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Dystopian Book "Partials" Imagines a Society of Forced Pregnancy

Partials cover

I've never been attracted to books set in a world in which women have been stripped of their reproductive rights and function mainly as breeders.

After all, I live in a very real society in which women's rights over their bodies  are constantly being eroded. The right to family seems to not apply to those who are poor, of color and/or incarcerated. So why escape to a world in which all of these injustices have been magnified?

The cover of Dan Well's Partials depicts the back of a dark-haired girl of ambivalent skin color looking out over a wasteland. Nothing in the summary indicates that there are people of color in the book. To the jaded reader, Partials might very well be yet another book in which people of color have not survived the apocalypse. I wouldn't have picked up Partials for this blog series on race and gender in dystopia had my twelve-year-old daughter not read and recommended itletting me know that the main character is <gasp> a girl of color. And she's not the only girl of color who's survived dystopia.

The premise of a future in which birth rates have declined and women are forced to act as baby vessels isn't new. Margaret Atwood explored such a world in her now-classic The Handmaid's Tale. But the dystopia in Partials which forces women to breed non-stop isn't motivated by religion and, with the exception of having no control over their reproductive rights, women aren't subjugated to the men around them.

The Partials are artificially created beings with superior strength built as military weapons. When the story begins, the Partials have gone to war with their human creators and won. Humans have also been decimated by RM, a mutated virus against which no newborns are immune. The surviving humans have fled to Long Island where the Senate has passed the Hope Act, mandating that all women over the age of 18 be pregnant or actively trying to become pregnant. In fourteen years, no baby has survived; the youngest human is fourteen years old.

Sixteen-year-old Kira is a medic-in-training in the maternity ward. She barely remembers her deceased father, a dark-skinned Indian man with messy hair. She has no memories of her mother. Instead, Kira's childhood memories center around Nandita, a woman who wore brightly-colored saris even when gardening, and Nandita's three other foster daughters—Madison, Ariel and Isolde. Not much is described about them except that, of the four, golden-haired Isolde is the "lone light-skinned outlier in Nandita's makeshift foster home." Nandita's also becomes home to Xochi, who appears to be Mexican. Xochi's original foster mother is Senator Erin Kessler, described as "a proud Irish woman" who attempts to culturally indoctrinate her new daughter. "When Xochi got mad, she even slipped into an Irish brogue," the author notes. 

Not everyone agrees with the Hope Act. A group of rebel humans, calling themselves the Voice leave graffiti demanding the repeal of the Hope Act. Even among those inside the settlement, opinions clash. "We're talking about institutionalized rape," Xochi argues. "We're talking about the government taking full control over your body—what it's for, what you do with it, and what other people can do to it. I'm not letting some horny old dude screw me just because the law says I have to." (It remains unclear as to whether this is one of the times that Xochi slips into an Irish brogue)

Kira too is frustrated by the Hope Act, but is less vocal than Xochi. When Madison announces that she is pregnant, Kira resolves to cure RM so that the baby might live more than 56 hours. To do so, she needs to capture a Partial. And to do that, she and her friends need to sneak out of the heavily-guarded Long Island community and into the long-abandoned borough of Manhattan.

Madison's biological brother Jayden and her husband Haru assemble a small team to help Kira navigate the bombs and boobytraps of Brooklyn and Manhattan. While most of the team remains undescribed, the other young woman (Yoon-Ji Bak, a small-framed girl who became a soldier because her mother, whom she barely remembers, was one) is also a young woman of color. Both she and Kira are capable of holding their own in a fight—and, to their (and the author's) credit, none of the men on their team question their ability to do so.

In Partials, the decimation of the human population seems to also have eradicated racism. Strangely, aside from Senator Kessler's attempts to indoctrinate her Mexican foster daughter, no one seems to show any vestiges of racism. Compared to the constant threats and racist bullying from whites in Shadows Cast by Stars, the survivors in Long Island seem to live in an astonishing racial harmony. How much does the author's race influence how he imagines humans interacting post-plague? I imagine that Dan Wells can imagine an end to racism during extreme times because, as a white man, he's never been on the receiving end in the same way that people of color have been. In contrast, Shadows Cast by Stars author Catherine Knutsson, a Métis woman, has most likely had experiences that give her a more jaundiced view of how dire circumstances can exacerbate generations of institutional and personal racism.

Of course, this is all speculation. I'd love to hear others' opinions on these two different takes on post-plague racial relationships.

Read this whole series on race and gender in dystopian YA books.

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Comments

10 comments have been made. Post a comment.

It needs more racism - really?

