Category: Literature

Labor without grievance

I’m reminded as I’m thinking about Zone One this week of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times back around Halloween. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery. Some highlights:

Most people think of them as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put her theory in conversation with the essay on Defoe and zombie films I gave you earlier this week, or perhaps with this longish review of Zone One, which places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does–and doesn’t–say about the history of race in America.

Zombie time again

I posted a link to this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly earlier in the semester but portions will be newly meaningful to you this week:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. Even in this, H.F. is thwarted, as the plague outruns information, spreading faster than the news, eroding actionable knowledge into useless nubs of hearsay.

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

Some thoughts to help us begin talking about what we might consider this novel’s zombie economy.

Judging a Book by Its Cover?

I remember one of us asked Ben about the process of book cover-making. Here is a brief interview with the designer of the Flame Alphabet book jacket. You can hear about the materials used, how it was initially planned, and how the plan was modified at last. I also found an interesting article about this process in a blog named “talkingcovers.” I was surprised when I read that Mendelsund, the designer, started with an attempt to invent typographic characters, mirroring Sam who tries to invent new semantic forms. Then my question arises regarding the role of a book design and a book designer. Is it only a tool to boost the selling? Does it have to be symbolic? Should it give a kind of a summary to the readers? Can it be irrelevant? and do book designers usually finish the book before designing the cover?

Your child will be the end of you

It is a good thing that Ben Marcus is visiting the university in a few days, as his novel The Flame Alphabet demands far more questions, often hidden away in metaphorical events, than it does answers. The beginning especially is shrouded in questions – why would parents leave a daughter they loved? Why are Jews especially infected? And then, who is Murphy and what does he do?

We begin the novel to find Sam and his wife Claire readying to leave their daughter, Esther. Esther is a sharp-tongued teenager who constantly retorts to her parents’ questioning. In many ways her character and relationship with her parents appears normal for a teenager; she wants freedom, she talks back to her parents. Yet, Esther is a much darker, more cynical teenager than most. She is extremely mature, or maybe seems to be because she is so cynical. Sam, Claire and Esther play word games together where Sam tries to lure his daughter into conversation through baiting her: “we fell into the old cajole. We prodded, she resisted, we sulked and put our irreverent feelings in the air, and Esther suddenly, after we had cursed the whole transaction and felt disgusted by the topic, got talkative” (37). The parents’ love is apparent and imprisons them in the unhealthy situation: “sh** on me, oh my children, and I will never fail to love you?” (12).

Simultaneously, words and speech are coming under attack from a disease that is spreading through the population. The nature and effects of the disease are slowly unpacked as Sam, the narrator, details the lead-up to their departure. He loves his daughter but it seems that it is for that reason he also must leave her. From an isolated radio outpost where Jewish sermons are projected through a transistor radio, Sam and Claire are told that experts have identified “children as the culprit” (30). The disease has left both Sam and Claire ill, though when Esther leaves for a horse-riding camp, they seem to recover, or at least feel as if they have recovered ever so slightly. They refer to the days she is gone as “days without exposure” (23). Unfortunately, these days are not beneficial in the long-run.


The Flame Alphabet plays on ideas of communication and silence. There is lack of communication between medical services and the population, between parent and child, and between neighbours in society (for example at the picnic site). Although Sam and the reader are given snippets of the medical discussions of the contagion, it is through Sam’s narration and his own analysis that the cause of the contagion is uncovered. Does the reader gain a greater connection to the narrator, or a better understanding of the feelings of sufferers by this unveiling through the narration? Even the emergency sirens have been replaced by white noise, a distorted silence, “a plague of deafness” (9). As mentioned, there is a lack of communication between teenage daughter and parents, which one could consider natural but for Esther’s scathing remarks to her parents. Though, silence is also a part of Sam and Claire’s life – at home: “We cooked in silence. This was us at our best, stew building, salad making…” (33); and in religion: “feeding Rabbi Burke’s services to his dispersed, silent community” (41). As the reader, do you feel a greater sense of tension through this contrast of silence and deadly sound?

I think it is important to address the idea that it is children and children’s voices that are the source of contagion. It makes it more scary – anyone remember those Doctor Who episodes with creepy children!? Finally, communication and company has broken down between neighbour: “we tried not to trouble our few neighbours in the field by staring” (29). The simple act of saying “Hello” or sharing a glance has become burdened with intrusion. The illness affects people visibly, noticeable although quite subtle, and now neighbours begin to avoid one another. I believe this isolates the families more and makes the issue of one’s only child being the contagion of greater significance. If your child was making you ill, do you think you could ready your bags as Sam and Claire do?

FUN FACT: The squiggles on the spine of the book are the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet, “laid flat” if you like.


Charles Burns combines high school lifestyle and the idea of epidemic in his graphic novel Black Hole by narrating the experiences of several teenagers. Within the context of adolescence, Burns illustrates the spreading of “The Bug”, which is transmitted through sex. Black Hole inevitably draws a parallel between sex and intoxication — whether alcohol, LSD or other soft drugs — as the usage of drugs almost consistently precedes sexual encounters. In a way we could therefore argue that the spreading of the Bug is facilitated by intoxication.

