In the time of Coronavirus, what we can learn from dystopian fiction?

by Dr Deirdre Flynn, Lecturer in 21st Century Literature, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

 

Just before Ireland entered into lockdown, I finished teaching Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The bestselling novel published in 2014 is about a global pandemic, the Georgia flu, that wipes out 99% of the world’s population.

Had I known that a global pandemic was going to hit, would I have picked a different novel? I don’t know. But Mandel’s novel is not a depressing read, nor is it a manual for living through lockdown. Rather it is an excellent piece of speculative fiction, that asks us to examine how we live in the 21st Century. It asks us what is important in life.

I’ve taught, researched and read dystopian fiction for years. In one of the modules I taught, we would discuss what the author wanted readers to take from their novels. Was their story a criticism of contemporary society? Did it offer warnings on climate change? Technology? Censorship? Terrorism? How did these societies come to pass? Was it through social inertia? Poverty? Inequality? And what can we learn from speculative fiction?

One novel that always seemed the most likely was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, set in the United States of America in the 2020s. The students, and myself, were shocked how in 1993 Butler had in essence predicted the rise of a president like Trump. Her vision of the near future is eerie, including walled communities, massive inequality, indentured servitude, racism, political ineptitude, economy over social welfare. It is a frightening vision of the near future, and a President that wants ‘to make America great again’ (yes, that’s in the novel). It was always the most likely and most terrifying novel on that module. And Lauren, the protagonist learning to be self-sufficient, and grow her own food, could teach many of the new grow-your-own converts a thing or two.

Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale often came in for a lot of criticism because she didn’t resist in obvious ways. Her silence in the face of her torture was often called weak by students. How could she take that? Why wouldn’t she speak up? The reason was simple – because she wanted to survive. She wanted to stay alive for her daughter(s). Was her survival, and that of her child(ren) more important than her freedom? I think that is a question we are answering on a daily basis now.

However, when it came to Station Eleven, it seemed more implausible. Why? We had all heard of Ebola, swine flu, avian flu, SARS, even Foot and Mouth. In Mandel’s novel, the flu spreads quickly because of global air travel. The world comes to a complete stop. People are advised to stay indoors and stock up on essentials. It felt impossible that today this could happen, but now we know it’s not impossible.

‘Just like in the novel, the virus does not impact everyone equally’

Unlike Parable of the Sower, or The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven is told in what Philip Smith calls a ‘forwards-backwards’ style[1]. Told from multiple and interconnecting perspectives, the action shifts from before the Georgia Flu to 20 years after the pandemic. It offers an interesting criticism of social media and celebrity culture, and Mandel has often said she wanted to see what we would keep in such a scenario – would we want to keep what’s best about the world we live in? These again are questions we are asking in what has been constantly referred to as the “new normal” as if such a constantly shifting state could offer any sense of stability to be considered the ‘new normal’. And just like in the novel, the virus does not impact everyone equally. The pandemic it is not a great leveller. We just have to look at residential care homes and Direct Provision to see how the most vulnerable are treated here in Ireland.

What can we learn from Station Eleven? Well if there’s one thing, it is the motto from the side of the Travelling Symphony’s carriage – ‘survival is insufficient’. To the group of actors and musicians that make up the troupe – art is important to life. And while we can, like many other critics, argue that Mandel’s use of Shakespeare is a little hokey, if not Western and colonial centred, the message is clear. Art, music, theatre are all essential to our lives. They give meaning and hope and joy and create a sense of community. Mandel sees theatre as one of the best things society has to offer, and for the people who are left behind, Shakespeare brings something to their existence, as essential as survival. Life is not just staying alive, it is living.

‘Life is not just staying alive, it is living’

As I write this, people are gathering to watch #DearIreland from the Abbey, and there’s a CovideoParty trending on Twitter. People are seeking out art and culture. They want shared experiences, like Facebook and Instagram live, or Zoom parties. Subscription services have seen their numbers grow as those quarantined seek out film, TV, and documentary. I recently collated a blog piece for the Irish Women’s Writing Network on work during the Covid19 crisis and everyone mentioned the importance of connection. Technology is helping us have these shared experiences. With the help of hashtags and houseparty we can share our collective enjoyment of art. And yet in the midst of all this our Government’s response to support artists was paltry and insulting. Unable to see the economic merit in art, the creative process, and its cultural value, Josepha Madigan  (Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaelteacht) offered the miserly sum of €1m to cover all of it. All the closed venues, the unemployed actors, writers, stage managers, singers, techies, administration…. Would all of them have to share this pot? And if you were on the COVID19 payment, you weren’t eligible.

Station Eleven is seeing a resurgence in sales ever since the Coronavirus started making its move around the world. People are turning to dystopian and speculative fiction to help make sense of our current situation. It can offer us warnings, suggest solutions, tell us to change before it’s too late. Dystopian fiction can highlight how wrong things could go if we don’t change. It also tells us that survival after chaos is not enough. We need to make sense of the trauma. We need love, connection, and we need art, and if we live in Station Eleven, we also need electricians.

[1] SMITH, P., 2016. Shakespeare, Survival, and the Seeds of Civilization in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Extrapolation., 57(3), pp. 289-VI.

Holding Out for a Heroine: Women in Folktales of the Western Malayo-Polynesian Language Group

by Ikhlas Abdul Hadi.

Folktales are told across all known cultures throughout the world. We are familiar with a few, mainly through Disney’s popularisation of tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. This well-known list of female-oriented stories may lead some to believe that folk stories are dominated by female characters. The opposite is true however, when we look at international collections of folktales that have appeared in print. With women making up nearly 50% of the world’s population, it may come as a surprise that there are not as many folktales about women as there are about men. In a quantitative study led by Jonathan Gottschall, it was found that this phenomenon is prevalent worldwide; that ‘male main characters […] outnumbered female main characters by more than 2 to 1’ (100).

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The table above is taken from Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (2008)

‘Male main characters…outnumbered female characters by more than 2 to 1’

At present, there are no conclusive answers to this conundrum – some speculate that the blame is to be laid on the male editors who chose to include more male-oriented stories in their folktale collections; but Gottschall is unconvinced. He found that this discrepancy between male and female characters occurred even in collections edited exclusively by women. He suggests that the ‘missing tales of women’ could have been caused by a lack of folkloric access to storytelling women; this hypothesis imagines the existence of women who possess more female-oriented stories, but they were inaccessible due to past societal restrictions on interactions with male collectors (151). Another possibility is that there just weren’t as many stories told about women; that early female-led stories centring on a pre-industrial life are more home-based, and are less interesting than men’s. This is a rather problematic suggestion, and shows that there is still room for further research in this area. But the aim of my studies is not to answer why there aren’t many female-led stories. I decided to take on a route similar to the motivations of the founders of Women are Boring: approaching the problem by showcasing female-led stories that have made it into printed folktale collections through research.

Even though there are not as many folk stories about women as there are about men, there is still plenty of potential in working with the materials available and shedding light on these female-led stories. I believe that the more they are studied, the more they will become known around the world. Following this line of thought, I decided that while I was bringing light to little known female-oriented stories, I might as well focus on a group of women whose folk stories had never before been collectively studied – those from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group. This language group consists of languages spoken in southern Vietnam, the Philippines, the island states of western Micronesia, Indonesia, Madagascar, and my home – Malaysia.

Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand.

My initial scope of research was on Malay folktale texts, but this was widened to the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group as it was difficult to find a sufficient number of female-led stories for analysis. Selection of tales was further complicated when searching for plots that featured female characters who shaped the outcome of a story. If the women were not active characters, these stories would not yield sufficient information for further analysis. Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand. Upon scouring online collections and libraries in the University of Leeds and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), I managed to obtain only 100 printed stories that contained active female protagonists from Western Malayo-Polynesian societies. To illustrate how difficult it was to obtain these 100 stories, take a look at Mable Cook Cole’s collection of 61 Philippine folktales: in this collection, only 4 tales contained plots that features active women and thus were included in my thesis.

