the dystopian genre thru a post-colonial lens: selected works

“In Hollywood, whites have churned out dystopian fantasies by imagining themselves as slaves and refugees in the future…[it is] science fiction as magical thinking: whites fear that all the sins they committed against black and brown people will come back to them tenfold, so they fantasize their own fall as a preventative measure to ensure that the white race will never fall.”

–Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings (2020)

Park Hong’s words are provocative. The post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre (both film & novel) can be viewed as instructional (e.g. how to survive moral conundrums surrounding your survival vs. that of someone else; how to scavenge & farm; how to fend off those who would eat you, enslave you, otherwise kill you). While television series like The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead depict a vast spectrum of diversity in their respective casts, both series begin by centering White characters struggling with the concept of leadership in a new world order. Viewed from Park Hong’s perspective, as these programs progress through multiple seasons, they instruct how Whites might survive America in which the historical racial-social structures have been obliterated.

Having said that, there are several women and/or BIPOC authors who have co-opted the genre to good effect. Interestingly, many of these stories might be considered coming-of-age. I have curated a list (in no particular order) of post-apocalyptic/dystopian books, most of which I have masochistically consumed over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic; I included some “classics” and other White writers by way of comparison. Each book title is accompanied by a distinctive trait, when considered from Park Hong’s framework.

Parable of the Sower: Earthseed #1 (2000) & Parable of the Talents: Earthseed #2 (2001) by Octavia E. Butler

The author is a Black woman who wrote the books in the closing years of the second millennium. The heroine is also a Black woman who has a vision of the future where people accept her assertion that “God is change.” Chilling in its prescience, Butler imagines an America in which a man not unlike POTUS 45 wins the White House in the mid-2030s. Novels could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid is a British-Pakistani man whose novel depicts two Middle Eastern characters witnessing the collapse of the world created by hundreds of years of colonialism. The wars between formerly colonial powerhouses are the backdrop as the two main characters find their way to a new life in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. In the end, the world could be deemed a better place after the demise of Western imperial structures. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel

Canadian writer whose heroine tries to survive a brutal post-pandemic world. Art/theatre provides hope in the bleak landscape. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad

Telling the story from several Black American perspectives, Egyptian-born north American writer El Akkad takes the reader on a wild adventure through the flooded 2074 South during the Second American Civil War. It is a war fought over the outlawing of oil—among other things. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

I include this because, from a Native American standpoint, it could be viewed as an apocalyptic story describing the collapse of known cultural structures. The zombies in this story are the brutal white men from Europe who just don’t seem to die.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020) by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan (White Tasmanian) has threads of post-colonialism throughout his earliest work; for this and many other reasons, he is one of my favorite writers. The novel is far from the best of his, and its apocalyptic tale is not really all that futuristic or outlandish, as it imagines the world on fire and the people in it more consumed with their smartphones and social media than the global destruction occurring in their immediate surroundings.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

All the characters are all White. Depicted is a United States ruled by tyrannical Christian men who have “resettled” Black folks and who have forced women to bear children in an ever-more austere world. It should not go without comment that this is what Black women endured in ante-bellum America. Interesting take in this article.

1984 (1949) by George Orwell

Read this one in high school. And cannot let it off the hook. All white characters depicted in a world where autonomous thought and action are criminalized; they are entirely under the eye of a faceless, uncaring ruler. Isn’t that colonialism? Isn’t that the British Empire from whence the author came? Was he being ironic? One would hope the dark allegorist saw parallels between the brutality of his own country’s capitalist exploitative history and the autocrats of Soviet Russia.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

It’s been over a decade since I read this. I don’t recall there being anything but White characters in this book. The story is set in post-nuclear-holocaust and follows a boy and his ailing father as they do what they can just to survive. To what end? Just for the sake of survival? I may have to revisit this one to better see it through the lens of Park Hong’s theory.

One thought on “the dystopian genre thru a post-colonial lens: selected works

  1. Pingback: Your book recommendations – 2022 | nick holmberg

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