This layout on one of the very first pages seems to perfectly illustrate the statement made above. The four pillars prophesying the disease, which the hand covering genitals identifies to be of sexual nature, are juxtaposed with an alcoholic bottle, cigarettes, joint and a gun. The spiral that is created through the intercourse of all these factors is what Keith sees as ‘Nothingness’, which is also a description of the Black Hole.

The consequences that evolve out of the conceiving of “the Bug” are mutations. Chris starts shedding her skin, develops a forked tongue and repeatedly is portrayed close to water, which suggests characteristics of a snake. Eliza develops a tail, which regrows when it breaks and desires to be in the desert, which are characteristics of a lizard. Unlike those two mutations that draw similarities to animals, Rob develops a second mouth, which voices his deepest thoughts.

Burns’ decision to chose mutation mirrors adolescent changes in bodies, and with that makes the contagion specific to the High School environment. In addition, his choice to develop this story within a graphic novel is significant in that the effects of the contagion are of physical nature. The mutations do not necessarily change characters or behaviours, but rather the physical appearance of people. By embedding this narration within a graphic novel, Burns was able to illustrate the disease. This is very different from the other books we have read, where the disease was described with words, while here the reader is confronted with pictures, and almost no written description of the effects of the disease.

The environment around them ostracizes characters who show physical changes due to contracting the contagion. This phenomenon is a parallel to both mobbing in high school and the ostracizing of homosexuals during the AIDS epidemic. As in those instances, characters of the graphic novel try to fit in, but due to societal pressure feel more comfortable among themselves, which is why the woods become an important location for the infected students. As the Society splits into those living in the woods and those in the city, the question of whether those in the woods are still human arises. Similar to Animal’s People, it seems that those infected by the bug do no longer fully identify as human, which is underlined by the fact that many mutations have animalistic traits.

Containing this novel within the framework of a graphic novel has many effects, one being that the illustrations help the reader visualize many patterns that are not explicitly worded. This layout of Chris and Rob conversing before having sex foreshadows the exchange of the “Bug” and Chris’ infection. The merging of their faces into one is representative of this exchange and would be impossible to describe in such a creative way within a written novel. No wonder, then, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Christy, Connor, Caroline

Filming Ding Village

Hi, all. I hope I’m not stealing anyone’s thunder (esp. augmenters, who have yet to post) but given that we’ve got a shorter week than usual I want to direct your attention to a couple films quite relevant to Dream of Ding Village. The first is an upload (shh!) of the full feature film Love for Life (2011), alternately titled Til Death Do Us Part and Life Is a Miracle, an adaptation of Yan’s novel directed by Gu Changwei. (Yan Laoshi, listed as its first screenwriter, is apparently a pseudonym of Yan Lianke himself, according to this reviewer.)

If you’re pressed for time and would just like a taste, here’s the trailer:

Here’s an interview with director Gu Changwei from TimeOut Shanghai.

A companion documentary, Together, offers a “a behind-the-scenes look at the Chinese cast and crew’s reaction to AIDS patients who participated in the filming of Gu Changwei’s feature film.” (See this interview with director Zhao Liang. And this one.) Together is available on YouTube in six parts. Here’s the first:

Can We Walk Away from Hillbrow?

Oh, the seductive allure of heaven!

But can heaven be the answer? Can one escape from life once dead?

As the illness Oswald had in Ibsen’s Ghosts was inherited from his father, the identity of the region is inherited. One is born into the region. The repetitive phrase that follows the names of the character, “Refentse, child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow,” for instance, constantly reminds Refentse and the readers that the bond between an individual and the region is stronger than one might assume, and perhaps unbreakable. It is interesting to note that Refentse, even after his death, remains in heaven, or our “new” Hillbrow, watching whatever is happening in the region. As mentioned in the novel, one cannot simply leave home. “Home travels with you.”

The unbreakable bond between the individual and one’s home in the novel somehow reminds me of the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin.  Omelas, a fictional ideal village in the story, is maintained on one condition that one child must be kept in perpetual misery in a dark grim room. People who had lived happily in Omelas, when confront the truth where their happiness is coming from, are shocked. The majority keeps on living in Omelas but a few people decide to walk away from Omelas, leaving their ideal happy village behind. But are they exempt from the sins and problems of Omelas? Likewise in “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” some characters decide to leave their city either by simply moving somewhere or by committing suicide. All the characters, however, end up returning to Hillbrow. Walking away simply does not clear one from obligations.

The book concludes with Refilwe’s death, welcome by “our heaven.” The characters, even after death, will reunite in heaven. They continue their existence. It’s quite scary when we think that there is no end. Hillbrow will keep welcoming its returnees again and again and again and…

Walk away if you can.


Welcome to our Humanity

“Welcome to our Hillbrow”

This sentence is uttered over and over again as the narrator realises the novel that his protagonist, Refentse couldn’t write in his own lifetime. The novel is in effect, a dedication to both his friend but also to a new South Africa struggling with questions of identity in the post-apartheid era. Like the novel that Refentse set out to write, Mpe’s novel addresses “Hillbrow, xenophobia and AIDS and the prejudices of rural lives.” (55) The narrative is particular in that it is written in the 2nd person, addressed as a letter or a dedication to Refentse, intricately describing the struggles of the community. It encompasses all of these through its thoughtful narrative, which addresses the very characters it describes.

The harrowing image of violence in the aftermath of Bafana Bafana’s (the South African football team) victories as bottles are hurled from balconies and a young girl was once fatally hit by a car in the madness, paints a bleak picture – even in jubilation, there is tragedy and suffering in Hillbrow. The town is full of crime and discrimination leads to the creation of scapegoats. Many of the locals blame the foreign black Africans for the moral corruption in their town. The Makwerekwere (a derogatory term used by black South Africans for other Africans) are despised and take the blame for the grievances of the town, “we can attribute the source of our dirges to Nigeria and Zaire” (21) and “It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came” (118).

This xenophobia is similarly evident when Refilwe leaves to study in the UK. Refilwe discovers that she is then part of the marginalised “Africans” (102) population who are socially and culturally isolated, not altogether different from the way that the Makwerekwere were treated. Prejudice breeds in whispers and gossip that is sourced from speculation and ignorance however it also has very real impacts in the community. The conscience and the mind are seemed to be similarly powerful, “If such words (speculations about Refilwe’s condition and morality) did not actually come from people’s mouths, then they simply rang inside your own head” (120). Ultimately, it is a deep sense of guilt and despair that loom too great in their minds that sends Refentse to his death, and in turn, Lerato and that sends Sammy into a spiral of depression.

Just as HIV/AIDS lurks in the background of the lives of some of the central characters, particularly Refilwe as we discover she has been infected for 10 years, it similarly lays unseen in the background for most of the novel. AIDS is perceived as a problem inflicted on the community by foreigners and given that it is most commonly transmitted through drug use and unprotected sex, it is also linked to a morally corrupt, promiscuous society.

Identity and place are thus central to the narrative as they indicate the status of the person in society and imply either a sense of belonging or distance. After it is discovered that Refilwe has AIDS, she becomes “by association, one of the hated Makwerekwere” (118); her original identity had been lost through her association with a Nigerian boy, as well as her suffering from AIDS, and people no longer treat her in the same way.

As the novel progresses, the phrase, “Welcome to our Hillbrow” expands to include other people and places, as if the sentiment of moral corruption behind the original line is spreading around the world. The penultimate chapter ends with, “Welcome to Our Humanity” (113). Perhaps one should views others as if Through the Eyes of a Child… or maybe, like Hillbrow, the whole world is infected.

Questions raised from this text include: How does identity and prejudice influence the relationship between a specific culture (or set of people) and illness? Whether the idea of contagion is always linked with a place and therefore, looking at the selection of texts we have read, do writers try to increase tension by having characters that travel? Do you like the narrative of this text with it addressing the very characters it describes, does this add anything to the novel?

— Tom and Sam

Appiah, cosmopolitanism, & “contamination”

I mentioned in class today Anthony Appiah’s effort to rehabilitate the notion of “contamination,” to use it without negative connotation. Some of you are probably familiar with his book Cosmopolitanism, which tends to make the rounds at NYUAD, but here’s a nice concise version of his argument from the New York Times Magazine in 2006.

The point about culture and “contamination” has to do with how futile it is, in Appiah’s view, to “preserve” something like “cultural purity.” Culture just doesn’t work like that, he says:

Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don’t say that we can’t change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done — or what we plan to do — are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.

He brings the term up again in conclusion:

The ideal of contamination has few exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” No doubt there can be an easy and spurious utopianism of “mixture,” as there is of “purity” or “authenticity.” And yet the larger human truth is on the side of contamination — that endless process of imitation and revision.

A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That’s why cosmopolitans don’t insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don’t have all the answers. They’re humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can’t learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his “I am human” line, but it is equally suggestive: “If you’re right, I’ll do what you do. If you’re wrong, I’ll set you straight.”

Note how closely the quotation from Rushdie resembles Belize’s imagined heaven in Angels:

Belize: Hell or heaven?

[Roy indicates “Heaven” through a glance]

Belize: Like San Francisco.

Roy Cohn: A city. Good. I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.

Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.

Roy Cohn: Isaiah.

Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths.

Roy Cohn: And a dragon atop a golden horde.

Belize: And everyone in Balencia gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.

Roy Cohn: And Heaven?

Belize: That was Heaven, Roy.

Does it make sense to think of Belize’s description as another example of the kind of cosmopolitanism Appiah describes? Does Belize’s emphasis on impurity, confusion, and mixing relate in some way to other elements of the play we’ve talked about — the decision to cast actors in multiple roles, for instance?

Speaking of heaven, I always think of this song when I read this play: