree with each other) but the experiences of ex-Muslims are just as valid and worthy of inclusion.



Thanks to all the people whose writing I linked to: Marwa Berro, Reem Abdel-Razek, Heina Dadabhoy, and Valerie Tarico. I very much recommended reading all four parts of the “Unveiled” series and the related posts.



[1] Tarico, Valerie. “Unveiled. Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab. Part 1: Introduction — Politics and Piet” Posted on 18 March 2914 at Away Point. Retrieved on 25 March 2014 from

[2] Tarico, Valerie. “Unveiled. Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab. Part 2: Marwa Berro”. Posted on 18 March 2014 at Away Point. Retrieved on 25 March 2014 from

[3] Tarico, Valerie. “Unveiled. Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab. Part 3: Reem Abdel-Razek”. Posted on 18 March 2014 at Away Point. Retrieved on 25 March 2014 from

[4] Tarico, Valerie. “Unveiled. Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab. Part 4: Heina Dadabhoy”. Posted on 18 March 2014 at Away Point. Retrieved on 25 March 2014 from

[5] Tarico, Valerie. “Is the Hijab a Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?” Posted on 15 February 2014 at Away Point. Retrieved on 29 March 2014 from

[6] Berro, Marwa. “Ex-Hijabi Interviews and the Underrepresentation of Ex-Muslim Women”. Posted on 19 March 2014 at Between a Veil and a Dark Place. Retrieved on 25 March 2014 from

[7] Sharmin, Ani J. “Dressing for (Divine) Success: A Shallow God and Coercion”. Posted on 19 November 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 25 March 2014 from

[8] Berro, Marwa. “Stop Pretending Your Right To Hijab Is At Risk: Totally accidental midnight rant”. Posted on 23 September 2013 at Between a Veil and a Dark Place. Retrieved on 25 March 2014 from

[9] Reblogged on 19 March 2014 at Hermione’s Bookshelf. The reblogged post with my comment can be found at

[10] Sharmin, Ani J. “Religion Is Culture”. Posted on 22 October 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 29 March 2014 from

[11] Posted on on 19 March 2014 at Hermione’s Bookshelf. Retrieved on 29 March 2014 from–former-muslims-and-hijab.

[12] Posted on 19 March 2014 at Hermione’s Bookshelf. Retrieved on 29 March 2014 from

Science Fiction, Divisiveness, Equality, and Discussion: A response to Toni Weisskopf

One of the latest iterations of the ongoing conversation about diversity and inclusiveness (or the lack thereof) in speculative fiction is the discussion about an article by Toni Weisskopf titled “The Problem of Engagement”.[1] In it, she writes about the cultural divide in science fiction. I had to read it a couple of times to get an idea about what she was talking about, due to the way it’s written, and my takeaway was the following: Much of it seems, to me, to be part nostalgia for a fictionalized version of an ideal bygone era and part lament that people are now being too politically correct by focusing on politics rather than the science fiction itself. There is also a suggestion that fans of classic authors like Heinlein are being insulted and excluded and an insinuation that fans of certain other science fiction stories are not real fans or equally-devoted fans of the genre. Others bloggers, including Foz Meadows (“The Problem of Toni Weisskopf”),[2] John Scalzi (“The Orthodox Church of Heinlein”),[3] and Ana Grilo (“Smuggler’s Ponderings: History, Fandom and Masters of Science Fiction”)[4] have already written excellent responses. In addition, Ana Grilo and Thea James coincidentally recently reviewed Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.[5] I thought I’d add write about my own thoughts on the topic.

Regarding politics, I always find it odd when people claim that bringing politics into fandom is a new thing, or being done to an excessive degree now, as compared to the past. Many science fiction stories (Heinlein’s among them) contain themes and messages about many aspects of society, including politics. Science fiction is, at its best, a genre that can explore ideas, and among my favorite stories are those which are relevant to humanity and make us think.[6] It seems odd to say that the fans of this genre should not bring up discussion of political ideas within the fandom if they think there is a problem or issue that needs to be addressed, when so many of the stories comment on the society and time period in which they were written.

Implied in Weisskopf’s article, just beneath the surface layer of vagueness, is the message that discussions about equal rights and media representation in fandom are divisive and are shifting the focus from science fiction. This implied message of wanting to avoid discussing these equal rights issues is also a political message. As Foz Meadows wrote in December of 2012, the default is not apolitical.[7] It only seems apolitical because people consider it the default due to societal and personal biases in favor of a privileged group. What seems like a reasonable default to one person may seem exclusionary to another person whose rights and concerns have long been ignored. A discussion about problems in fandom that seems divisive for one person may seem essential for another person in their attempts to gain equal rights and media representation. Greta Christina likewise wrote about the accusation of divisiveness that is used against those trying to improve equality in a movement of which they are a part.[8] She was writing about the atheist movement, but the main themes of what she wrote are relevant here as well. Ultimately, the question is not whether or not there is divisiveness. Division is, to some extent, inevitable in any group with human beings, as no two human beings are exactly the same. Some of the more relevant questions concern what we’re disagreeing about, whether we are respecting everyone’s rights, what the evidence is to support different arguments, and whether we are making efforts to make society better.

Somewhat related to the issue of divisiveness, Weisskopf also seems concerned that fans of Heinlein are being disparaged by others in fandom, suggesting that some fans use other fans’ enjoyment of Heinlein’s works as a reason for insulting them or thinking they are bad people. Robert A. Heinlein is one of the most famous authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and considered one of the “Big Three”, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.[9] I won’t spend time discussing him at length in this post (perhaps at a later date) but suffice it to say that his stories, while they contain some entertaining and interesting parts, also contain quite a bit of content that is very questionable. Despite this, there are fans whose opinions of his work are better than deserved. As Elizabeth R. McClellan points out in the comments section of Scalzi’s post, part of the frustration towards some Heinelein fans is a response to the words and actions of an overzealous portion of Heinlein’s fanbase (which certainly does not include everyone who enjoys his books) that insists on the best possible interpretation of Heinlein’s works and treats his stories as the answer to concerns about representation of marginalized groups.[10] N.K. Jemisin made a similar point back in September of 2012, pointing out that there are fans who use Heinlein’s works as evidence that science fiction is progressive and avoid discussing the discrimination in the genre.[11] Both McClellan and Jemisin point out that there are fans who get angry if someone suggests that there is racism or sexism in Heinlein’s stories, seeming too focused on defending their favorite author than on addressing real issues within the fandom of a genre they love. I think it’s understandable that people become frustrated when an author whose stories have many discriminatory elements becomes one of the most famous of a genre, to the point of being unquestioningly defended. It becomes even more frustrating when considering that some fans hold up authors from the past as being part of an unofficial canon that all fans should read, while looking down on those who are fans of other works. This is not to say that one should exclude people from fandom for being Heinlein fans alone, but neither should any author be given so much regard that we hesitate to analyze their work in a way that includes criticism of troubling elements.

The ostensible point of Weisskopf’s piece is to encourage fandom to be united, rather than divided, and to have more discussion. However, her piece doesn’t seem to further that goal, not least because it doesn’t directly address the actual concerns of the people who think there are discriminatory problems in fandom that need to be addressed. Regarding discussion, I always find it odd when people accuse the people who bring up the existence of a problem of shutting down discussion and of not being willing to allow different points of view. In this narrative, the people who want to ignore the problems in fandom, the people who want to excuse the troubling elements in the classic works that already receive much attention and praise, the people who want a fictional idealistic past to continue into the future are the real victims of unfair treatment. This is not to say that I always agree with every person’s statements and arguments defending equality, but it’s not right to ignore real problems in the name of not alienating even the most discriminatory segments of fandom. Additionally, the dismissive attitude towards people who enjoy science fiction that is not of the Golden Age variety also seems odd if the goal of the article is to have unity in fandom. Weisskopf’s article ultimately does a poor job of actually addressing the issues it seems to aim to address, and it seems written in a way to provide some vague avenue of plausible deniability when people point out what it seems to be implying.



Much thanks to the people whose writing I linked to. I definitely recommend reading all of the linked pieces.


[1] Weisskopf, Toni. “The Problem of Engagement”. Posted on 10 March 2014 at According To Hoyt. Retrieved on 20 March 2014 from

[2] Meadows, Foz. “The Problem of Toni Weisskopf”. Posted on 12 March 2014 at Shattersnipe. Retrieved on 20 March 2014 from

[3] Scalzi, John. “The Orthodox Church of Heinlein”. Posted on 11 March 2014 at Whatever. Retrieved 20 March 2014 from

[4] Grilo, Ana. “Smuggler’s Ponderings: History, Fandom and Masters of Science Fiction”. Posted on 12 March 2014 at The Book Smugglers. Retrieved on 22 March 2014 from

[5] Grilo, Ana and James, Thea. “Joint Review: ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ by Robert A. Heinlein”. Posted on 19 March 2014 at The Book Smugglers. Retrieved on 22 March 2014 from

[6] Sharmin, Ani J. “In Praise of ‘Far Beyond the Stars’”. Posted on 2 March 2014 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 22 March 2014 from

[7] Meadows, Foz. “PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical”. Posted on 8 December 2012 at Shattersnipe. Retrieved on 22 March 2014 from

[8] Christina, Greta. “Atheism Plus, and Some Thoughts on Divisiveness”. Posted on 30 August 2012 at Greta Christina’s Blog. Retrieved on 22 March 2014 from

[9] The Wikipedia entry on Robert A. Heinlein can be found at

[10] McClellan, Elizabeth R. Comment on John Scalzi’s “The Orthodox Church of Heinlein”. Posted on March 11, 2014 at 7:41 pm. Retrieved on 22 March 2014 from

[11] Jemisin, N.K. “Things People Need to Understand, issue 223.2”. Posted on 8 September 2012 at N.K. Jemisin’s official website. Retrieved on 22 March 2014 from

A Comment on Silverman, CPAC, and Reaching Out

[Adam Lee over at Daylight Atheism wrote “Should We Reach Out to Conservative Atheists?[1] in response to David’s Silverman’s attendance at and comments about the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).[2] The following is a comment I posted there.  Though I wrote the comment in response to this particular news story about Silverman and CPAC, in it I express some thoughts that are relevant to some broader issues, including some things that I hope to discuss further in the future.]

“So, in principle, I think Silverman’s outreach plan could be a good idea.

That said: CPAC? Really?” [Quoted from Adam Lee’s original post]

^This pretty much sums up one of my initial reactions when I heard about this story.

There’s also the matter, as you mentioned, of what a person values, what they think it’s important for a movement they’re a part of to do. Each person has issues that they give priority to, that they’re really passionate about, and perhaps for David Silverman, atheism is his cause, his thing. It would make sense, given he’s President of American Atheists.

And so the question becomes: Where’s the line between being really passionate about your issue and working together on that issue with those you disagree with on other things vs. crossing the line into being dismissive of other important issues and being willing to sacrifice other equal rights issues due to thinking that your one issue is The Most Important? Clearly, some people think Silverman crossed that line. And I think it shows because of his comments.

On the issue of religious vs. secular arguments, I basically think that there can be a secular and religious argument for just about anything. (I like Sarah Moglia’s article you linked to and the definition of what we mean by secular arguments, whether we mean just a feeling or something that’s actually evidence-based.) Of course, not all arguments are equally good. Personally I don’t find the religious arguments convincing (whether it’s for something I agree with or not). Another element is that people can combine religious and secular arguments, and the rest of society can be influenced by religion and vice versa. I have noticed, for instance, that even people who don’t really follow their religion very strictly (like going to prayers, etc.) still hold the prejudiced views against other that they were taught via their religion. And the society they grew up in held a lot of those same prejudices.

Re: Silverman’s quote about reproductive rights, school prayer, right to die, gay marriage, etc., I’ve seen this type of statement several times now from atheists, and I’ve started to feel that people put whatever *they’re* passionate about in the category of being Very Relevant to the atheist movement and stuff they personally aren’t as passionate about in the category Not As Relevant to the atheist movement. Almost every time, people put science education or opposing mandatory school prayer in the Very Relevant Category, but for other issues (LGBT rights, reproductive rights, economic justice, etc.) it seems to depend on whether they themselves are really passionate about it or not, whether they think it’s important enough for the atheist movement to spend time on it. Rather than deciding to spend time on it because it’s an important secularism issue, they seem to decide it is/isn’t an important secular issue depending on whether they want to spend time on it due to their views.

What I feel towards David Silverman regarding this event is kind of what I often feel towards the US Democratic party. Due to the religious privilege in our society, and the fact that this religious privilege is supported by certain influential portions of the population, some people and organizations assume that secular liberal, progressive, etc. people will automatically be on their side (since they have no/few other options). They take our support as a given, while making attempts (sometimes good, sometimes bad) to reach out to the “other side” (usually conservatives). But because they take our support for granted, they don’t feel that they have to think before they speak/act. They feel free to say stuff that’s insulting towards us. And it becomes this one-sided thing where they tell liberals to be more open-minded towards accepting conservatives into the group, but don’t ask conservatives to question their views on social issues. That Silverman doesn’t understand liberals and progressives shows in a comment he made about his own political views, that he considers the Democrats too liberal. He’s trying to reach out to the other side, but doesn’t even understand the side that gives his organization the most support.


[1] Lee, Adam. “Should We Reach Out to Conservative Atheists?” Posted on 12 March 2014 at Daylight Atheism. Retrieved on 12 March 2014 from

[2] Edroso, Roy. “David Silverman: CPAC is crawling with closet atheists”. Posted on 7 March 2014 at The Raw Story. Retrieved on 12 March 2014 from

Book Review: Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble with Islam Today”

“My Fellow Muslims,

I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me. I’m hanging on by my fingernails, in anxiety over what’s coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah.”

(Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today)[1]

Quite a while ago, I read Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. Manji is a Muslim who, as is indicated by the title of the book, wants to challenge the problems that she sees in her religion and work to reform it. I’ve referenced and quoted Manji previously (including in an essay about translating religious texts[2] and one about religious dress codes[3]) and I thought I should finally review the two books of hers that I’ve read. I’m starting with this one, because it was the first of hers I read, and also because the other (Allah, Liberty, and Love) is a follow-up to this one. This book is written as a letter to Manji’s fellow Muslims, to express some concerns she has about the religion of which she is a member.

One of the best parts of this book, for me, is that Manji gives voice to views that are silenced within Islam in an effort to keep the religion from looking bad to outsiders. Throughout the book, Manji shares some of her personal experiences, of growing up in a Muslim family and of interacting with fellow Muslims, which lead her to question parts of Islam. As someone who doubted Islam from a young age, I felt understood when I read the book, and glad (though also troubled) to find that I’m not the only one who had a negative experience within the religion and felt doubt while growing up. I could really relate to some of the experiences she shared, including being frustrated and angry when attending religious classes, when hearing Muslims say discriminatory things about other groups while they would be angry if someone else said something discriminatory things about Muslims, and when seeing efforts to avoid discussions about problems in the religion concerning the treatment of marginalized groups (such as women and LGBT people). Though Manji ultimately came to different conclusion than I did on the existence of god and her religious identity (she remains Muslim, while I left Islam) to know that I’m not alone meant a lot.