I haven't read the book, but this article makes me want to. The main point of this comment though is to point out how interesting it is that "This distopian book starring WOC doesn't have enough racism. It really needs more racism to be realistic" is now seen as a legitimate criticism

That caught my eye, too. I

That caught my eye, too. I wish the author had expanded more on that thought beyond the race of the writer. That alone would be an interesting discussion.

This is something I always wonder about when I write. Obviously YA needs more POC, but how is the fact that I'm white going to affect my ability to do that appropriately? And how will it affect how it is perceived? I mean, not to sound all "poor white girl, writing is so hard" about it or anything. It's just something I've always been curious about when I write and this series has me thinking about it even more.

That caught my eye, too. I

That caught my eye, too. I wish the author had expanded more on that thought beyond the race of the writer. That alone would be an interesting discussion.

This is something I always wonder about when I write. Obviously YA needs more POC, but how is the fact that I'm white going to affect my ability to do that appropriately? And how will it affect how it is perceived? I mean, not to sound all "poor white girl, writing is so hard" about it or anything. It's just something I've always been curious about when I write and this series has me thinking about it even more.

thanks for the feedback!

Someone asked a similar question (about writing POC as a white novelist) in response to an earlier blogpost. Since I don't write fiction, I don't have any tried-and-true tips, but gave some suggestions of other white novelists who write characters of color without resorting to stereotypes and cultural cliches:

http://bitchmagazine.org/post/young-adult-books-race-people-of-color-mis...

As for the lack of racism in Partials, I'm not saying that the novel is the worse for not having racism in it. I did, however, find it interesting that racism, which has plagued the United States since at least 1492, has miraculously vanished without much effort or work on the part of the remaining human population. What about the people who have been raised with all the ingrained prejudices that come with growing up in the U.S.? Did they suddenly just get over the racism that they'd been bombarded with from an early age?

But thank you for pointing out that I need to be clearer when I wonder about things like that. I'll keep that in mind as I continue reading & blogging.

Thanks! I see what you're

Thanks! I see what you're saying now. That does make you wonder how he would have explained that if he'd addressed it. And thank you for the link to the other comment. I'm definitely going to check out the books/authors you listed that I haven't read.

DiversifYA

A new blog addressing diversity (of all kinds) in YA fiction just launched. It's brand-spankin' new, but seems like it will be an on-going conversation. You may want to check it out for more on writing diverse characters in your fiction:

http://www.diversifya.com/

Have you heard of The Summer Prince?

I've only read the first chapter online, but it seems really good, it's set in a post-apocalyptic, technologically advanced matriarchal society, and I think all of the characters are POC - i would be really interested to read your take on it.

Shadows Cast by Stars

I have not yet personally read Shadows Cast by Stars, but Debbie Reese over at 'American Indians in Children's Literature' writes a review about it that mentions that the author only recently discovered that she was Metis:

http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2013/01/catheri...

Because I haven't read the book, I can't really comment as to the story or the author's experience, I just thought you might like to see Debbie's review. She's great.

thanks for the link!

I read it and it gave me a lot of "A-ha!" moments.

Not being Native or Aboriginal *and* not being very informed about them, I didn't catch most of the cultural/spiritual gaffes that Reese points out.

When I was interviewing Lakota grandmothers for a recent story, one person did say that she was (consistently) called a half-breed by another tour member (who is full-blooded Lakota). I don't have my notes on me, so can't quote exactly what she said, but it was something along the lines that she wasn't taking the term as an insult because she understood that he was saying that the Lakota are facing extinction. (She put it much more succinctly than that.) Having read Shadows Cast by Stars that same week, I had that conversation in my head as I read it, so the term didn't jump out as it otherwise might have.

Cast Assumptions Aside

I'm glad someone with a good writing voice mentioned the lack of Writers with colored characters- it's a true and sad fact that not many of the Best Sellers have a multi-cultured or multi-colored background. 'Partials' happens to be near and dear to me because of this, his amazing writing and provocative topics nonwithstanding.

However, I do want to clarify one thing: Wells *does* touch up on the point of dystopian racism in the second book 'Fragments'. I'm guessing it was in the interest of telling the main plot in the first book that prevented him from doing so, but I don't want anyone assuming he is ignorant or ignores the topic. While I won't spoil anything, Kira does discuss personal racism against her and her family during her younger years, brushing it off then and currently because she had/has bigger things to worry about. A few other characters make note of stigmas placed against them during their childhood, but they either don't care/move on, or the person who makes the offensive remarks does.
Simply not covering the topic in one book does not make the author-any author- uncaring or blind to racism/segregation. They might just be writing characters who don't waste their time thinking or talking about it, simply because they've decided to be better than that. That's not an excuse for the lack of authors who talk about it, merely a personal insight.