All posts by Jessica L O'Dell

Zombies and Climate Change

Before diving into some of my thoughts about the book, I’d like to digress for a second and tell about my experience reading this book. Probably, like many people in our class, I was at home over break reading this book while also balancing family, food, and friends. I realized that the only way I could get myself started reading was if I could convince my whole family to do it as well. For that reason, I downloaded the audiobook for free (you get two free audiobooks with an Audible trial, I discovered). After first accidentally downloading the German version, I finally found a narration that we could all understand. My parents and I were traveling around Death Valley which was fitting in some ways, not only because of the spooky namesake, but also because traveling in that seemingly lifeless desert valley forces one to think about survival in a similar way to how this novel forces one to think about what one’s own response would be in the face of a zombie invasion. Every so often, between chapter breaks my mom or dad would chime in, “Well, I would just go find an island,” or “This place would be perfect as long as you could bring enough food and water with you!”

 

I have to admit that after listening to the details of how a zombie dismembers a human while passing through the Mars-like landscape of Death Valley has left me a little jittery, jumping at every little shadow. As we made our way through World War Z, I was stunned by the way Max Brooks dutifully explored and deconstructed almost every possible response to the zombie invasion. My family and I thought we were intelligent and on top of it by thinking that escaping on a boat or to a mountain or island would be the answer. However, Max Brooks carefully deconstructs each of these responses, explaining the way in which virtually every response would crumble in the face of a crisis. For me, this was one of the most impressive aspects of the novel, the vast amount of research and care that Max Brooks must have taken to construct these detailed narratives of individuals in each country.

 

After our discussion in class, I was curious to know what sort of research Brooks put into his novel. I also really wanted to know how various countries received these packaged analyses of their potential reaction to an epidemic. After a bit of research, I could not find any answers to my latter question. However, in an article Brooks wrote dispelling the comparison of his novel to the Ebola outbreak, he commented briefly on the extensive research he did to create this novel. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/10/16/is-ebola-the-real-world-war-z-spoiler-alert-its-not/ In addition to studying the history of pandemics and responses to natural disasters, Brooks interviewed a number of doctors, soldiers, journalists, and intelligence personnel, “in an attempt to illustrate the fragile global systems that shield our species from the abyss”.

 

Not only was the benefit of these interviews reflected in the details or content of the interviews, but also in his writing style, including the interaction between the narrator Max Brooks and each character. It must have taken a great deal of care and knowledge to construct a fictional oral history that is still based in research and some fact. Brooks chose a challenging style in creating an “oral history;” however, this chosen style does additional work for the story as we see the interaction between narrator or interviewer, Max Brooks, and his interview subjects. The interview structure of this novel forces Brooks to make a number of admissions in the Introduction as he identifies the importance of recognizing the “human factor”. Additionally, in the introduction, Brooks writes, “ I have attempted to reserve judgment, or commentary of any kind, and if there is a human factor that should be removed, let it be my own” (Brooks 3). Brooks’ decision to include this disclosure is especially ironic, considering the entire novel is his own commentary on humanity and human systems. However, in my opinion, the awareness that this comment reflects does give the novel an extra element of legitimacy.

 

In all of Max Brooks’ gory descriptions of zombie attacks, it is not the grisly details that have continued to haunt me; it is the government’s ineptitude and inability to deal with such a massive crisis. As I may have made clear in class, the metaphorical zombie that this book represents for me, is climate change. Brooks has done us all a favor by going through the thought experiment of identifying where major world powers are going to crumble in the face of a massive, devastating, faceless enemy such as climate change. Yet, despite this example, among countless other writings that detail how our national and international systems will be stressed under increasing temperatures, very few actions have been taken internationally to mitigate the effects of climate change. Up until this point, refusals to create international cooperation, and uncertainty as to how to address the unevenness or “unflat” nature of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions have made progress on climate mitigation almost non-existent. World War Z only worsened my “climate anxiety” as the international systems that we depend on crumbled in the face of the zombie invasion. As a result, I honestly have very little hope for international cooperation in the face of global threats. The COP 21 in Paris will be an interesting case study in how much our world leaders have learned in the past year.

 

While I don’t have much hope for the effectiveness of international treaties and cooperation in the face of an imminent yet faceless threat, I do think that outside of government structures, humans have an incredible capacity to build resilient and cooperative communities. In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit posits that the large problems in response to disasters come from governments, not individuals. However, most do not distinguish between a government’s response and that of individuals or society. This lack of distinction leads to an overall perception that in the face of a disaster individuals will turn on each other for their own benefit. However, in World War Z we see certain examples of individuals banding together in the face of a common enemy. This is also supported by non-fictional examples in Solnit’s, A Paradise Built in Hell, as she describes a number of examples from Hurricane Katrina to earthquakes in San Francisco where individuals formed a community and truly supported each other in the face of a disaster. There are clearly a number of reasons why the smaller scale, national examples in Solnit’s book differ greatly from something as large and international as a zombie invasion. There also exist many examples in these two books and elsewhere of individuals turning on each other when it comes to the ultimate question of scarcity and survival. However, it seems that depending on the ability of individuals and communities to organize and protect each other may be the only option in the face of an issue as dangerous, international, and unwieldy as climate change.