Another very powerful aspect of the book is that Manji points out the hypocrisy of Muslims who do not subject their own religion to the same standards that they hold for others, including non-Muslims and secular societies. Among the points of hypocrisy she points out are the following: people who selectively or disproportionately criticize non-Muslims who hurt Muslims, while rarely mentioning Muslims who hurt other Muslims; people who try to deflect criticism of Islam by appealing to culture,[4] while they understand that culture is not an appropriate excuse when non-Muslims are doing something wrong; people who appeal to ideas of equal rights in order to defend Muslims from discrimination, while not applying similar ideas of equal rights to Islam in order to address anti-Semitism, sexism, and anti-LGBT discrimination within the religion. There are some parts where I disagree with Manji, where I think that she oversimplifies and fails to mention some important context. Sometimes, I think she does this for rhetorical effectiveness, but in some cases it seems like actual disagreements I have with her. Overall, though, she gets her point across very effectively: that there is a serious problem within Islam, of Muslims who think it’s so important to protect the religion from criticism that they are willing to pretend everything is alright, even though it’s not. The book was basically Manji standing up and saying that she can’t pretend everything’s fine, that she can’t take it any longer, and that’s something I appreciate and can relate to.

On religion, as stated above, I obviously don’t agree with Manji’s religious views. I also think that, like many liberal believers, she conveniently ignores the vast majority of her religious scripture in favor of quoting a handful of verses that sound nice out of context. The few times when Manji offered her interpretation of verses in the Qur’an, I felt that she was using this tactic. However, since apologetics wasn’t the point of this book, this was not a major flaw.

Manji’s writing is decent, and often very moving. The informal tone is appropriate for the book, as it is intended as a letter. However, there are parts in which I think the writing goes from appropriately and pleasantly informal to being a bit cringe-inducing; in these passages, I felt a bit like I was reading something from parents trying to be cool by using recent slang terms or news anchors attempting to deliver a catchy line with overenthusiasm. Fortunately, the worst of these parts are not too numerous, and it’s likely that both her writing and my own personal preferences contributed to my impression in equal measure. The personal stories and discussion of issues in Islam fit well together, reinforcing each other to show both the societal effects and personal experiences that are relevant to the topic. The book is a quick read, but with no dearth of content to consider.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book, especially to those interested in hearing from a Muslim who is critical of the problems within her religion. Despite some of my disagreements with Manji, the book is an important contribution in the discussion about Islam. Those who believe in the importance of equal rights and social justice (regardless of their religious views) should read this book. Muslims should read it, and those who deny that there are legitimate and serious problems in Islam should take what she says into consideration. If, like me, you are someone from a Muslim family who feels or once felt alone in your concerns about the problems in Islam, you may find some measure of hope and a feeling of being understood in this book. It’s worth the read.


[1] Manji, Irshad. The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003, The Letter, p. 1.

[2] Sharmin, Ani J. “The Divine Languages”. Posted on 6 July 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 7 March 2014 from

[3] Sharmin, Ani J. “Dressing For (Divine) Success: A Shallow God and Coercion”. Posted on 19 November 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 7 March 2014 from

[4] Sharmin, Ani J. “Religion Is Culture”. Posted on 22 October 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 7 March 2014 from

In Praise of “Far Beyond the Stars”

“You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea.” (Benny Russell)

“You are the dreamer, and the dream.” (Preacher)

“For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” (Benjamin Sisko)

In the Star Trek canon, there are (thus far) over seven hundred episodes and twelve films. It’s difficult to choose a favorite, but there is one episode that I think encapsulates what I think Trek is all about. That episode is “Far Beyond the Stars” from season six of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.[1] I just rewatched it a few days ago, and my high opinion of it was reinforced further. Let me tell you how much I love this episode and why.

The framing of “Far Beyond the Stars” is that most of the episode is a vision of Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine. Captain Sisko is the Emissary of the Prophets, and he’d had visions from the Prophets in prior episodes. At the beginning of the episode, Sisko has received news about the destruction of the USS Cortez, which was captained by a friend of his named Quentin Swofford; the Defiant searched for six hours but found no survivors from the destruction of the vessel. Sisko feels despair and doubt due to the repeated deaths and setbacks in the Dominion War; he doesn’t know if he can take it any longer and considers leaving Starfleet. He then starts seeing weird things and then finds himself in 1950s New York as Benny Russell, a science fiction writer for Incredible Tales of Scientific Wonder. The Deep Space Nine characters have counterparts in this 1950s storyline. Albert Macklin (Miles O’Brien), Kay Eaton (Kira Nerys), Julius Eaton (Julian Bashir), Herbert Rossoff (Quark) are also science fiction writers at Incredible Tales. Douglas Pabst (Odo) is the editor of the magazine, and Darlene Kursky (Jadzia Dax) is his secretary and a fan of science fiction. Roy Ritterhouse (Martok) is an illustrator at the same magazine. Cassie (Kasidy Yates) works at a diner, which she’s hoping to buy, and is Benny’s fiancée, hoping to settle down with him. Willie Hawkins (Worf) is a baseball player for the New York Giants. Jimmy (Jake Sisko) is a friend of Benny’s, and Benny is concerned that Jimmy is involved in some criminal activity. Burt Ryan (Dukat) and Kevin Mulkahey (Weyoun) are police officers who harass civilians, and especially target African-Americans. The Preacher (Joseph Sisko) speaks the word of the Prophets, and Benny encounters him several times. An unnamed news vendor (Nog) sells science fiction magazines. A major theme of the story is the discrimination faced by Benny and other African-Americans during the 1950s, with a message about the importance of equality and hope for a better future.

