Covid 19

And Post-Apocalyptic Women’s Writing

Susan Watkins

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The gendered impacts of Covid 19 have become more obvious as time in lockdown has gone on. Not only are women disproportionately represented in what we used to think of as ‘low-skilled’ jobs outside the home – caring jobs that are actually essential to our society – but also within the home as carers for children and elders. Feminists have referred to this as the ‘double burden’, or what Arlie Hochschild has called the ‘second shift’, a situation which can only be exacerbated by pandemic and lockdown. Where some commentators are delighted to see an apparent resurgence in retro ideas of domestic bliss, the reality is that there has also been a significant increase in incidents of domestic abuse. It is also the case that there are gendered elements to our attitude to the natural world and the environment that have contributed to the appearance of Covid 19. Our rapacious attitude to plant life and animal life implicitly feminises and degrades the environment, subjecting the natural world to a violent and controlling impulse that views it as there for the taking.

     Many of these issues have been explored in women’s post-apocalyptic fiction. Since the millennium there has been an outpouring of writing that imagines the end of the world as we know it and the limping survival of a remnant of humanity afterwards. Contemporary women writers are no exception to this apocalyptic trend, but their writing of the apocalypse is distinctive. It pays attention to the gendered aspects of an imagined apocalyptic event, whether that be a pandemic (as in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy or Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven), extreme climate change, in Maggie Gee’s The Flood and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, or a combination of slowly emerging, quotidian catastrophes, as in Octavia Butler’s Parable series.

     What emerges from reading work like this is how much it differs from and challenges the conventions of much male-authored fiction in this genre. Novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse tend towards conservatism. Narratives like these define civilization in traditional terms and the momentum after the imagined disaster is either towards the restoration of what has been lost during the apocalypse, or focuses on nostalgic mourning for the past. In The Road it is the father-son bond that offers the sole redemptive aspect of a book dealing entirely with devastation. The focus on the father-son relationship, whether the ‘good guys’ will ‘carry the fire’ and survive, and the way in which that relationship becomes the emblem of civilised values, is key to the novel’s project. The mother figure exists only in flashback, and we learn that she committed suicide rather than face what was to come.

     In popular cultural treatments of apocalypse – from (in film) I Am Legend, The Book of Eli and Mad Max Fury Road, to television programmes such as The Walking Dead – there are also few viable alternatives to this masculinist narrative. Why do so many texts that are set in a post-apocalyptic future focus on men who are trying to survive, trying to protect women and trying to rebuild things the way they were before? Why is there so much emphasis on men’s nostalgia for the world before things changed? Claire Colbrook has devised the term ‘sextinction’ to describe the fact that imaginative visions of the end of the world cannot seem to move beyond familiar gender tropes; she argues that ‘One might say that it is easier to imagine the end of the world, and the end of capitalism, than it is to think outside the structuring fantasies of gender.’ In fact, contemporary women’s writing in this genre does offer us alternatives to this way of imagining a post-apocalyptic environment. Rather than nostalgia and restoration after such a disaster, writers as various as Jane Rogers, Sarah Hall, Tama Janowitz, Jeanette Winterson, Nnedi Okorafor, Julie Myerson, Nalo Hopkinson, Doris Lessing, Liz Jensen, Lionel Shriver and Nicola Barker, as well as those mentioned above, have successfully transformed and rewritten the apocalyptic genre to imagine different possible futures for humanity post apocalypse.

