YA Book "What's Left of Me" is a Dystopian Take on Nationalist Fervor
"If you see something, say something" has been the slogan for buses, trains, and airports since 9/11. It's been used to justify increased surveillance and targeting of Muslims and people from the Middle East. After the Boston bombing, we've seen it used to mislabel the suspected Boston bomber as a "dark-skinned male" and later to misidentify Sunil Tripathi by Reddit users.
Kat Zhang's What's Left of Me takes the mass suspicion, xenophobia, and hysteria that's become normalized since 9/11 and sets it in an alternate United States where people are born with two personalities inside one body. By the age of ten, most children are expected to have "settled," meaning that one personality has disappeared. Those who have not settled are taken away, never to be seen or heard from again. The main character is Eva/Addie, two girls whose personalities have never settled. In their class is a war poster from the beginnings of the country's Great War that "urged citizens to report all suspicions of hybrid activity." Eva/Addie reflects, "Teachers didn't mention it in class, but I could imagine the finger-pointing that must have occurred." Doesn't that sound like what we've been hearing for the past twelve years?
Eva/Addie's parents managed to convince the doctors to give them extra time to settle and, by age twelve, Eva has lost any and all control over their shared body. However, Eva has not faded away. She still sees what Addie sees, experiences what Addie experiences, and can even communicate silently with Addie. Addie keeps Eva a secret, knowing that to admit her continued existence would jeopardize them both.
In the book, fears of foreign hybrids have curtailed contact with other countries and most immigration. There is one family that's an exception: The Mullans. Their children, Hally and Devon, are keenly aware of how their skin color and foreign father mark them as potential threats. Even though neither has settled, they have learned to lie about their recessive personalities. "The officials wouldn't have been lenient about the deadline—not with us," Devon points out to Eva/Addie.
Eva/Addie understand the Mullans' fear, reflecting: "The government could do whatever it wanted, and no one would say a thing. They could destroy the Mullans, rip them out of their house, take away every last cent, throw them into jail on a technicality, and no one would blink, no one would question. It would almost be expected. I could hear the whispers that would arise, the relief. I'd always known they were up to something, they'd say. Didn't I keep telling you? A family like that…They had to be up to something."
Does this sound eerily similar to what you might have heard in the recent past?
We don't have to be living in Zhang's dystopia to know that this kind of scapegoating happens all too often (and often without challenge) in real life. Shortly after the Boston marathon bombing, news commentators and politicians used the tragedy to reinforce racist and xenophobic ideology, leading to attacks on Muslim and dark-skinned people.
Getting back to Eva/Addie's world, when the nearby history museum floods, a guide fumes that she has repeatedly asked for its near-broken pipes to be fixed. News reports, however, blame the flood on a hybrid attack. The news worries Eva/Addie: "If hybrids were being blamed for the flood and fire at the history museum, and if said hybrids hadn't been caught yet then…I couldn't even imagine the frenzy that would sweep the city. It would reach us here in the outskirts for sure. Everyone would be on alert, nerves raw, quick to accuse."
Not long after the flood, a mob attacks a man who has been identified as a hybrid. Eva/Addie are caught in the mob rushing toward the man and nearly trampled underfoot. However, their white skin privilege protects them. A policeman rescues them, warning them to get as far away from the scene as possible.
Hally, however, is not as lucky and is detained by the police. "She should have known," Devon tells Eva/Addie. "We're not like the rest of you. We can't be seen around things like that. Raid. We can't be caught too near." With her olive skin and non-European appearance immediately marking her as suspect, Hally is taken away and her family's home searched. When the authorities find a bottle of RefCon, a drug used to suppress one of the hybrids' personalities, in the house, they also take Devon and, because Hally had been seen with them, Eva/Addie as well.
Interestingly, Zhang, a writer of color, chose to write from Eva/Addie's point-of-view. In the book, "foreign" seems to be equated with non-whiteness and Hally and Devon are the only two people of color present. Eva/Addie are white with dirty blond hair and pale skin. Writing from the point-of-view of the racial majority in a society in which immigration has been curtailed and foreignness is suspect might be easier than writing from the one (or two) characters of color allowed into the country, but I do wonder why Zhang chose a white narrator. As I discussed in earlier blogposts, how much does pressure (or perceived pressure) from publishers and literary agents come into play when writers of color choose their narrators? How would this story have been different if it had been narrated by Hally rather than Eva/Addie? It seems like a missed opportunity to push YA readers to experience the impact of racism, xenophobia and persecution rather than observe it from the outside.
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