All posts by Stephanie Chung

The Rise of Zombies and the Fall of Capitalism

Max Brooks’ depiction of society under a zombie apocalypse was especially interesting to me because it exposed how much our current society is driven by profit. Social status, health, safety, and opportunity were at first heavily tied to how wealthy one was, yet during the Zombie War, this whole capitalist system crumbled. This made me think about what we value as a society and how much this is driven by a very basic and selfish human need to survive. From an economic perspective, we all seek to maximize our living conditions within a given set of constraints, and when these constraints change, so do our preferences.

At the start of World War Z, money is still perceived as something that is all-powerful because it is highly fungible, guaranteeing safety and health. One of the first accounts in the novel tells of the black-market organ trade, where those with money can purchase their way to a longer life. Dr. Oliveira recounts, “Few of you Yankees asked where your new kidney or pancreas was coming from, be it a slum kid from the City of God or some unlucky student in a Chinese political prison. You didn’t know, you didn’t care” (Brooks 34). His patients simply assumed that paying a hefty sum would be the end to their problems. At the same time, the operators of the black market were similarly profit-minded, willing to take risks and shun health precautions in order to pad their own pockets. This account reminds me of the Phalanx ordeal later on in the war, when people swarmed to buy placebo pills marketed as a vaccine for zombification. People were so ready to believe that there was a cure-all for the zombie plague because the other option would just be too bleak, but I also believe their gullibility was in large part due to the huge value money has in our society today. It’s a reality that money can purchase us better healthcare and longer lives nowadays, so why wouldn’t people believe that they could simply purchase a panacea? Another striking example of wealth-based privilege is that of the heavily-armed sanctuary populated by the rich and famous who hoped to ride out the zombie war in style, broadcasting their frivolities within the mansion while the outside world was fighting for survival. Even as money was rapidly depreciating in its power to keep people safe, people did not yet recognize this at the beginning of the war. Their wholehearted belief that they could buy their way to safety seems foolish and myopic, yet it seems all too likely that this is what would happen in reality.

As society crumbles and money completely loses its significance, a new social order springs up, one based on health and physical ability. In areas designated as sanctuaries, only the healthy are let in, regardless of former occupation, religious belief, or any other factors. And when America begins its rebuilding process, its those with actual physical and mechanical skills, rather than the high-paying white collar ones we value today, that are valued in society. As one interviewee puts it, “That’s the way the world works. But one day, it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss” (175). This passage was particularly striking to me because it made me realize that many of us would be screwed in a disaster situation. It’s very true that what is valued by society today is managerial, analytical, and verbal skills, since these can generate more “worth” than any type of physical labor. And yet, as we discussed in class, our current system is all very fragile.

In an economics class I am taking this semester, we were taught a theory about how investment in human capital increased only due to the inevitable acceleration in technological progress that made human capital more valuable than physical capital. In other words, people had an incentive to invest in education since doing so would increase their earning potential in the future in a technologically advanced society. The Zombie War renders modern technology obsolete, and thus, the skills valued in such a society as well. Both World War Z and Enders Game caused me to think about humanity’s very deep and basic need to survive. When money is the key to survival, and I would argue that it is in today’s society, at least in the U.S., our entire social structure is driven by profit. When suddenly money no longer matters and physical ability becomes the key, the social hierarchy shifts to reflect this change. This is a very bleak idea to me, as I’d like to think that there is more to humanity than just the need to survive and pass on our genes. Both books do acknowledge other dimensions of humanity – faith, love, and art – yet in order for those to survive, so must humanity. Thus, novels about the end of the world make it clear that at the very core, stripped of all our complexities, humans just want to be alive.

Lily King’s Subjective Truth

It was fascinating to meet Lily King during this week’s class. Meeting the authors of my favorite books has always been something that I’ve wanted to do, and yet, doing so also runs the risk of irrevocably changing the book you’ve read, loved, and connected with in some way. After all, each person reads a book differently, infusing into the story their own experiences and perspectives. The author herself has a different interpretation of her book than do each of her readers.

It wasn’t so much a specific detail about Euphoria that Lily King clarified that changed my view of the book but rather the realization that she had fictionalized so much of it. At the panel, reader after reader shot questions at King about her research process and the authenticity of her novel. Had she spoken with Bateson’s family while writing the novel? No. Had she ever traveled up the Sepik? No. Had she closely studied anthropological theories or methodologies? Not really. Lily King’s research process consisted almost solely of reading Margaret Mead’s journals and some secondary materials. At risk of this post sounding like a criticism of King, I want to state clearly that it is not. I understand that Euphoria is a work of fiction based on a true story, not an autobiography or even a memoir, and I respect that Lily King is a writer, not a historian or an anthropologist. Moreover, I really enjoyed this book regardless of how well researched it was.

Yet, finding out that King had taken so many creative liberties with the novel was quite confusing for me. For instance, I had assumed that the different tribes and their “oddball” customs were very much real. Similarly, I had not known that Bankson’s and Fen’s personalities and life stories had been greatly embellished upon. I had known the book was fiction, but I hadn’t known just how fictional it really was. King uses Margaret Mead, Fortune, and Batesons’ true story only as a skeleton upon which all the flesh is a figment of her imagination, and these added complexities are a definite romanticism of reality. Our class has discussed the concepts of appropriateness and legitimacy at length in the past, and I can’t help but worry that the fictionalized depictions in Euphoria have the power to be harmful. For those who are not familiar with Margaret Mead, Bateson, and Fortune, which I believe is most of our class, this is likely the story that will stick with us when we think of them, and some of the fictionalized details in the novel portray them in a very negative and/or embarrassing way. As for the natives, their customs are actually described as “oddball” and are perhaps further exoticized by someone who has had no real interaction with them. In fact, the novel presents an interpretation of Margaret Mead’s own subjective interpretations of the native tribes she studied.

However, during King’s panel, she mentions that truth is different from reality. At first, this did not strike me as intuitive at all. How could what was true be any different from what was tangible and real? But slowly, I began to see how the truth is very much subjective. In any situation, none of us know all of the facts. And in any situation, what we know is also colored by what we have known. In fact, this can be seen in the processes of reading a novel or conducting anthropological research. Margaret Mead herself was criticized for injecting her own personality into her anthropological interpretations, seeing what she chose to see rather than what was actually there. What I mean is, we each have an individual truth that we hold to be real, and our truths are never 100% representative of reality. Even our memories are tainted by forgetfulness and biased interpretations.

Thus, Euphoria is Lily King’s own version of the truth of Margaret Mead’s story, the one she personally feels is “right”. Despite her twisting of several major elements, King does capture what she feels is important about Mead, her theories, and her life. The book does an excellent job of bringing to light the theme of possession in Mead’s own relationships and in the field of anthropology at the time, her desire to find a better way of life through her studies of other cultures, and her revolutionary belief that native cultures are not primitive but rather just differently developed. Therefore, although the story within Euphoria is made up, its messages ring true. Fiction, different from nonfiction, is not concerned about getting as close to factual reality as possible but rather about conveying the message the author herself feels to be true. The power of fiction lies in its ability to send a message to readers by crafting a moving story. That said, even works of fiction must be very thoughtful of how they are portraying their subjects, especially if these subjects are based on real individuals, as a powerful story can be a double-edged sword, evoking both understanding and misunderstanding.

Indentity in Americanah

Something that stuck with me a lot after reading and discussing Americanah was the concept of identity, and how our identities are in large part constructed by how others view us. In many cases, we conform to what others expect and want of us, but what separates the line between conforming and actually becoming? Several characters undergo transitions in Americanah, shedding old identities and developing new ones, and each of these examples seems to be linked to power in some form or another. We change certain elements of ourselves to meet the approval of a dominant force, be it a culture, a race, a social class, or even a loved one. At first, perhaps, this assimilation feels unnatural, but it eventually becomes harder and harder to separate our past selves with our new, adapted identities.

Ifemelu talks about how race was not a big part of her identity until she came to America, which is something many of the international students in the class related to. However, as obvious as this concept seems, it really surprised me. As an American-born Chinese, I have grown up aware of my minority status, and yet at the same time, it is something that is more in the background for me. I’ve always lived in a pretty diverse area, and to be quite honest, it wasn’t until this summer, working in Boulder, a predominantly white city, and at an all-white, all-male firm, that I became acutely aware of how much I stood out due to my race. Nevertheless, my experience was just a fraction of the stark contrast Ifemelu faced, going from being part of the majority to all of the sudden becoming a complete outsider. This made me think a lot about how what you aren’t can strongly affect what you are – once in a place where she no longer looks or acts like the majority population, Ifemelu is instantly characterized by her external differences and becomes a “Black woman”.

Ifemelu’s racialized experience in the U.S. further goes on to influence other aspects of her identity. From the very beginning, when Christina Tomas talks in a slow and patronizing voice to her, under the assumption that she can’t understand English, to her struggle to find a job even at fast food establishments, Ifemelu’s experiences cause severe harm to her self worth. Her inability to find a job forces her to sell her body in order to pay rent, pushing her into a bout of depression that destroys her relationship with Obinze. Ifemelu’s transformation is reflected in that of Auntie Uju and Dike as well. Auntie Uju, beaten down by the struggles she faces upon coming to America, becomes merely a shade of who she used to be, passionless, dispirited, and willing to marry a man that treats her terribly. Dike grows up in America yet still experiences racism through microagressions – a camp counselor telling him he doesn’t need sunscreen and his classmates jokingly asking him for weed – that contribute to a sense of confusion and alienation that ultimately causes him to attempt suicide. Coming into a country where the majority race tells them their race is inferior, Ifemelu, Auntie Uju, and Dike, along with other African immigrants, actually begin to believe that they are worthless.

Ifemelu’s relationships are another source of identity for her. Curt is her first boyfriend in America, and it was with Curt, a white man, that “she had first looked in the mirror and, with a rush of accomplishment, seen someone else” (Adichie 142). Curt’s affections are a source of pride to her, and a means of rebuilding her shattered confidence. She is elated and flattered to be dating a handsome white man, whom she believes so far out of her league, despite his potential fetishism of her. She falls into the role of another one of his exotic girlfriends, agreeing to role-play Foxy Brown during intercourse. With Blaine, an African-American, Ifemelu plays the role of an intellectual, social-activist girlfriend, yet she never feels “deep” enough for him, Ifemelu is also actively involved with her blog when she meets Blaine, and while her blog is meant to be an honest reflection of her experiences and personally, she also starts to feel an obligation to live up to her blog persona and her followers. She begins to write for the sake of impressing her erudite followers and providing them with fresh material, “sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became” (Adichie 9). It is with Obinze, whom she grew up with, that she feels the most comfortable, though it can be argued that he has the most prominent impact on her identity; he is someone she never feels complete without and is a major factor in her decision to return to Nigeria.

The three men Ifemelu dates are also interesting representations of how culture shapes identity. Ifemelu has the unique experience of being a Nigerian in America, an Americanah, and then later on a returnee. Coming to the U.S., her Nigerian-ness is pronounced – her accent, her dislike of dogs, her confusion over American jokes and customs. In America, her racial experience is much the same as that of an African-American; after all, she is virtually the same as African-Americans in the eyes of white Americans. She must travel to seedier areas to get her hair braided, must relax her natural hair in order to attain employment at a respectable company, and is able to connect with Blaine through their shared excitement around Obama’s presidency. Nevertheless, she is not fully accepted as a Black American. Shan denounces Ifemelu’s blog, saying that she is “writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she is writing about…If she were African American, she’d just be labeled angry and shunned” (Adichie 245). As Ifemelu does not share a history of segregation and slavery with African-Americans, though she feels the modern-day effects, she cannot truly be one of them. Ifemelu further reflects on the disparity between African immigrants and African-Americans when she wonders what Dike would be considered, noting that “he would have to choose what he was, or rather, what he was would be chosen for him” (Adichie 106). In the end, she still feels that Nigeria is home, yet her experiences in America have stuck with her, and she no longer quite fits in upon her return. Nigeria, in her absence, has changed as well, yet she has not changed along with her homeland. Furthermore, her aesthetic senses have become Westernized, and she finds herself relating more to other returnees than the family and friends she grew up with. In much the same way race operates on identity, the majority culture dictates how an individual should act. As Ifemelu moves between different cultures, each one bleeds into her identity.

Another example of identity transformation is that of Emelike, and to a lesser extent, Obinze, through wealth. Their mannerisms, aesthetic sensibilities, and lifestyles change greatly both to attain and then hold onto their wealth. Wealth allows Obinze to accept a gilded yet bland life, in an occupation that he doesn’t care much for and with a wife who is beautiful but vacuous; it also sets him free of his obsession with America once he realizes he can “buy” America by easily purchasing a visa. Wealth grants Emelike “bourgie” sensibilities and seems to accentuate his cruel and cunning nature, to the point where he mocks those less fortunate than him and shuns his childhood friends. Obinze and Emelike of course retain characteristics from childhood, as shown by how Obinze still remains humble while Emelike is still sly and condescending, yet their identities are unmistakably contorted through their ascent into wealth and high society.

Chimamande Adichie clearly portrays the immense power that perceptions have in determining and manipulating identity. A stereotype or a norm, when held by a party with significant power, can have a massive, and sometimes destructive, impact on individual identities. Knowing this, it is all the more important, as we discussed in class, to build an understanding, or at very least an acceptance, of people different from ourselves.