Zombie Feminisms: Justina Ireland’s Deathless Divide (@theTable: “FSR Summer Book Club”)
By Jimmy Hoke.
“Is a virus not a kind of zombie, a quasi life-form moving in and out of inertness? It is zombie time…”–Lorrie Moore, New Yorker, April 13, 2020
It is “zombie time”—or time to think with zombies. While the spread of Covid might provide a particularly poignant moment for reading stories that imagine different infectious spreads, zombie fiction promises readers more than a space to imagine fighting pandemic spread. Speculative fiction can reflect on histories of racism and sexism, which can shine a light on how these histories impact the present—including the disparate effects Covid has had on marginalized populations, especially Black, Latinx, and Native Americans.
Justina Ireland was thinking about zombies and racism long before the era of Covid-19. The first book of her YA zombie duology, Dread Nation (2018), begins the saga of Jane McKeene and Katherine Deveraux, two Black teenagers who have been trained to fight “shamblers” (the novels’ term for zombies) at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. These zombies first rose from the dead at the Battle of Gettysburg, and their rise ends the Civil War as both sides unite to fight this new threat. Black and brown youth have been placed into academies that train them to fight the undead, and Black women like Jane and Katherine are trained to become attendants for wealthy white women and their families.
Deathless Divide picks up where Dread Nation leaves off. In the second novel, Ireland turns her gaze to the wild, Wild West.1 In an attempt to escape an undead horde, Jane and Katherine lead a small group of women and children across the Midwest, seeking a space where they can find a measure of safety and security, eventually hoping to make it to California. During the course of the novel’s events, Jane and Katherine are separated and end up reuniting on the road from San Francisco to Sacramento.
Deathless Divide is consumed by the rivalry between Jane and Gideon Carr, a white scientist driven by his confidence that he alone is best suited to develop an effective vaccine, no matter the cost—a cost that most often risks and endangers Black and brown folks. Gideon, as Jane observes, treats science like a religion (486): his approach becomes so warped from reality—and the people it affects—that is method is not scientific so much as it is scientistic (as Schüssler Fiorenza calls objective biblical interpretation). Written before the current pandemic, Ireland’s novel recalls the historical roots of current conversations about how vaccines are developed and tested and how priority access is determined.
“Enemies to lovers” is a narrative trope beloved by many readers. Dread Nation alters the trope to “enemies to friends.” Jane and Katherine, rivals at Miss Preston’s Academy, are forced to rely on one another and forge a friendship. This friendship drives Deathless Divide. But the bond between the two women is prickly. While Katherine recognizes and insists upon their friendship, Jane continually challenges it with her actions and denials, saying things like “Kate, you know we ain’t friends. We were at best uneasy allies, two people pushed together by fortune and necessity. But that time has passed” (197). When their rivalrous differences work together, Jane and Katherine embody what could be called a feminist hermeneutic of suspicious friendship.
Katherine expresses her asexuality at the novel’s start: “I have come to believe that that it is just not in my being to feel such a powerful longing for a person, not physically nor romantically” (32). Throughout both novels, Katherine contends with the attractions of men, especially white men, as she is both conventionally beautiful and light-skinned enough to pass as white. As a woman rooted in both her Blackness and her asexuality, Katherine struggles with others’ perceptions and expectations, not only those of her enemies but also of her allies. Though this reality tugs upon Katherine, she never doubts herself or her identity. She explicitly connects her identity to religion—a divinely-granted orientation. “I am the way God has made me, and I shall not question the wisdom of my Creator” (32).
As a character, Katherine seems driven by convention: she minds her (and others’) manners, insists on wearing fashionable clothing—including a corset, and quotes the Bible. It is easy to mistake Katherine for a prude when she is, in fact, a “prudish queer” (see Ela Przybylo’s Asexual Erotics, 97). Ireland teaches her readers that we must abandon our conventional expectations because Katherine knows herself. It is those around her, including many readers, who struggle to truly see her. Katherine wears a corset, we learn, because she finds its constriction comfortable, alleviating anxiety by “holding back all the awful” and giving her “the smallest feeling of security…in a brutal, unforgiving world” (34). Katherine’s avowed asexuality and religious sense of self is a model of resistance to the compulsory sexuality that demands romantic entanglements—especially for women.
Although Katherine embodies Polonius’s aphorism—“Be true to thyself and to thine own self be true”—it is Jane who is the Shakespeare (and Hamlet) afficionado:
“What is your favorite bit of Scripture?” I ask.
Jane snorts. “I find the Bible tedious. I prefer Shakespeare. Or that new writer, Twain. I find their writings somewhat more relevant to my experience.”
“You cannot find the Bible tedious! It is a book with some absolutely wondrous passages. I have always found Galatians to be particularly uplifting, since you did not ask. ‘And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
For some unfathomable reason, Jane smiles. I cross my arms. “I do not see why that passage is amusing.”
“‘Conscience does make cowards of us all.’ That’s from Hamlet…” (453-454).
Jane’s quotation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy (Act III, Scene i) interprets Katherine’s quotation of Gal 6:9: the Bible represents conscience. In pulling this hopeful quotation from Galatians, Katherine exhorts “well doing” despite exhaustion, promising that those who endure “shall reap.” Yet their experience teaches them otherwise: they keep surviving but reap little. People don’t expect them to be able to survive—in fact, the society is designed to make their survival impossible. Her hopes dashed at every turn, Jane remains skeptical of Paul’s promises of a flourishing good life for those who endure in the work. Biblical promises seem to merely uphold the system that prevents most people from reaping in good season. Perhaps the Bible does make cowards of us all.
Deathless Divide probes the intersections between history and fiction alongside feminism, queerness, and religion. Animating what C. Riley Snorton calls the “future imperfect,” Ireland’s speculative historical fiction arouses the ways Black queer wo/men will have been there. Ireland shows what zombies can do with history. Though unthinking themselves, zombies can be great to think with. Deathless Divide decapitates stale historical narratives and revivifies the dynamics and problems of the Reconstruction era and the ways they continue to shamble in the present.
Dr. Jimmy Hoke (he/they) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. At Luther, Jimmy frequently assigns speculative fiction to students in courses in biblical studies, early Christianity, and queer and trans religiosities. Jimmy plans to spend the summer reading lots of queer and feminist fiction while editing the proofs of Feminism, Queerness, Affect, Romans: Under God?: Jimmy’s first book (forthcoming this fall from SBL Press)!
Back: Yasmine Singh, Intersectionality in Majumdar’s A Burning: Class, Gender, and Religion