     In ‘What’s the Matter with Dystopia’, Ursula Heise has claimed that ‘Contemporary dystopias […] aspire to unsettle the status quo, but by failing to outline a persuasive alternative, they end up reconfirming it.’ In her words, in contemporary dystopian post-apocalyptic narratives ‘survivalists [are] hard to tell apart from hipsters, their portrayals of apocalypse tend to recycle well-known motifs from earlier science fiction, and their visions of the future serve mostly to reconfirm well-established views of the present’.  Heise takes many writers to task in her essay, but my case here is that in the vast majority of instances it is white male authors who confirm the status quo, mainly because they are the most invested in it. Although she is one of the writers Heise accuses, Margaret Atwood’s term ‘ustopian’, a combination of utopia and dystopia, effectively implies that something positive might emerge from within a text that in most ways offers an unutterably grim version of humanity’s future. The term ‘ustopia’ also reminds us that we, as readers, are implicated in these texts and their visions of the future: it is we, or ‘us’, who are being addressed and asked to respond, by imagining how a future world just might change for the better after an apocalyptic event.

     Dystopian and post-apocalyptic visions are immensely popular right now with Young Adult readers and often feature young women protagonists: witness the huge popularity of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. In different ways these YA novels (and the film adaptations of them) show us strong young women central characters who challenge the power structures around them and attempt to destroy them. These books and their film versions do at least focus on female protagonists as the heroic central figures, and potentially begin to contest the idea of woman as victim. However, they often rely on conventional heterosexual romance plots, and their treatment of gender stereotypes involves at best inversion or reversal (strong young women who can ‘kick ass’) rather than a more thorough-going complication and dispersal of gender conventions. Perhaps then we need to look to a wider range of reading possibilities for young people within the array of post-apocalyptic texts that are published each year.

     The first of Octavia Butler’s two Parable novels, Parable of the Sower, is a case in point. Published in the 1990s but prescient reading right now, the novel opens in 2024, in a gated community near Los Angeles. The social fabric of US society has been broken by climate change, economic collapse and corporatisation of civic structures. Only those who can pay can rely on police, ambulance and other public services. Many places have become ‘company towns’ where indentured labour is common. The protagonist and narrator of Sower is Lauren Oya Olamina, a young African American, who is the daughter of the local Baptist minister. She is also a hyperempath, or ‘sharer’, able to experience the pain and pleasure of others. Lauren’s hyperempathy is a neurological condition resulting from her now dead mother’s drug abuse while she was pregnant. Her gated community is threatened by the world outside, which includes a poor and starving underclass, many of whom are addicted to pyro, a recreational drug which makes the user experience sexual pleasure when watching fires. Over the course of the novel Lauren gradually intuits and develops a new religious belief system, which she calls Earthseed, centred around the idea that ‘God is Change’ and that humanity’s future lies ‘beyond the stars’. When her community is destroyed, she travels north with other survivors, joining up with fellow travellers who are prepared to accept her beliefs along the way, and founds a new community called Acorn at the end of the novel. In the world Butler imagines, literacy is gradually being lost, and so Lauren can make a living by teaching people to read.

     Literacy is an important issue in contemporary women’s post-apocalyptic fiction. The word MaddAddam is a palindrome, which reads, letter for letter, the same backwards as forwards. In the MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood deals with the end of human civilisation after a widespread flu pandemic, but also the creation of a new humanoid species, the Crakers. The Crakers are named after their creator, who not only genetically engineers them, but also deliberately creates the fatal flu virus. At the end of the novel the remnants of humanity and the small group of Crakers learn to co-exist, reproduce and survive. The Crakers also learn to read and write. This suggests that the end can also be the beginning. Contemporary women’s post-apocalyptic fiction claims positive futures for humanity after the apocalypse, rather than yearning for the past or attempting to rebuild in the same way. Let’s hope that once the world-wide outbreak of Covid 19 is resolved, we don’t just turn back to how things were before. This situation offers us the chance to change rather than return to the status quo ante. We should permanently acknowledge that ‘low skilled’ workers (often women and migrants) are actually essential workers and reward them accordingly. We should admit that our treatment of our climate and environment needs to alter too and embrace a green new deal. I believe that women writers working in the post-apocalyptic genre show us the way. These novels demonstrate that society and culture can be transformed and revised, just as literature and writing can be revised. It is possible to write new post-apocalyptic stories.

Susan Watkins is Professor of Women’s Writing in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities at Leeds Beckett University, UK Email: