Not on Fire, But Burning: America’s Much Needed Wake Up Call

Greg Hrbek’s novel Not on Fire, But Burning captures humanity in its rawest and ugliest form. Set in a futuristic and dystopian America, where World War III has come and gone and Muslims are housed in internment camps, Hrbek’s prose grips its readers and forces them to look the consequences of the fear, hate, and prejudices held in the heart of this country in the eye. Through the eyes of a young Muslim boy rescued from an internment camp and the less-than-tolerant suburban families that surround him, Hrbek takes his readers on a literary journey that allows us to see the catastrophic effect of fear, desperation, and human instinct to look outward instead of inward for the source of one’s sufferings.

Throughout the novel, Hrbek uses cicadas to represent how although the world has changed the way it looks by the year 2039, it is fundamentally still the same as it is today and as it was in decades past. As he says on page 157:

“What Dorian and his friends discovered is that a world can change and awful lot…And yet. It is possible, too, for a world to change very little, to be stuck in one place or caught in a kind of loop, so that even the magicicada, a creature which disappears from the face of the Earth for so long may reappear to find conditions not much different from those left behind.”

With this sentiment, Hrbek reminds us that although our world has changes significantly on a superficial level, or ancestors who endure the Holocaust, Jim Crow, and Japanese internment would recognize the hate and fear of the unknown that underlies today’s Islamophobia. It is this recurring imagery that forces readers to recognize that the serious flaws and depravity present in this futuristic version of America are unfortunately paralleled in present day America.

Ultimately, Not on Fire, But Burning is a beautifully crafted wake up call that couldn’t have climbed the bestsellers list at a better time. Hrbek’s characters demonstrate how easily living in fear can spiral out of control and evolve into the systematic other-ing of a group of people. As we gear up for this year’s election, I hope readers see this captivating story as a cautionary tale against throwing one’s support behind a candidate whose rhetoric incites fear of all Muslims and recognize that the fictional world that the Hrbek creates is not so unrealistic after all.

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Reflections on 2015: What Therapy Taught Me

Over the course of my junior year, I learned a tremendous amount about myself.

While in Scotland, I found a balance that I’ve spent the last twenty-one years searching for. I found friends that made me laugh until my stomach ached and man who loves every part of me, all while managing to perform well academically, without feeling as though I was sacrificing anything. I felt as though I had morphed into the absolute best version of myself.

However as my days at St. Andrews came to a close and I returned to William & Mary in January of 2015, the new and improved me that I had cultivated over countless pints of cider and containers of “cheesy chips” failed to thrive. I found myself feeling like an outsider in a place I once called home. Suddenly, I was spiraling out of control. My grades were slipping, I felt as though nothing I did was good enough, and I struggled to convince myself that it was worth it to get out bed each day. After a rather public, snot-filled breakdown in the library, I swallowed my pride and admitted to myself that I couldn’t cope with how I was feeling on my own. I needed help. 

Throughout my time in therapy, some of my deepest sources of pain bubbled to the surface. I was forced to face my own flaws head on and work to relinquish their hold on me. For months, I grappled with my crippling fear of failure and tendency to disguise any shred of negative emotion with the flash of a smile or the crack of sarcastic joke until I finally realized that wanting to do my best should be synonymous with happiness, not perfection. 

Although my GPA did not reflect the breadth of knowledge I acquired over the course of that academic year, I feel as though everything I learned about my own strengths and weaknesses is far more meaningful than anything I could have read in a textbook. It’s hard for me to even picture the nervous girl I was back two Septembers ago, plopped on the floor of a JFK terminal, anxiously awaiting the start of my journey across the pond and frankly, I’m okay with that. I firmly believe that I came out of this year a stronger and happier person who is far better equipped to tackle the world around me.