This episode is clearly one of the special episodes about an important issue that many television shows attempt to include every once in a while. Episodes of this type are notoriously difficult to pull off, in my view; it’s too easy to be overly simplistic or too cautious or too preachy, despite good intentions. Even in a story like Trek, in which many episodes have some sort of theme or message, when the creators consciously try to create an episode which very obviously addresses a current controversial social issue, the results are mixed. Even in a story that generally has a theme of people who are different being allies and working together, attempts to include obvious real-world equality messages can end up being unsuccessful. (There are, for instance, Trek episodes which attempt to address LGBT issues; to the frustration of many fans, myself included, the results ranged from half-heartedly decent attempts to frustrating failures that seemed sometimes to imply the opposite message of what was intended.) One of the reasons I love “Far Beyond the Stars” is because it’s a special important-issue episode that manages to do it right—in fact, not just right, but wonderfully right. It’s not just good compared to the other okay episodes of this type, but is one of the best in the canon.

“Far Beyond the Stars” is effective in showing that when a society has institutional discrimination against certain people, that discrimination can manifest in many different forms. There is horrendous violence done against people based on race, including by police officers who killed Jimmy and brutally beat Benny. There are also various forms of discrimination, and reminders that others think less of you, all throughout one’s life. A group photo of the writers of Incredible Tales is planned, but Kay Eaton (who writes under the name K.C. Hunter) and Benny Russell are not included, so that the audience doesn’t find out that Hunter is female and Russell is African-American. Benny’s story about a space station is not published because the main character is a black Captain. The baseball player Willie Hawkins, in response Cassie asking him why he continues to live in Harlem when he could afford to live in a different neighborhood, says that white people wouldn’t want an African-American living among them; where he lives right now, he’s respected, but if went to live in a predominantly-white neighborhood, his neighbors would look down on him. In this world, it’s understandable why someone would be doubtful that things will get better. As Jimmy says when Pabst doesn’t want to publish Benny’s story, “I told you you were wasting your time. A colored Captain! The only reason they’ll ever let us in space is if they need someone to shine their shoes. […] Today or a hundred years from now, it don’t make a bit of difference. As far as they’re concerned, we’ll always be niggers.” A future like the one in Benny Russell’s story seems far-fetched, but it’s one that he holds on to, even when the magazine’s publisher decides to pulp the issue rather than put out an issue that includes a story with a black Captain.

The episode also subtly prompts viewers to consider our own biases. Throughout the story, the justification given for the discriminatory decisions at the magazine is the audience. This is the same justification often given today for being exclusionary when deciding which stories are worth publishing and filming. As fans, the episode encourages us to look at ourselves and what we choose to read. The question is brought up of who is ultimately responsible for these discriminatory actions, both in the story and in our own world. People never want to blame themselves; the editor blames the publishers and the readers, the publisher blames the readers, and the readers claim they’re not actually discriminating while they keep receiving and reading content that caters to their biases. There is a seemingly never-ending cycle of discrimination, as the way things are becomes a justification for continuing to do what we have always done. Things can only improve if someone stands up and says something, if writers and readers want a better future. Just as Benny Russell keeps up hope, so does Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine, deciding that he’s going to stay and finish the job he started. In response to his decision, his father Joseph Sisko says to him (referencing 2 Timothy 4:7), “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.”

In addition to the more serious themes, there were also some humorous and fun scenes; I enjoyed scenes and dialogue that make references to Star Trek and other science fiction. The fictional science fiction writers in the 1950s read Benny Russell’s story and comment on their counterparts in the twenty-fourth century; Kay Eaton likes Major Kira Nerys, because she thinks science fiction could use more strong female characters, while Darlene Kursky finds the idea of Jadzia Dax having a “worm in her belly” (the Trill symbiont) interesting but disgusting. Julius Eaton comments in one scene, “We’re writers, not Vikings” (a reference to the “I’m a doctor, not a …” catch phrase of Trek physicians). Some of the fictional science fiction writers have reminded viewers of famous writers, and there are also overt references to various famous writers of the time period when the writers at Incredible Tales are discussing the latest issue of Galaxy. The fact that Kay Eaton writes under the name K.C. Hunter is a reference to female writers, including C.L. Moore, who wrote under initials to hide their identity; in fact, there have been female writers of Star Trek who’ve done the same thing, including D.C. Fontana, who wrote for The Original Series. These scenes provide some amusement, while also adding to the commentary on the episode’s own series and genre.

