All posts by Katrina N Phillips

Hindsight is 20/20: Zombies and Hurricanes

The discussion on World War  touched briefly on the connections between the novel and the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Having grown up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, I also thought of Hurricane Katrina while reading the novel. But unlike the aftermath of the hurricane in New Orleans, where the degree of damage and loss of life was rightfully blamed on the government’s failure to adequately prepare  (“Make Levees Not War” shirts were popular in late 2005), the victims in Mississippi didn’t have such an easy target for blame. There were no faulty levees at fault for the loss of life and property in my hometown of Biloxi. It was just a historically strong storm that hit directly.

But since we like to believe we have control, and that nothing is simply inevitable, we naturally seek someone to blame. This is where I saw the narrator’s reactions in World War Z reminding me of the days following Hurricane Katrina. Particularly when interviewing survivors about the early days of the outbreak, I felt the weight of Brooks’s narrator’s persistent “Why'”s, and even heavier, the “why not’s.” Why weren’t you prepared? Why didn’t you listen to the warnings?  It’s easy with hindsight to look at the warning signs that should have been heeded, and to assume that you would do better at recognizing and responding to them (notably, the narrator never tells us how he survived the “war”).

I heard the same questions asked following Hurricane Katrina. While most people were talking about the government failure in New Orleans, the few people talking about the rest of the Gulf Coast often wanted to know why people didn’t prepare better. After all, they lived in a hurricane-heavy area and were given a mandatory evacuation order well before Katrina made landfall. I’ve told stories of my friends having to swim out of their attics, and been asked why they hadn’t left before. But just as the World War Z survivors mentioned that the zombie outbreak came on the heels of swine flu, ebola, and countless other pandemics that fizzled out, a Gulf Coast-native is quick to remind you of how often the alarm bells are raised for hurricanes that do nothing. Less than a year before Katrina, we had Hurricane Ivan. Also a Category 5, also headed straight for Mississippi, also with mandatory evacuations and predictions comparing it to Hurricane Camille (Camille was the hurricane by which all others were compared until Katrina came along). And at the last minute, it veered east and hit Florida and Alabama instead. For some families, the decision to evacuate is a difficult one, including loss of income and the expenses required for gas, lodging, etc. So while the rest of the country saw the media panic over Katrina as something new, to those who purchased hurricane tracking maps every year, it looked like business as usual–right up until the moment it wasn’t.

So when we talked about the people’s right to be given all the information on a possible crisis, we talked mostly about the government’s motives in hiding the truth to avoid panic and hysteria. But the opposite effect is also possible. When all the information is given, the ratings-hungry media will hype every tidbit they’re given, and the public will eventually become more weary than wary.  We can only panic for so long until we begin to notice crises rarely turn out as bad as they seem, and begin paying less and less attention. This is not to defend governments for withholding information from the populace that could help prepare them, but to say that the governments are not entirely incorrect in viewing the public’s willingness and capacity to respond as a limited resource.

The Death of the Author and Science Fiction as Metaphor

In class today, we asked a number of times whether a particular reading of Ender’s Game could be inferred to be intended by Orson Scott Card, given our knowledge of the author’s religious and political background. Obviously, with a discussion centered around the IR implications of narrative fiction, this question feels wholly relevant. With each novel we’ve read this semester, we have set up our discussions by first acknowledging basic facts of the author’s biography, and always at some point asking what the author’s real world goals with the novel might have been and who their intended audience was. Again, if the goal is historical context (you can’t for example know how prescient Card’s prediction of the “nets” influencing global politics was without knowing how long ago it was published), these are valid questions.

But as a literary arts concentrator, I struggle to detach myself from the notions of the “Death of the Author” so often called upon in modern literary criticism. While early literary criticism followed the same lines of questioning as we have, literary critic Roland Barthes published an essay in 1967, wherein he argued that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” When critiquing a literary work, Barthes argues, the author’s intent and biography should not hold weight. The text must stand alone as interpreted by the reader. Modern criticism therefore distinguishes from the author (the actual individual who put ink to paper, with all his biases and foibles), and the “implied author” (the imagined puppet master, whose goals and intentions may be derived only from what’s presented in the text). The implied author, as invented through interpretation, is the only author that matters to literary criticism.

