All posts by Robyn C Sundlee

Zombie Anxiety and the American Ethos

While it is a very handy guide for how to manage the zombie apocalypse, World War Z offers a fascinating look into America’s modern psyche. The author himself seems to embody the anxiety about the future plaguing the upper middle class. I argue that this novel reflects the ethos of a nation—one riddled with feelings of insecurity and weakened faith in the state. The popularity of post-apocalyptic storytelling in recent decades—particularly among generations—is a product of this overwhelming uncertainty for what the future may hold, as well as misplaced nostalgia for the past. Globalization, global warming, the rapid pace of technological innovation and high pressure lifestyles all contribute to this sense of inevitable destruction.

The most obvious culprit for the spread of the zombie virus in World War Z is our intense global interconnectivity. Human trafficking, refugee movement and organ black markets are held responsible. This reflects current concerns regarding the Syrian refugee crises in Europe. As we discussed in class, Mike Huckabee’s views are a symptom of this mentality—goods and people are flowing more freely among nations than ever before, and no one can really control what comes in. This fact leads to ominous predictions about terrorism, super viruses and weapons and how it could all lead to our inevitable destruction. We are currently acclimating to a new interconnected world, and novels like WWZ are byproducts of a discomfort with this change.

WWZ also offers a critique on attitudes that place too much faith in technological innovation. In the Battle of Yonkers, the US brought impressive firepower to bear against the zombies, but were ultimately humiliated. This goes to show that technology is no trump card—like all tools it can be misused. One point brought up in class was the mindset that incoming catastrophes like global warming can be mediated by our technological prowess. I argue that the novel’s dismissal of technology is another symptom of anxiety. Our innovations seem to be outpacing our knowledge of how to best use them and this leads to a nostalgia for simpler times, where we thoroughly understood our tools—the sort of environment created when zombies overrun the US.

The yearning for a pre-high tech lifestyle is also symptomatic of our generation’s apprehension regarding the future and discontent with the present. It’s a phenomenon we see cropping up everywhere—from popular culture to fashion to literature. Learning a practical trade—something that would be useful in the oncoming zombie apocalypse—is very much in vogue. Oftentimes it seems the only way to resurrect this simpler way of life would be for the world to effectively end. I hypothesize that this fantasy is because of the high pressure lifestyles of the average American consumer and how it induces feelings of helplessness. A recent article in The Atlantic discussed a rash of teen suicides in Silicon Valley. The cautious conclusion to the piece was that these suicides were caused by mass feelings of being trapped in high-stress situations, and that the only way out of the punishing cycle was death. It is easy to draw parallels between this mentality and the attractiveness of post-apocalyptic scenarios where everything is ripped down and constructed anew.

Ultimately WWZ is the product of an anxious, upper class American mind. The story embodies key elements of the current national ethos—most glaringly a sense that what we have cannot be sustained. Our Western civilization is depicted as a toppling house of cards. Our technology does not save us, and our greed-induced globalized supply chains and foolish war-making ultimately brings us to our knees. Yet, out of the ashes emerges a global coalition dedicated to constructing a new world order—the preferred solution of our generation to our current international woes. When looked at through this lens, the zombie apocalypse is perhaps less a nightmare and more a daydream.  


Season of Migration to the North and Gendered Oppression

It is easy to see why Edward Said described Tayeb Salih’s novel as one of the best Arab pieces of literature. Season of Migration to the North reflects many of the principles espoused by Said’s book Orientalism and also provides a portrait of the ways in which colonialism and its backlash are extremely gendered. In the book, the ones who suffer most are ultimately not the men who are emasculated by their colonial history and ongoing oppression—the ones who suffer most are the women they use as their cultural pawns. This was the most outstanding theme in the book for me, as we saw women in both Sudan and England dying left and right as the men did the hard work of grappling with the concept of their oppression. This novel illustrates, whether or not it intended to, major themes in the way gender concepts are entwined with colonialism to this day.

One critical piece of Said’s Orientalism, which is especially relevant in light of the recent attacks on Paris, is the phenomenon by which racial and cultural stereotypes create, rather than describe a people. By paying any degree of attention to stereotypes, we inevitably perpetuate them.  This is an argument made by many postmodern scholars of the Middle East that undergirds decisions by many faculties to not discuss religious fundamentalism in relation to the region. In Season, the main character is the embodiment of this idea. He becomes precisely what he believes Westerners expect to see when they survey him. He exoticizes himself and makes it his only goal to prey on white English women. The lurking fear of dark men stealing white women has always been the justification for racial violence and injustice, so Mustafa embraces this idea and uses it to try to subvert the colonial power structures.

If we look at methods of colonization throughout history, a common theme that emerges is the emasculation of the male population through the taking of the female population. This was done overtly and through methods such as mandatory unveiling. The point being, it was a battle that was always waged over and through female bodies. Therefore, when Mustafa seeks a way to get back at the society that subjugated him and forever cast him as an outsider, he inevitably tries to do so using the women of the society. He wins them, mistreats them, and ultimately leads them to their deaths, just as colonizers did to the women of his culture.

Jean Morris is the epitome of all of Mustafa’s suspicions, fears, resentments and insecurities towards the West. She is what he desires and despises. She constantly emasculates him—even more brutally than he would be emasculated by white men, since she herself is female, and there’s nothing worse for a male ego than being subjugated by a female. She is unconquerable, so he kills her, because she is the spectre of everything that plagues him about his identity. Attacking her body was the only way to assert his dominance over her, and in doing so he followed in the footsteps of every colonizer. In a way I would argue that it is Jean Morris, not the narrator, who is Mustafa’s doppelganger. She embodies the stereotypes foisted upon her as a heartless disloyal woman, just as Mustafa embodies the dark skinned predator. Her bitterness, cruelty and hunger for power over those who are seen to oppress is matched only by Mustafa’s. Together they are manifestations of how oppression can contort the human spirit.

Still, these depth of these women and the reasons behind their tragedies are not granted enormous page space in the novel. They are left as casualties of Mustafa’s angst and not much more. This is despite the fact that, to me, these characters demonstrate the most salient point—colonialism is about the sexual relationship, and women always bear the highest costs.


The Warning Sirens of Baghdad

Sirens of Baghdad offers a provocative perspective of the War on Terror that calls into question widely accepted views on extremism and counterinsurgency. The nameless narrator relates a story that is probably all too common in the region and evokes the sympathy of the reader—in spite of his destructive and violent intentions. I argue that the novel provides a how-not-to manual for counterinsurgency while simultaneously seeking to contextualize how terrorists are made. It would make fine reading material to counter Western reactionism towards the Middle East.

The author condemns the tactics and strategy of Western forces through his depiction of American soldiers. Their scant knowledge of Arab language and culture, and propensity for careless violence is underscored in every interaction. As a past commander of counterinsurgency forces in Algeria, the author understands that sensitivity and tact are crucial to success and that American forces exhibit little of this. He makes it clear that it is the suffering of the narrator at the hands of Western forces and a sense of insecurity is what drives him to a terrorist cell—not mindless hatred for Western values.

The narrator also goes out of his way to describe the poverty of his village and the way his life was uprooted with the advent of the invasion. Unemployed disgruntled men occupy cafes until dusk. Cars are hard to come by. His family depends on the earnings of his sister—an embarrassment to the men of the family. Senses of masculinity and honor are already teetering on a precipice, even before the invasion. The village is a powder keg, simply due to poverty. The narrator’s one way to help his family—attending university—is taken from him after the American invasion. There is a profound insecurity present, regarding his manhood, future and way of life. Add extreme trauma and injury of family to the mix, and it isn’t hard to see why the narrator made the decisions he did. His back-story provides easily understandable motives for that which seems initially incomprehensible to Western minds. It also demonstrates how important it is for counterinsurgents to provide assistance to the communities they are trying to win over. The more lives are disturbed by the invading forces, the less inclined the population will be to support the counterinsurgents.

I would make the claim that this novel was certainly intended for a Western audience. Its story arc, the choice to keep the narrator nameless, and the emphasis on honor but not necessarily religion as a motivation all make the narrator more approachable. It seems the author designed the narrator to be easy to empathize with. He is religious, but he is no zealot. He is driven to violence by despair, trauma and a sense of aggrievement—universal factors that affect everyone, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or creed. His namelessness and the use of first person narration gives the reader the sense that he could be anyone. We are inclined to ask ourselves—if we were in his shoes, would we really behave any different? The ending of the book redeems him in a way that feels profoundly genuine. He is weary of violence and hatred and empathizes with innocent strangers. His anger drains away and he his able to see light once more.

Above all, the author of the book designs his narrator to be a generic soldier. The narrator is simply someone who seeks an outlet after suffering an injustice. He leaves his brutalized home and family searching for a purpose that validates his anger and gives him a sense of identity. He suffers and becomes indoctrinated and dissociated from humanity. In the end his anger is unsustainable. Exhausted, he gives up his revenge and removes rage from his identity. His bare bones of his story could ultimately be mirrored by any soldier, in any part of the globe—that is what makes the novel exceptional.