People of color are often seen as the exceptions in predominantly white societies' mass media, like US literature. Let's look at race and gender in two dystopic young adult scenarios in which the exceptional group is not people of color, but clones they've created.
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.
The book's society, seen through the eyes of young main character June Canto, is a clear critique of class and race dynamics that exist today. As in our real world culture today, the people at the top of The Summer Prince's society refuse to recognize the oppression that exists their literally pyramid-shaped city.
In Karen Sander's dystopian young adult book Tankborn, the world is a stringent caste system where race and origins determine all status. Tankborn was a hit and the sequel, Awakening, just came out this April, which means now is a great time to discuss the race and gender angle of the book.
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 constantlybeingeroded. 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 Partialsdepicts 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 it, letting 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.
"After the storm deaths came other casualties: deaths by debris, cuts, tetanus, or loss of blood; suicide, heart attacks caused by stress or loss, or stress of rebuilding, or just as often from the lack of medicines used to treat common ailments. The list of no-longer-treatable diseases grew: diabetes, asthma, cancer. Domestic violence rose, along with murder."
So begins the new book Orleans. Author Sherri L. Smith adds a dystopic twist to the post-Katrina disaster tale we (unfortunately) have come to know so well.
When I started this column on race in dystopian YA literature, a reader recommended I check out Shadows Cast by Stars, Métis author Catherine Knutsson's dystopic tale set on Canada's western coast 200 years from now.
In the book, a plague has ravaged the world. The only cure is antibodies found in the blood of aboriginal people (or "Others" as they are known by non-aboriginals).
I’ve never read a single books published by romance giant Harlequin and so I carried Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules to the library checkout counter with some trepidation. Would this be a romance novel with a veneer of vampire smeared on top?
When I checked Marie Lu's Legendout of the library, I hoped that the main girl character (June) would be Asian. After all, Lu herself is Chinese, born in China and influenced, as a young child, by the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. From the age of five, she lived in the U.S. and, unless she lived in an alternate U.S., probably also didn't see herself reflected in the books on her library and school shelves. So wouldn't she use this opportunity to add one more Asian girl to YA litdom?
In Cinder, the familiar glass slipper story is set in a dystopian future Beijing 126 years after World War IV has ended. Cinder’s author, Marissa Meyer, is white. Meanwhile, Chinese-American author Malinda Lo award-winning 2010 retelling of Cinderella, Ash, takes place in a kingdom that resembles a fairy tale Europe.
What do these choices say about each author? How do their ethnic backgrounds affect their retellings?