Ender’s Game is the first book we’ve read this semester where I struggled so strongly with whether to embrace or resist Barthes’ notion of the death of the author. This is the first novel where in my reading I could not escape my foreknowledge of the author’s biography, and how at odds his publicly stated views are with my interpretation of the text. The epilogue of The Ugly Americans detailing the authors’ experiences with foreign service aligned with my understanding of the text. Adichie’s TED Talk about avoiding the single-story felt perfectly complementary to the goals of Americanah as I interpreted them. I didn’t need the authors to die, because knowledge of them did not seem to sway me. But in rereading Ender’s Game this week, armed with the knowledge of Card’s strong stance on the War on Terror and his devotion to Mormon beliefs, it was hard not to reconsider my instinctive interpretations of the moral ambiguities felt in Ender’s story and, instead of viewing them through my own worldview, attempt to consider Card’s intentions.

From a literary perspective, this conflict should be quashed, and interpretation should stay in the text. But in a book with political impact, perhaps there is an imperative to keep the author “alive,” in order to consider the ways in which his construction of the narrative might be insidiously pushing you toward his intended morals, so as to avoid manipulation. The political “facts” of Ender’s universe might lead a reader to conclude that a preemptive strike on the buggers was the best course of action. But before storing away this new knowledge of “Some circumstances require preemptive strikes,” it might be useful to asterisk that conclusion with the fact that the “some circumstances” were fictional ones possibly specifically engineered towards such a conclusion, and therefore not as useful for extrapolating into your worldview as a conclusion reached in more random circumstances.

This necessary caution I believe is somewhat unique to science fiction, because there is a strong tendency to read science fiction as nothing more than an extended metaphor. When science fiction authors incorporate real-world elements into their fictional societies, it can certainly be sometimes to propel political ends, but sometimes it can simply be to give readers footing in an unfamiliar world that can be hard to connect with otherwise. When, for example, an author writes a dystopian novel where the last remnants of human society are settled in Long Island, and the last remnants of the robot race have set up residence in downtown Manhattan (as happens in Dan Wells’s YA series Partials), there does not necessarily have to be a political motive behind the choice. If you are driven to read all science fiction as political metaphor, you might consider the current class structure of the U.S., and try to project the Wall Street mentality onto the robots and the struggling middle class onto the humans. But when such a metaphor finds little support in the surrounding narrative, it becomes clear that was more likely just a choice made by the author to save himself from having to explain geographies. He knows that most of his readers know the location of New York, the distance between Manhattan and Long Island, and the general landscapes of each, and it will therefore be easier for his readers to visualize  the events with minimal description than if he had invented a fictional future city.

This is to say that while science fiction is certainly a powerful tool for political interpretation, and loose metaphors can be made, there is a constant danger of taking it too far. You risk over-simplifying a complex issue of global importance by assigning major players to literary tropes, and ignoring the details that don’t fit the contrived symmetry, particularly when attempting to recontextualize an older work of fiction for a modern issue the author could not possibly have had in mind. And you risk losing out on the richness of the narrative, by ignoring the complexities of its characters in favor of seeking a theory or philosophy for them to embody, especially when you force the characters to align with the author’s known views, which they may have outgrown.

Dream of Ding Village and “Shhhh”

A couple of weeks ago, my literary theory class read the short story* “Shhhh” by the Zimbabwean author, NoViolet Bulawayo. The story tells of a young girl in a village in Zimbabwe whose father returns from South Africa with AIDS after years away from the family.

Now reading Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village shortly after, I found it fascinating to see the connections between the two villages’ reactions to HIV/AIDS. While both stories take place in rural settings with limited resources and a high prevalence of the disease, the cultural backdrops of Zimbabwe and  Eastern China cause the two populations to respond quite differently to widespread infection.

In both stories, the name and general nature of the disease is known, and yet no one consistently speaks its name. While the residents of Ding village call it “the fever,” the characters in “Shhh” use “the Sickness,” to describe the father’s affliction, with only one character ever naming it in the dialogue “It’s no use hiding AIDS.” The combination of discomfort or fear and extreme ubiquity in both populations lends to this trend of assigning a generic, and perhaps less menacing, term that can be easily recognized.

But for the villagers in Lianke’s novel, the fear of directly facing the crisis ends with the name. In Ding village, everyone is open about their diagnosis, never keeping it a secret from their families or neighbors, and with a few obvious exceptions, the villagers work together to survive the crisis, with those afflicted helping each other, and the survivors assisting one another in funeral proceedings.

By contrast, the narrator’s father’s condition in “Shhh” is met with complete denial and secrecy. While Lianke’s villagers continued to move about freely and attempt to be as useful as possible, the father in “Shhhh” is hidden away in their home, and the narrator ordered by her mother to inform no one of his return from South Africa.

This reaction is symptomatic of the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. In Ding Village, anyone afflicted is considered a victim of the blood sales. But in Zimbabwe–as in a number of other African countries–someone known to be HIV positive is typically thought of as a heathen. With masses of husbands and fathers, like the narrator’s, leaving their homes to  seek employment in South Africa to provide for their families, a man who returns sick is presumed to have wasted his time and money on prostitutes and drugs. The problematic mentality created by these assumptions has garnered widespread attention in South Africa, where the government’s policy of denialism with regard to HIV and AIDS under Thabo Mbeki’s presidency at the turn of the century has largely been faulted for the high number of deaths to AIDS in the country. Bulawayo’s image of a daughter’s disgust at her ill father is a tragically perfect reflection of this broader trend, in which the narrator screams in fear at the first sight of her father, describes that he “feels like dead wood” and has “stick-like hands,” and even wishes death upon her father when her friends discover the family’s secret.

Of course, the alternative approach to the growing epidemic that is taken in Ding Village doesn’t seem to actually alleviate the problem at all. The villagers still die one by one, without the medicine or resources they so desperately need. But with two populations facing a similar conflation of ignorance, poverty, and a corrupt government, the key difference seems to be that the sick of Ding Village are at the very least granted in their final days the dignity of respect and companionship. This is more than can be said of those shunned and judged for their diagnoses in Bulawayo’s depiction of Southern Africa.


*”Shhhh” was published on its own as a short story in the New American Stories collection edited by Ben Marcus, which is how I read it. But it was originally a chapter in the novel We Need New Names about a young girl who who immigrates from Zimbabwe to the United States.

In Defense of Embassy Personnel

Disclaimer: This post will be very personal and highly biased. I recently spent a year employed as a fraud clerk at a U.S. embassy abroad, and before that, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life living at embassies, since my father was employed doing diplomatic work for the U.S. military. I have lived among the embassy personnel in Mozambique, Malta, and Albania, and my father worked unaccompanied shortly after the reopening of the Embassy in Serbia.

Because of these experiences, I find it hard to swallow MacWhite’s conclusion, “By setting our standards low and making our life soft, we have, quite automatically and unconsciously, assured ourselves of mediocre people.” My opinions of the overall goals American foreign policy and the relevance of many of this book’s points not withstanding, I wish to share some observations from my own time in embassies to show that, more often than not, our foreign service officers and other embassy personnel are dedicated and hardworking, and far from the MacWhite’s claim of assured mediocrity.

Language and Local Employees

One major thread in The Ugly American is the problems presented by employing Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who do not speak the local language, and the over-reliance on local employees for communication. Interestingly, the same concerns for espionage and lack of loyalty that made the authors distrust local employees can today be a deterrent for sending officers to countries where they already speak the language (, as officers who are already fluent in a local language often also have strong ties to that country that might make it difficult to prove their primary loyalty will be to the United States.

