Monday, January 2, 2012

Review of Kiss of Life by Daniel Waters Book 2 of the Generation Dead series

The Generation Dead series is about what happens to teenagers who die and come back to life as zombies. At the end of Generation Dead, Adam had been shot and killed saving Phoebe's life from his former friend Pete the night of the prom.  In the aftermath Phoebe must deal with her feelings for both Tommy and Adam as she and her differently biotic friends negotiate a world that is increasingly more hostile towards them.

Waters work continues to over written and angst riddled.  There are certain allowances that one often makes for a YA novel simply because working with teenagers as characters means that maturity of thought and or behaviour at times is extremely immature; however Waters quickly pushes through that tolerance with an angst level that is enough to drive adults to throw themselves on a bed and cry about not being understood.

As with Generation Dead Waters seeks to tackle oppression of zombies by using the oppression faced by historically marginalized bodies as a framework.  This of course amounts to appropriation and belittling of what marginalized people face on an everyday basis.  In Generation Dead Waters dealt with the word zombie as a slur and specifically discussed reclaiming this word.  In Kiss of Life Waters ups the anti by having a traditionally biotic person complaining about the inability to say the word zombie without facing retribution. 
"I got a detention yesterday for saying the word zombie.  Everyone in the room, even Tommy who Phoebe hadn't seen crack a smile since homecoming, seemed to think that was pretty funny.  Alish laughed out loud, unmindful of his daughter's warning glare." (pg 28)
Of course they laughed.  It's not like slurs hurt or stem from a historical method of dehumanizing minorities or anything right?  This is specifically why the word zombie regardless of Waters intent should never be considered a slur even in a fictional sense. Then Waters decided to double down on his error by having the character complain about losing his girlfriend because of his relationships with differently biotic people (pg28), and in response the zombies only laughed.  This is not a realistic response to this sort of appropriation and anyone who had any experience dealing with a slur would know that. 

For the first time, we have the introduction of a gay character.  Popeye is artistic and the mastermind behind the zombies social protest, though he does at time play second to Tak.  We first learn that Popeye is gay when he makes a comment about how short Karen's skirt is and Tak wonders, "if Popeye got away with his innuendos because he was gay." (page 147)  We quickly learn that not only is Popeye gay but he is in love with Tak who has hinted that he has no hope. "Popeye, he knew, wasn't really deterred.  That was one curse that didn't leave when you died. The curse of hope". (149)  I don't know about you but I am pretty sick of the trope that involves a gay character mooning over a straight character.  There is no reason why Popeye could not have been given his own love interest. 

Why be content with one anti GLBT trope when there is a plethora to work with.  Karen gets a job working in the mall and her employer believes that she is living instead of a zombie.
He'd argued with Karen when she told him about how she was passing, going as far to say that she was setting their cause back to the days of Dallas Jones, the original zombie, by her actions.  But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Karen had a right to live her own undead life.  Besides, he'd thought, there were ways that her actions could be useful to everyone (pg 148)
I don't know about you, but the allusion to the closet comes out loud and clear to me. The fact that Tak decides in the end that Karen "passing" is good because it benefits. There is no discussion about the culture of shame that this breeds, or the fact that the very idea of passing infers that Karen is being dishonest by not declaring that she is differently biotic.  If Waters is going to appropriate from marginalized people, he needs to follow his arguments through to a conclusion that affirms human rights rather than further demonizing historically marginalized people.

In Generation Dead waters compared the actions of Tommy to Martin Luther King Jr.  At the time that I read this I was positively enraged, but I was left almost speechless by the following:
"Phoebe read the attachment, which was a long report from Tommy about a "station" somewhere in Pennsylvania for a sort of underground railroad for the differently biotic.  Tommy stayed with a young couple who would pick up zombies that were fleeing Pennsylvania and points south and drive them to undead friendly locals in New Jersey." (pg 163)
 How Waters did not choke on his privilege as he sat down to write those words is beyond me.  The real underground railroad existed to help slaves escape to slavery in either Canada or Mexico.  It was a courageous bid for freedom and was an extremely perilous journey.  How dare he use his fictional characters to steal something that is uniquely an African American experience that is riddled with pain. 

As with every other appropriation Waters was not content until he left his readers feeling bruised and heavily abused.
"You didn't hear the announcement?  Zombies aren't allowed in the cafeteria anymore.  They have to go sit in a study hall with Principal Kim"
"You're kidding"
"Does that sound like something I'd kid about?" Jeez. Actual segregation.  Unreal. I think trads should be the ones that get segregated." (186)
Yes, you read that right. Not only did Waters decide to add Jim Crow laws to his now long list of appropriation, he didn't even have the decency to state the point of the view of the oppressed and instead allowed dominant bodies to vocalize their feelings, as though they are somehow negatively impacted by their supremacy.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Waters is straight, cisgendered, White and able bodied.  He may have the intention of exposing what oppression is, and how it works in his writing, but his unfamiliarity with the subject matter which he clearly is choosing to tackle is obvious.  This work is positively the definition of liberal bias pretending to be enlightened and forward thinking. These histories and experiences are not his to take from, and they most certainly should not be employed in some fictional tale to build sympathy for beings that don't even exist, while real marginalized people continue to have the oppression we face on a daily basis ignored. There are many ways to talk about the issues raised in this book, but appropriation and discussing the oppression from the point of view of the privilege body is not the way to do it.

It is further problematic that this is occurring in a YA novel. All children are born with the ability to see difference, but it is adults who actively teach them to place value judgements on difference.  This book specifically teaches children that appropriation is a perfectly legitimate approach if one means well.  It tells them that the words, thoughts and feelings of non marginalized allies is to be praised and celebrated often at the cost of the silencing of those who are personally experiencing the oppression in question.  Finally, it teaches them that they don't have to work to combat their privileges and as long as they have friends who are oppressed, or make their screw up out of ignorance rather than a conscious effort to oppress that a pass should be given.

At this point, I don't care what Waters' intent was when he wrote this story and I would much rather he stop writing about oppression period.  I officially give him a pass on writing characters of colour, disabled characters and GLBT characters.  He is harming more than he is helping.  It is perfectly acceptable for allies to write about oppression but to do so, one must be aware of one's privilege and actively challenge that status quo rather than reinforcing it, a skill that Waters has yet to learn. I think we should all be thankful that this book was a scant 216 pages long.