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The Western Malayo-Polynesian language group

We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an arsenal of stories from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group, I use findings from evolutionary theory to better understand why they have managed to survive. Because folktales are a universal phenomenon, it has been argued that they are an inherently human activity. The persistence of their existence provides a hint of their importance to humans, and evolutionary literary theorists argue that stories can implicitly help humans with navigating both their physical and social world through simulated events. We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an evolutionary understanding of human drives, I began looking through the stories for common themes that may confer evolutionary benefits. I saw that an overwhelming number of stories were focused on searching for a partner (approximately 50% of the collected stories), and another large theme was focused on women’s roles in the family (approximately 40% of the stories). It’s a staggering number; almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species. It is a number that seems to suggest that we (or at least Western Malayo-Polynesian societies) were telling stories that held evolutionary-beneficial themes, implicitly designed to help us survive better.

Almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species.

It could be argued that viewing these stories from such a perspective limits the potential of women; if ‘beneficial’ stories were ones that promoted reproduction, it would stand to reason that they would promote the tired idea of women as mothers. Indeed there are plenty of stories that promote motherhood as the ultimate goal for a woman. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, it can make sense that we tell such stories. Childbirth is necessary in order for humans to continue to exist, and thus there is always a need for mothers. But this heavily simplified analysis of folktales needs to take into consideration that folk stories normally rely on a fairly conservative, heteronormative storytelling tradition that may be serving a patriarchal idea of womanhood.

This is why we should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers. There are Western Malayo-Polynesian stories of mothers, when lacking support from their family, who abandon their children. This may seem to run counter to the idea of the ‘natural’ mother, a mother who is ‘naturally’ able to give birth and raise a child into adulthood on her own. But it has been shown across evolutionary psychology that the ideal mother figure can only be attained if she feels that she will be supported upon giving birth. If not, history and oral stories show that mothers will cease investing in their children when they find themselves in poor circumstances. There are also stories of women who reject marriage and motherhood, preferring instead to rule kingdoms or sacrifice themselves to bigger cause. These stories imply that there are other options besides motherhood, other paths in life that may benefit a woman from an evolutionary perspective other than reproduction. Thus there are various adaptive ‘lessons’ that can be reaped from the fictional depictions of womanhood, ones that are not necessarily based on patriarchal ideas.

We should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers.

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Anna and Elsa from Disney’s (2013) Frozen

I would also suggest that the lessons derived from folktales are always changing. When comparing stories that have been accepted in the past, to the ones that have been popularised today, there is a clear distinction in values. Bringing in Disney again, a company that is arguably the largest distributer of modern folktales, we see a difference between the ‘lessons’ to be derived from Cinderella and her stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia (1950), and from Anna and Elsa, sisters of the immensely successful movie Frozen (2013). The female protagonists of Frozen are not competing with each other to win the attraction of a Prince, or in evolutionary terms, a reproductive partner. They have other concerns – an aspect that is reminiscent of findings from my own research, where approximately 10% of the Western Malayo-Polynesian stories focused on themes beyond searching for Prince Charming. It is a small percentage of stories, but it may be an indication of a change in women’s priorities, and perhaps a change in the way women can obtain evolutionary benefits for themselves.

Throughout my research on Western Malayo-Polynesian stories, I had been introduced to many different types of women; mothers who are patient with their unhelpful children, mothers who despair and abandon their children; sisters who protect each other from monsters, sisters who fight and attempt to murder each other; wives who sacrifice themselves for their husband, wives who dream of better husbands; princesses who are given away in marriage, and queens who turn down offers of marriage. And there are more folktales out there; tales that tell of implicit evolutionary advantages, which have yet to be considered. Further research is thus always needed to assist in re-evaluating the evolutionary underpinnings of how and why women are portrayed in certain ways, and also to recover more of these ‘missing tales’ of women.