Bad Fruit addresses generational trauma through violent absurdity
And without playing into the "trauma porn" trope
Please note: This issue discusses emotional and physical abuse. If you or a loved one are experiencing any form of domestic abuse, contact 1-800-799-7233.
“How do you come back to yourself when you’re not there?” writes Ella King in her debut novel Bad Fruit (Astra House, 2022). The question echoes throughout the story as Lily strives to determine a sense of self the summer before college, despite attempts by her parents and siblings to define her. In Bad Fruit, King explores generational trauma, specifically the normalization of violence in families, but without the idolization all too common in today’s media (the trend that has come to be known as “trauma porn”); Rather, she shows there is a way out.
The complicated truth is that motherhood has the power to shape each and every one of us, whether we identify as mothers, have or don’t have mothers, or have distanced ourselves from our mother-figures. In part inspired by King’s trip to Cambodia during which she spoke with women about posttraumatic stress from the Cambodian Genocide in the 1970s, Bad Fruit explores the trauma mothers pass down through generations. “‘This is real motherhood, real daughterhood,’” Lily’s sister insists about stab wounds from their mother (King, 185). The violence Lily’s mother May experienced as a child in Singapore influences her treatment of her children. And despite the physical and emotional abuse Lily faces from her mother, she possesses a loyalty to her mom, eager to prove herself as worthy of love. “She will sketch these images forever, mother and child, mother and child, trying to solve the dark clot of a question we dare not utter even to ourselves: If our mother loves us, why does she hurt us?” (185).
But in the violent absurdity that has become Lily’s life—every day scenes emphasizing both the violence and also the trauma her mother has experienced—there is a thread of hope for escape. Woven between the moments in which Lily’s mother forces her to change her appearance to look more Chinese or to prepare slightly spoiled juice, Lily unlocks pieces of both her own and her mother’s past, largely with her friend Lewis’s help. She begins to see that her mother’s behavior is abusive. When Lewis asks how she is, Lily shakes her head “and it seems like the bravest thing [she’s] ever done” (82). King paints a way out, demonstrating the importance of guiding figures, whether that be trusted adults, teachers, social workers, etc.
Through its emphasis on intergenerational trauma and Lily’s journey to separate herself from her emotionally, physically, and mentally abusive family, Bad Fruit lays bare the necessity of fighting the root causes of trauma: racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of oppressive behavior. “Change my hair, my skin color, my eyes. No one would question whose daughter I was” (53). Lily cannot be herself until she learns who exactly that is—which in turn cannot be accomplished without seeing the way societal oppression has influenced her mother’s views, her father’s own role as an accomplice, and her siblings’ internalized beliefs. And the story serves as an allegory for how we as a society must do the same. Generational trauma must be believed, addressed, and compensated (monetarily, through policy, etc.) if we are to prevent such violence from occurring in the future. Just as it is not enough for May or Lily’s father to simply apologize, apologies must be rooted in concrete action to demonstrate change. “The relentless line of mothers and daughters hurting and inflicting hurt…Our inheritance isn’t a degree or rent. It’s a fire. It’s a shed” (248). And the cycle won’t be broken until we dismantle the systemic and systematic violence integrated into the very fabric of our society.
Read more about organizations working to fight generational trauma here.
What is “trauma porn”?
The phrase “trauma porn” has increasingly appeared over the past few years, in particular to highlight the way in which white folks—and often the media—depict violence and/or inequities against BIPOC folks. They exploit another person’s life for their own sake, such as for increasing views or readership.
And the literary world is not exempt—we’ve seen publishers and authors capitalize on stories centering the harm of BIPOC characters, such as American Dirt. The phrase can also pertain to the romanticization of domestic abuse, such as in Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us, or a fetishization of disability, for example.
In a recent Atlantic interview with author Elaine Hsieh, Hsieh states: “If you are retraumatizing the very audience a piece of media is supposedly for, can it really be for them? Do any of us, after a hard day’s work of existing in the world, want to unwind by watching or reading something that makes us feel ill? And when this happens, does it automatically make the media in question for ‘educational purposes,’ which is lightly coded for educating a white American public? Where is the line between making an audience feel seen and turning their pain into shock value?”
Ella King’s Bad Fruit does what Elaine notes in this last sentence—makes an audience feel seen without sensationalizing abuse.
Additional reading on trauma porn:
“The Trauma Plot Quarterly Is Now Open for Submissions” by Swati Sudarsan (@BookSnailMail) for McSweeney’s
“We Need to Reckon with the Rot at the Core of Publishing” by Elaine Castillo for LitHub
“The Case Against the Trauma Plot” by Parul Sehgal for The New Yorker
The relentless line of mothers and daughters hurting and inflicting hurt…Our inheritance isn’t a degree or rent. It’s a fire. It’s a shed.
—Bad Fruit, p248
Others’ thoughts on Bad Fruit
“King’s ability to hold the reader close to Lily made for a difficult reading experience, but one I’m grateful to have experienced.” —@LivForReading
“Bad Fruit is a good metaphor for bad mothers: a rancid sweetness.” —@VanReads
“Ella King’s Bad Fruit is a claustrophobic, powder keg of a novel. A portrait of abuse, it hinges on absurdity and suspense to tell a wild story of familial trauma and reckoning that never feels like a ‘trauma novel.’” —Sophia June, Nylon
If you liked Bad Fruit, read…
Godshot and Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma
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Olivia and Fiona