Also, if anyone is interested in hearing additional breakdown of zombie invasion theories and IR theory, here is a Foreign Policy blog: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/08/18/theory-of-international-politics-and-zombies/ . Apparently the author of the blog also wrote a book, Theory of International Politics and Zombies

Rivers and Migrations

First of all, Kevin I was really intrigued by the way in which you analyzed Mustafa’s sexual encounters with white women in Europe as an act of hypocrisy. To me, that section of the novel in which he exotifies and objectifies his own cultural background in order to complete a conquest of foreign women most clearly illustrated the layers of colonialism that underline this novel.

 

I agree with what Emily wrote about in the briefing document that the writing and metaphorical language that Salih were some of the most enjoyable parts of the book. Salih’s use of these metaphors did help bring the reader back to the central themes of the novel. For example, “the string of the bow is drawn taut and the arrow must shoot forth” (24). This visual representation of tension, and potential energy is drawn out through the novel giving the reader a sense of the potential that Mustafa has for aggression, whether sexual or academic. Additionally, Mustafa’s comparison of women in the novel to both cities to be exploited and mountains to be summited is continuous throughout the novel and brings the readers attention sharply back to the fact that women’s bodies are the front on which this battle of colonization is fought.

 

Perhaps the most elegant metaphor in my opinion was Salih’s continuous but differentiated descriptions of the Nile and its presence in the both the narrator’s and Mustafa’s Sudanese villages. One of the first interactions that we have with the Nile is the narrator’s description of his time as a boy, sitting along the Nile watching water wheels go by which eventually were replaced by pumps. This vignette provides an interesting contrast of modernization and technological improvements with the continuity and historical presence of the river. The banks of the Nile in Sudan which are described as “ retreating year after year in front of the thrustings of water,” are contrasted with the river traveling through Cairo, “ The streams too do not follow a zigzag course but flow between artificial banks.”(24). This use of the river in order to compare the Mustafa’s life in the village versus in Cairo is an effective way to frame the resultant changes in his life. The river, of course, with it’s South to North flow may also represent the lives of Mustafa and the narrator as characters constantly in flux between two cultures and locations. The relationship of both the narrator and Mustafa to the river and it’s connection with the north and south is framed again by Mustafa’s death near the water and the narrator’s contemplation of suicide. The narrator describes his torturous relationship with the river as he lies in the river contemplating his death, “Then my mind cleared and my relationship to the river was determined. Though floating on the water, I was not part of it. I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born — without any volition of mine. All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life” (139). As Emily said in the briefing document, these metaphors provided a way to create connections and link the complex ideas and memories presented in this novel.

 

I also wanted to mention that that Euphoria became an intertext for me as Mustafa described one of his first interactions with Ann Hammond, “ Unlike me, she yearned for tropical climes, cruel suns, purple horizons. In her eyes I was a symbol of all her hankerings I am South that yearns for the North and the ice. “ (27) The employment of the compass directions to describe and stereotype these individuals, the cultures they have come from and the cultures and places that they yearn for reminded me of the way in which the grid from Euphoria provided a “scientific” way to characterize and stereotype both individuals and cultures.

Unpacking “The Grid” as a social science tool

As many other people have mentioned, having the opportunity to meet Lily King and discuss her work with her was an incredible experience and I feel very grateful to have had that opportunity. Not to rely too much on a linkage back to our liberal learning goals or the concept of synoptic reading, but having the chance to engage with a text in a variety of environments and with so many different people was truly an experience of synoptic learning. Not only was it refreshing to hear each panelists’ engagement with the novel as a reader, but also to hear their interpretation and remaining questions as an academic in their respective field. In particular, I loved hearing Sarah’s reading of the novel as a writer with a background in non-fiction. Perhaps the most impactful experience was actually conversing with Lily King and listening to her talk about her experience as a writer. Quite frankly, I was enchanted by Lily’s demeanor, the way she composed herself in the face of tough questions and remained true to her craft and novel while engaging earnestly with the panelists was quite inspirational.

There are a few things that I would like to touch on in this post, the first being the “Grid” that King used as Nell’s pinnacle piece of research. I was stunned to find the “Grid” laid out in Euphoria as I have seen a very similar compass structure applied in leadership workshops as a way to categorize different leadership styles. The way the north, south, east, and west personalities are characterized are almost exactly the same as the way I have seen them used in the “leadership compass”. This structure is something that we continue to use in Brown Outdoor Leadership Training. I brought this up to Lily and she was very surprised and had not seen it before outside of Margaret Mead’s work. Lily did mention that this grid framework used in her novel was based off of a cultural mapping piece that Margaret Mead had worked on with her husbands. I have scoured the Bonner Curriculum which is the group from which we have gotten the leadership compass and I have found no references to or citations of Margaret Mead!