Another reason why I think this episode was well done was that it is connected with the rest of the story, rather than seeming out of place in the way that some special important-issue episodes sometimes do. Because the 1950s portions of the episode are a vision of Captain Sisko, we see how the vision affects him and inspires him. Rather than being a random episode interrupting the larger narratives of the series, the episode is built into Sisko’s story arc, connected with several other episodes with visions or historical references, in addition to showing him dealing with the loss of his friend and the despair of fighting in the Dominion War with repeated setbacks. The vision of Benny Russell influences his decision and inspires him, just as the story of Deep Space Nine is Benny Russell’s vision of a better future and gives him hope.

Finally, of course, there are the fans watching the show and our acute awareness of what we are seeing. We are watching the story of an African-American science fiction writer who is told that his story can’t be published because the Captain is black, but that story is part of a television series with a black Captain. Things in our world have improved, but at the same time, we are closer to the 1950s United States than the twenty-fourth century of Deep Space Nine. This episode is one of the ones that address real-world problems of inequality in a show that often promotes diversity and inclusion in metaphors. This is also an excellent example of how having a diverse cast of characters can reinforce the messages of equality that is found in the metaphors. Because Deep Space Nine has a diverse cast of characters, the real-world diversity and metaphorical diversity reinforce each other for a good message. In this episode in particular, that is shown very well through the story. We look at our recent past and a fictional far away future, seeing a past world in which a story about aliens and robots can be accepted but a story about a black Captain is unacceptable, in contrast with a future in which Earth is united and part of the United Federation of Planets, with humans working together with people from hundreds of planets. And we despair just a little, because we recognize in our own society the problems of the past. But there is also hope. “Far Beyond the Stars” represents what Star Trek is at its best, what it aspires to be. Like Benny Russell, we hope for a better future—not just one with starships that let us visit other planets and meet people from other planets, but one in which things are better for more human beings.



With thanks to Foz Meadows (@fozmeadows) and Kate Elliott (@KateElliottSFF), with whom I participated in a fun Twitter conversation about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in October 2013.[2]


[1] The Memory Alpha wiki entry about “Far Beyond the Stars” can be found at

[2] The conversation started off with a post by Foz Meadows and can be found at

Post #100

This is my one hundredth post on this blog, and so I thought this would be an appropriate time for some reflection and some goals moving forward. When I first started this blog, my goal was to write about books (hence the title The Eternal Bookshelf).[1] That was also around the time when I was becoming interested in reading about religion, and so that also became a common topic of my posts here.[2]

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at myself for actually keeping up with this blog and I’m really glad that I have. I’ve always loved to read and write, but almost never used to share my writing with others due the lack of a forum, and due to lack of confidence in my writing (or the interest others would have in it), and due to concern about getting involved in controversial topics (and what others would think). I’m glad that I decided to start this blog anyway. Over the past four years, I’ve written about many topics that I’d been thinking about for a long time. Blogging has been a way for me to share my views and find other like-minded people by reading other blogs. It has also been a way for me to practice and improve my writing.

Moving forward, the following are some goals I have for this blog.

  1. Minimum One Post Per Week: I decided at the beginning of this year that I would try to maintain a minimum posting frequency. With the aim of writing more often, I have set a goal of posting at least once every week. So far, this year, I think I’ve been keeping up with that, and I hope to continue.
  2. More Book Reviews: I would like to write more book reviews.[3] I’ve tried to get a good start on this for the year 2014. Three of my posts this year so far have been book reviews. My goal is for about half of my posts to be either book reviews or essays about books.
    1. New Authors: I would like to read more books by new authors. This includes those who have been publishing for a while but whose books I haven’t read before, as well as those who are newly-published.
    2. Media Representation Matters: Since I am passionate about media representation of marginalized groups,[4] I will try to live up to what I believe in by reading and reviewing books written by authors from marginalized groups and/or contain characters from marginalized groups. I will try to be aware of the demographics of the subjects of my reviews.
  3. Original Fiction: As I’ve mentioned before, I participated in NaNoWriMo last year.[5] In addition to my unfinished NaNoWriMo novel, I also have many other unfinished writing projects. I would like to share some of this writing.
  4. The (Incomplete) Hufflepuff House Essays: Last year, I started a project of analyzing the Harry Potter books to show that the values of Hufflepuff House are very important to the story. This project contains a projected five parts, but I’ve only finished and posted two parts so far. (Part 1 is here;[6] Part 2 is here.[7]) I would like to finish and post parts three through five.
  5. Writing About Religion: As mentioned above, religion has been one of the topics I’ve been writing about on this blog. I would like to continue doing this. Some topics I would like to write about include my thoughts on specific passages from religious texts, various arguments about religion, and the influences of religions on societies and people’s lives.

Lastly, thanks to the people who’ve been reading.


[1] Sharmin, Ani J. “My First Post on WordPress”. Posted on 21 November 2009 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 22 February 2014 from

[2] My posts about religion can be found at

[4] My posts in the Media Representation Matters category can be found at

[5] Sharmin, Ani J. “NaNoWriMo 2013: My Experience and Thoughts”. Posted on 2 December 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 22 February 2014 from

[6] Sharmin, Ani J. “In Honor of Hufflepuff House [Part 1 of 5]: Introduction; or, The Misconception Summarized”. Posted on 12 March 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 22 February 2014 from

[7] Sharmin, Ani J. “In Honor of Hufflepuff House [Part 2 of 5]: “Where They Are Just and Loyal”. Posted on 13 March 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 22 February 2014 from

Words as a Weapon against Injustice: On The Anniversary of an Unfunny Valentine

Today is Valentine’s Day, but it’s also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day the Ayotollah Khomeeni issued a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for what has become perhaps his most well-known novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie describes the fatwa as, “his unfunny Valentine from those bearded men, those shrouded women, and the lethal old man dying in his room, making his last bid for some sort of dark, murderous glory.”[1] So for this rather morbid anniversary, I thought I should write about the importance of freedom of speech. This essay was partly inspired by Kenan Malik’s recent article about this anniversary, in which he points out that right offend and to criticize other people’s beliefs is essential for a just society.[2]

When speaking of freedom of speech, people often say that others’ words are offensive, or assert their own right to offend. “Offense” is a word used for so many things, from horrid injustices to differences of personal taste. When people claim that they are offended (or, alternately, that they have the right to offend) I find it relevant to try to figure out what exactly they are talking about in that specific instance. If someone discriminates against another person by, for instance, not admitting them to a school or workplace due to their demographics, and then claims that the person who was discriminated against has no right to be offended, that’s absurd; the point is that the person was actually discriminated against in society. But if someone states their views, but are not violating the rights of others through harassment or other harm, they have the right to state their views. The question, of course, is most critical when people are using their freedom of speech to promote discrimination or hatred; there are times when someone’s speech is protected under the human right of freedom of speech, even if it is promoting discrimination. The family that has come to symbolize this in recent times, here in the United States, is the much-despised Westboro Baptist Church, but they certainly have their counterparts in other religions.

In the controversy about The Satanic Verses, the religion in question was Islam. The Muslims who said they were offended by Rushdie’s book have every right to disagree with it, but the threats and demands of censorship were in no way justified. The attempts at censorship, and the claims that they were being made to protect equal rights, were disingenuous and hypocritical. They claimed that Rushdie was the wrongdoer in this situation—-that Islam, Muslims, and Mohammad were the targets of his discrimination and slander—-but they were actually members of an extremely powerful religion attempting to shut down any criticism. Among those who focused exclusively on the offensiveness of Rushdie’s book, a lot of emphasis was placed on discrimination against Muslims (which is certainly very real and very wrong) while little time was spent discussing discrimination by Muslims against apostates. Those making and supporting the threats were in the role of the powerful group trying to silence a less powerful group. They were also, as has been pointed out numerous times by others, using their freedom of speech (and expecting their right to be protected) while saying that another person should be censored.

Attempts to limit freedom are easy for people in a position of power to use to their benefit. Because of the privilege they often hold relative to those criticizing them, they’ll find it easier to use anti-free speech laws against advocates of equal rights than the other way around. We see over and over again how people try to define anything and everything they say and do as freedom of speech (or freedom of religion) while defining anything that they disagree with (even if it does not harm anyone at all) as being an unfair infringement on tradition, family values, and religious morality. People categorize discrimination and harassment as freedom of speech while labeling people’s anger about that discrimination and harassment as an attempt to silence them. They also hold a double standard when judging where the line is between freedom of speech and harassment; the line is set absurdly high for themselves and those who share their beliefs, and absurdly low for those who they disagree with. This can be infuriating for those who are the targets of this double standard. Though it may be tempting to limit speech when other people’s words are encouraging harm against us, when we do that, we hand over to them the power to use these very limits to silence us from criticizing them. A society that already privileges certain groups will then apply limits to free speech in a way that favors their preferences over those of an already-marginalized group.

Freedom of speech is essential when we want to fight advocates of injustice, regardless of their particular demographic. There is nothing that can be done against them if we cannot speak against them. Injustices do not solve themselves, living as we do in an imperfect world, and people must bring light to them and spread the word for a movement to come together, to fight back. All sorts of speech are included in this (from drawing to speaking, from drafting manifestos to holding up signs, from singing to marching). Fictional stories have also been part of the fight against injustices, as fictional worlds have reflected our own world, and then helped to shape it. Stories can promote discrimination, but they can also promote justice. Words are a powerful weapon, and they are our weapon, too; we should fight with them, not give them up.

And so on this Valentine’s Day, though it is the anniversary of one free speech controversy over a story, there are many other stories in the world waiting to be told. They have great power, and they should be cherished beyond measure.


[1] Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 2012, Prologue, p. 11.

[2] Malik, Kenan. “Changing landscape of free speech”. The Hindu. 12 February 2014. Retrieved on 13 February 2014 from

Book Review: Rainbow Rowell’s “Attachments”

“Internet security officer. Lincoln had pictured himself building firewalls and protecting the newspaper from dangerous hackers—not sending out memo every time somebody in Accounting forwarded an off-color joke to the person in the next cubicle.” (Rainbow Rowell, Attachments)[1]

<<Beth to Jennifer>> I don’t care if they are reading our mail. Bring it on, Tron! I dare you. Try to take away my freedom of expression. I’m a journalist. A free-speech warrior. I serve in the Army of the First Amendment. I didn’t take this job for the bad money and the regressive health care coverage. I’m here for the truth, the sunshine, the casting open of closed doors!

