“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-Hurricane Katrina disaster tale we (unfortunately) have come to know so well. It's the perfect book to examine in this column on race in dystopian young adult literature.
What if, in addition to the social and physical devastation accompanying a hurricane, an incurable plague emerged? Orleans is set in the years after the fatal Delta Fever has decimated the south, causing the government to first quarantine and then cut off the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, leaving those still within those areas to fend for themselves.
Realizing that the Fever spreads most quickly when people of different blood types mix, a system of tribes based on blood type forms. Being part of a tribe not only enables its members to share resources to survive, but also offers protection from both blood hunters and attacks from other tribes. I dove into the book wondering, “If people divided themselves along medical lines, would race or gender really matter?”
As in the aboriginal-centered dystopic book Shadows Cast By Stars, victims of the fever in Orleans need blood to survive. In Shadows, the blood needed to cure the plague is aboriginal; in Orleans, type O blood only keeps symptoms at bay. Sixteen-year-old Fen de la Guerre, a member of the O-Positive tribe, explains:
“O types don't be needing transfusions like ABs do. The Fever be in us, but it ain't eating O blood up from the inside like it do other types. So O types got to be extra careful of hunters and the farms where they be taking the kidnapped victims to drain them alive. O blood be the universal donor. If we give a drop, they be taking all of it.”
At age nine, Fen's parents were kidnapped (and presumably killed) by blood hunters. She escapes, eventually joining an O-Pos tribe led by a woman named Lydia. Although Fen “talks tribe” as she narrates the story (and begins the story by wiping her nose on her brown arm), she is far from unlearned. “I can speak patois, French, English, and some Chinese and whatnot from trading with the Asians in Shangri-Lo,” she notes. “I be learning Spanish. And I know the city better than some.” Nobody tells Fen that she can't do something because of her gender. In fact, women leaders are not an anomaly: The O-Pos tribe is led by a very pregnant Lydia; Mama Gentille leads a band of children orphaned by the Fever; and, while Brother Davis is technically the head of the O-Neg tribe, it is his sister Natasha who actually provides leadership.
In contrast to Fen and the other women of the Delta, Daniel is a researcher from the Outer States (as the remaining United States is now known). After his 11-year-old brother died from Delta Fever, Daniel dedicates himself to finding a cure. What he comes up with is a cure that would not only wipe out Delta Fever, but all carriers. If unleashed, it would wipe out the remaining inhabitants of the Delta. Seeking to turn his research into a true cure, Daniel sneaks into the quarantined states. Daniel wears a special suit that keeps him from contracting the Fever. The suit also prevents anyone from actually seeing Daniel's physical features and so readers never actually learn what he looks like. Unlike Fen, Daniel is strong on book-learning but not street-smart (or, rather, Delta-smart) and quickly gets himself captured by blood hunters.
As Fen and Daniel cross paths and travel together through what's left of the city of New Orleans (now simply known as Orleans), the story reveals how the devastation caused by both the Fever and separation have changed race and ethnic signifiers. Tribes are based on blood type, not race as we traditionally think of it, and existing ideas about race and racial separation seem to be gone.
The one visibly white person that Fen encounters is a smuggler from the Outer States in the throes of Delta Fever. “This smuggler be white, whiter than you see in Orleans anymore, with yellow blond hair stuck to his forehead with sweat.” The smuggler seems to be the only white person in the city. Most of the other people that Fen encounters seem to be mixed race.
The one exception is Asian people, who have made their own community in the Delta:
“When the Fever hit, all the Asians in Orleans moved over here. The Fever ain't take to Asians the way it did the rest of us, so they like a tribe that way. They not like the rest of Orleans. They be mixing, for sure: Koreans and Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese and Filipino. But nothing else. Folks in Orleans all be mutts except for the Asians.”
Setting the Asian community apart from the rest of the Delta people seems to place them in a category of “other.” Everyone else is vulnerable to the Fever, everyone else is a mix of races, but the Asians stand alone.
As an Asian woman who is often held up as “other” (“Look at the model minority! Proof that we don't need affirmative action!” or “You wouldn't understand our struggles because you don't get targeted or suffer oppression in the same way that we do”), I haven't made up my mind how this othering sits with me. But I'm glad that Smith didn't make them the blood hunters or the most savage tribe.
Although the Asians keep apart from other races and ethnicities, their languages have still mingled. In the Asian settlement, Fen speaks a combination of French, Cantonese, Mandarin and Tagalog to an older man. Daniel, on the other hand, is unable to communicate with anyone but Fen.
While blood type has replaced race as a defining identity, this has not wiped out exploitation and hostility. In addition to the blood hunters, seemingly friendly inhabitants are also willing to exploit (and drain) Fen and Daniel for their blood. Some do it to stave off the Fever inside them; others do it for monetary gain. (This is, after all, a dystopic novel set in a post-disaster area.)
While Orleans shies away from addressing the title question, I'm glad that Smith acknowledges that the Delta region is filled with people of various shades and colors. As I stated in my first post, no matter how terrible the future might be painted, readers of color should still be able to see themselves as part of that future rather than totally wiped out.