King’s use of a division and mapping of cultures and individuals across axes provides the perfect intersection for her exploration of anthropology and that of cultural gender stereotypes. Throughout the novel, Nell is interested in deconstructing Western gender roles and exporting the fluid sexuality and assertive nature of the Tam women. However, I am curious in looking into how the concept of the grid may work against this idea of undoing traditional gender roles. In the Grid format, Nell has placed the Tam women in a quadrant that is entirely different from the quadrant in which Western women may be placed. However, that action of pinning a community or identity into a specific location on an identity inherently reduces that community or identity to a few definitive values, leaving little wiggle room for differences in values or perspectives. While I understand the value of having a way to analyze and categorize traits and behavior patterns for comparison sake, the grid illustrates an underlying tension in social sciences. At what point does the categorization of individuals, cultures, or communities move from being a productive and helpful analytical practice to being a harmful and objectifying one?

I was recently reminded of the dangers of such oversimplifies categorization of communities during a conversation with a fisheries management scientist working in Kenya. When discussing the difficulties of creating community driven management plan, this scientist presented a way to categorize communities across gender descriptions. In his words, “feminine communities” are more risk averse, while “masculine communities” are more risk tolerant. This categorization reminded me a lot of Nell’s Grid framework and illustrated some of the ways in which such raw comparisons can be problematic when used bluntly.

Resiliency and Empathy in The Sirens of Baghdad

Reading The Sirens of Baghdad was a profound emotional experience for me. In my opinion. one of the most impressive elements of the novel was how Khadra structured the plot and the prose in a way that allowed the reader to feel the same horrifying transition that the protagonist underwent. The descriptions in the beginning of Kafr Karam, its inhabitants, and the events and disasters that take place within the city are beautiful, haunting, and emotive. On the other hand, although the protagonists’ experience in Baghadad was an equally dramatic one as he joined a terrorist organization, overall it is described in a way that feels sterile, detached and mechanized. The way in which this novel toggled between sensuous and almost mechanical prose to describe the portagonist’s transformation from a position of empathy to one of complete numbness was absolutely stunning.

 

I cannot for the life of me remember who brought up this comment in class…however, someone mentioned how this novel illustrates the specific role that one take on in the pursuit of violence in the name of a “Cause” I interpreted this comment to mean that throughout the novel, the protagonist begins to fall into an automated and single minded pursuit of vengeance and violence- a path that seems to have been rutted by centuries of Bedouin tradition. In a way this novel helped me understand how violence and trauma may lead to the transition of an individual from a place of empathy to a place in which they are detached from violence.

 

Prior to seeing his father in a humiliated state, the boy describes himself as being a person that “simply hated violence….and found other people’s sorrows devastating.” Pg 97. However, over the course of the novel we see the protagonist become hardened and numb, he “carried my hatred like a second nature; it was my armor” Pg 134. This weapon of hatred helps the protagonist focus his anger and survive in Baghdad. Eventually, this anger has forced the protagonist to become completely numb and disconnected from emotional attachment to his memories. Leading up to the reveal of the virus he has complete control and command over his fears, memories and emotions. This detachment has created a numb and resilient individual.

 

I thought that this transition within the protagonist illustrated an interesting distinction between empathy and resilience that seemed to create dissonance within the narrator. Although the narrator is naturally an empathetic individual who felt that he had, “enormous compassion” for his father, after being violated and humiliated by the American GI’s, the narrator effectively sheds this empathetic side of his personality in order to sharpen his focus on regaining honor for his family. This tension between empathy and resilience comes to a pinnacle as the narrator revisits the moment of his father’s humiliation, “ And when a rifle butt knocks him down, I don’t help him up. I remain upright; my sphinxlike inflexibility prevents me from bending, even over my father.” At this moment the narrator seems to be statuesque and made of marble as he shows absolutely no compassion for his father. At this moment, he also appears to be the pinnacle of strength and unwaveringness- sphinxlike- signaling his success in being undefeated and unaffected. To me, this notion of being undefeated in the defense of honor seemed to be an extremely important aspect of Bedouin culture.

 

The correlation between resiliency and a sense of numbness seemed to be extremely strong until the end of the novel, where the narrator is overwhelmed by the experiences, stories, and potential of the individuals that he sees at the airport. This experience seemed to ground the narrator in the kinds of social interactions that had made up his identity prior to the incident with the American GIs. In a circuitous way, the empathy that the narrator feels for the crowd of people at the end of the novel allows him to become even once more resilient as he regains agency over his decisions.

 

This juxtaposition of empathy and resiliency interests me with regard to the reference to the Myth of Sisyphus that is mentioned in the novel. Through the majority of the novel, I felt as though the author was building tension between empathy and resiliency, indicating that the only way for an individual to survive in the absurd task that is survival is to become numb and removed from the world. However, in my opinion the end of the novel refuted this, showing that human connection, empathy, and the bundle of social relations that composes each of us is the only way for us to see beyond, “the edge of the abyss…the infinite void” pg 101.

Although violence and trauma may harden individuals and make it seem as though disconnecting oneself from emotion is the only way to succeed in pushing one’s one stone up a hill as Sisyphus did, this novel gives the reader a nugget of hope- showing that ultimately human connection and empathy can be an even stronger weapon in preparing individuals for survival in an arguably absurd world.S