That being said, the State Department does reward language skills in its recruitment and testing, and a high proficiency in one of the designated highly needed languages (which includes Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, and Korean) can increase your chances of being offered employment in Foreign Service. For current FSOs, the Foreign Service Institute offers language training in Washington, DC prior to posting, and by local instructors at the embassies during your post. Depending on the position taken, language training is often required, and may be specifically catered to the officer’s career duties (an econ officer might learn to discuss trade policies before learning elementary vocabulary like the names for vegetables). I haven’t been able to locate statistics on the percentage of current FSOs able to speak the local language, but this report from 2012 indicates, “the average FSI student begins class knowing 2.3 non-English languages,” meaning the fifty percent with no speaking knowledge of any foreign language as quoted in The Ugly American is certainly irrelevant to today’s officer corps. But even with FSOs speaking the language, local employees (referred to as Foreign Service Nationals, FSNs) serve a crucial role to the embassy mission, and I imagine anyone who, like me, has worked alongside FSNs would strongly object to their depiction as, at best, misleading interpreters and at worst, spies.

FSNs often spend multiple decades working in an embassy, alongside FSOs who may or may not also speak the language, but for whom someone with local knowledge and fluency can increase the efficiency and depth of the work. An FSN is vital for more than just interpretation. FSNs also help to maintain continuity as the American officers are replaced every few years, and to provide local knowledge for the implementation of new projects.

In Albania I worked on an embassy campaign for civic engagement aimed at the Albanian public. The two committees I was part of were responsible for social media outreach, and a campaign to fight government corruption. The language skills of the Americans on the committee were a mixed bag, but the Albanian employees who joined the committee were never there to simply translate. Instead, we worked hand in hand to determine how to sell young Albanians on the idea of “designated drivers,” or which types of corruption would be the best starting point to target, or what local celebrity would be an ideal spokesperson. The assistance of local employees, so unnecessary in the view of the Ugly American, ensured that we were not merely imposing American ideals, but fitting our message and goals to the needs of Albania.

In the consular section, the Consular Officers I worked under were given language training in D.C., and quickly solidified their fluency upon arrival at post, so that they could interview visa applicants in Albanian. I listened every day as they discussed each applicant’s employment, family, education, marriage, or travel plans in depth with ease. But as in many countries, not every Albanian speaks the main dialect, and occasionally we would have an applicant from rural Northern or Southern Albanian with whom standard communication would be impossible. Luckily, our dedicated consular FSN staff was on hand to accommodate. Or, if an applicant gave a story in their interview that sounded fishy, the officer could discuss with the FSNs whether it made more sense within the cultural context.

No matter how dedicated to learning the language and culture an Officer may be, they have only a few years posted in each country, and there is a limit to how immersed they may become. Without the help of dedicated FSNs, even the best officers would be far less effective.

Career Ambassadors

I am not going to make any arguments supporting the political appointment of ambassadors. This system gave us the ambassador to Malta at the time that I was there, who had received the position for his role in mobilizing Catholic support for Obama. He ended up being forced to give up the title because he was too Catholic even for Malta, a nation so Catholic they only just legalized divorce in 2011 (only the Phillipines has yet to make that leap away from Catholic doctrine). The political appointment system should be done away with. But what I will point out is that (according to the AFSA list ) 54 of the 171 current U.S. ambassadors are political appointments.

That leaves 117 current U.S. ambassadors who earned their positions through a career in Foreign Service. Many of these ambassadors speak one or more foreign languages, and have a passion for global politics and international relations that shows in their work. During my time in Albania, I worked under one such ambassador, Alexander Arvizu, who I would say is a clear example of the type of ambassador Lederer and Burdick wanted for our foreign service. Ambassador Arvizu was so beloved and respected by the Albanians, that he basically had full celebrity status. Every speech or appearance he made was headline news. I once invited some Albanian friends, students at a university in the capital, to an embassy pool party. While the American guests were all chatting, my friends were surreptitiously taking selfies with Ambassador Arvizu in the background to show off to their friends, as if they’d met a movie star.

But the highlight of his ambassadorship in my eyes—and I would presume in Lederer and Burdick’s if they’d been around for it—was a campaign called ACT Now (standing for Albanians Coming Together Now). ACT Now was a campaign started specifically by Ambassador Arvizu in Albania, and was his darling during his tenure. The program was intended to address the tendency in the Albanian public to distrust their ability to effect change in their country, either because it’s too large a problem, and maybe some day in the future it’ll happen, when the government isn’t so corrupt, or because “that’s just the way things are.” These are sentiments I heard often in Albania. The goal of ACT Now was to use the visibility of the US embassy to highlight examples of Albanians making small but powerful changes in their communities. It wasn’t an aid program, and it didn’t suggest projects to locals. Instead, it would seek out existing groups, individuals, programs, and businesses in different parts of the country, and give them a broader platform, help them make the connections necessary to further their goals, and help other Albanians find the inspiration to take action as well. The slogan for the campaign was “Bëj të dëgjohet zëri yt – Make your voice heard.”

ACT Now’s “champions” included: a group dedicated to cleaning up Albania’s most polluted beach, a rural middle school teacher who inspired her students to compete in international academic competitions, a student who collected the old political posters littering the cities and turned them into art, and a social business that promoted disability rights by creating an accessible space, employing people with disabilities, and hosting events to encourage integration of people with disabilities. ACT Now went one step further than the Ugly American’s suggestion of involving local citizens in development goals: it left the agency entirely to the citizens, and acted purely as an amplifier and support system.

In Arvizu’s opening speech for the campaign, he summed it up with regard for the need for space for civil society: “The answer frankly is not to create a government office to oversee and direct civil society. The answer is to give more space, not just to civil society, but to individuals; to be more responsive to citizens’ concerns; to actually listen to what people have to say.”

“Cushy” Lifestyle

Marie MacIntosh was not inaccurate in her depiction of life abroad in “The Girl Who Got Recruited,” and I will not pretend my life wasn’t particularly comfortable for a child of an enlisted servicemember. But I would argue there’s a reason for allowing our diplomats to live comfortably, beyond simply impressing other dignitaries, or attracting mediocrity. Having a comfortable home and active social schedule does not mean a person is soft, and the job is often still demanding. When the first lady visited Mozambique, my father spent weeks working 14-hour days in preparation. When Libya erupted into chaos in 2011, and Malta was the nearest operating embassy, my father again worked 14-hour days, including nights and weekend shifts, to ensure the safe evacuation of Americans in Libya and to be prepared for Gaddafi’s threats of attacking nearby American embassies. In Serbia, my dad once arrived at work to discover an angry crowd protesting outside the embassy, and was forced to quietly sneak back home. Most long-term FSOs I’ve met have at some time in their career either had to be evacuated from an embassy, or been faced with a direct protest on the embassy.

Even when it’s not chaotic, it’s still not exactly easy. Every two to three years, an FSO must uproot their life and family and experience the cultural whiplash of acclimating to a drastically different country. Something most people do at most once in life, they do on a regular basis. Their children have to be enrolled in new schools with curriculum that may not fit what they did previously. Their whole family has to attempt to learn a new language. They have to adjust their daily habits to include driving on the opposite side of the road, or reversing nods and head shakes to fit local custom, or eating goat brains to not offend a host. They’re expected to fully represent and embody U.S. positions and ideals at all times, which means every few years returning to Washington, D.C. for a post, to ensure they are still connected to American society.

Obviously they’re not always amazing. Some FSOs can’t handle the pressure (see: this jerk). Some have strong feelings of cultural superiority that make them ineffective, like the officer I met once who told me if he had it his way, we wouldn’t issue any visas ever to Pakistanis. And some are truly just mired in bureaucracy, or a desire to travel the world on the government dime while doing a job they care little for. But overall, when seeking out the biggest problems in U.S. presence abroad, I’d look more at our larger goals and strategies than at the people hired to carry them out.