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Free-speech warrior, I see. What are you fighting for? The right to give Billy Madison five stars?”

(Rainbow Rowell, Attachments)[2]

I recently read Rainbow Rowell’s novel Attachments. It’s the second of her books that I’ve read, though the first that was published; the first one of hers I read was Fangirl, which I loved.[3] Attachments is a humorous romance book about falling in love with someone at work before actually meeting them, with characters who are trying to deal with other things going on in their lives while the odd pre-romance events are happening. It’s a short book that I finished quickly, and I decided to review it here.

The premise is simple: Two people at a job who have crushes on each other before they’ve even met, with technology playing a role. Beth Fremont, Jennifer Scribner-Snyder, and Lincoln O’Neill work at The Courier, a newspaper in Nebraska. Beth is a movie reviewer, and Jennifer is an editor. They are friends who frequently e-mail each other using the office e-mail. Lincoln works in the IT department as the internet security officer. There is a program called WebFence which monitors what employees are doing on the internet and intranet. When the WebFence filter catches an e-mail with a red flag term, he reads it and sends warnings to people if needed. Beth and Jennifer’s e-mails show up often, since they talk about their personal lives. Lincoln becomes interested in the conversations between the two friends and starts to develop a crush on Beth. Meanwhile, Beth sees a person in the office who she christens My Cute Guy. Her Cute Guy, of course, is Lincoln. All three characters are dealing with various things in their personal lives, and we read about them while waiting to see if Beth and Lincoln will finally meet in person one day.

I really enjoyed most of the book. The writing was fun to read and made me laugh out loud several times. Rowell is skilled at incorporating documents written by her characters into the story in a fun way with realistic writing. In Fangirl, there are excerpts from a fictional fantasy book series and fan fiction based on that novel. In this book, there are selected e-mail messages written by Beth and Jennifer. Through these messages, we (and Lincoln) learn about Beth and Jennifer and become interested in their stories. Beth lives with her long-term boyfriend, with whom she has a somewhat tumultuous relationship, and has been dreading attending her sister’s upcoming wedding. She has a fun sense of humor, makes references to the movies she’s seen, and tries to give Jennifer some friendly advice and support. Jennifer is married and worried she may be pregnant. Her messages are amusing and relatable, as she is uncertain about her decisions. Beth and Jennifer’s back-and-forth humor, their friendship, and their concern for each other are both enjoyable and touching. Lincoln lives with his mother and a sister who’s been encouraging him to move out. He’s trying to figure out what to do in life, and towards this goal, he sometimes consults one of his old notebooks, with a list about him written by his high school girlfriend. He has a group of friend with whom he plays Dungeons & Dragons on weekends and also starts spending time with some new friends during the book. Lincoln’s passages were very sweet and humorous as well, as he struggles to figure things out and feels uncertain about monitoring other people’s e-mail.

In this type of romance book, the main question is usually what will happen when the two people finally meet. Throughout the book, I was split on whether Beth and Lincoln should or shouldn’t get together, or even meet. I thought: The sweet and amusing (though usual and predictable) ending would be for them to get together, but the surprising (and thought-provoking) ending would be for them to not get together romantically but still grow during the course of the book. I didn’t have a problem with the way that question was resolved in the end, but my main criticism was how the ending was written. It seemed a bit rushed, and I thought that the book would have benefitted from an ending that was either more detailed or changed to leave the reader guessing at the ending.

Rowell generally did a good job of showing the characters’ lives outside of the romance portion. I haven’t read many romance novels, but the ones I enjoy (as is the case with books of any genre) are usually the ones that have well-developed characters with lives outside of the main romance story. In Attachments, we really get to know these characters and come to care about them. We hope that things turn out well for them in a way that makes them happy. My one criticism in this regard is that I would have liked to read some passages from Beth or Jennifer’s viewpoint outside of their e-mails (or some more e-mails which Lincoln has not seen). Because of the way the book is written, the story is technically from Lincoln’s viewpoint; there are third-person passages in which he’s the viewpoint character, and the only e-mails of Beth and Jennifer’s we see are the ones Lincoln sees. This especially seemed odd during the passages when there are few messages between Beth and Jennifer, but lots of character development for Lincoln. There was room for the book to be a little longer so we could spend more time getting to know them. Generally, though, the characters were really fascinating, and I enjoyed reading about them.

In conclusion, I had a fun time reading this book, even though I liked Fangirl better. It was an enjoyable read, and provided some smiles and laughter right after I finished George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings (which was the subject of my previous book review).[4] Rainbow Rowell has another published book titled Eleanor & Park and one upcoming book titled Landline, both of which I look forward to reading.


[1] Rowell, Rainbow. Attachments. New York, Penguin, 2011, Ch 4, p. 10.

[2] Rowell, Attachments, Ch 5, p. 14.

[3] Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Fangirl’”. Posted on 2 October 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 5 February 2014 from

[4] Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Clash of Kings’”. Posted on 26 January 2014 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 5 February 2014 from