Investigating Zombi(e)s to Foster Genre Awareness

My initiation into the fiction of Roxane Gay was a wonderful moment of disequilibrium when I read her short story “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We.” The opening of the story is a staccato tease that sets the stage for even greater disorientation:

[A Primer]

[Things Americans do not know about zombis:]

They are not dead. They are near death. There’s a difference.
They are not imaginary.
They do not eat human flesh.
They cannot eat salt.
They do not walk around with their arms and legs locked stiffly.
They can be saved.

“So what were zombies, originally?” asks Victoria AndersonVisiting Researcher in Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, explaining:

The answer lies in the Caribbean. They weren’t endlessly-reproducing, flesh-eating ghouls. Instead, the zombie was the somewhat tragic figure of a human being maintained in a catatonic state – a soulless body – and forced to labour for whoever cast the spell over him or her. In other words, the zombie is – or was – a slave. I always find it troubling that, somewhere along the line, we forgot or refused to acknowledge this and have replaced the suffering slave with the figure of a mindless carnivore – one that reproduces, virus-like, with a bite.

The zombie narrative has captivated pop culture in the U.S. now for several years, notably the AMC series The Walking Dead and the comic book it is based on and novels such as World War Z. With the release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Anderson expects this popularity to continue—along with the reimagined but mischaracterized zombie conventions.

For the classroom—especially when we are addressing reading and writing—the zombie narrative in its many iterations is an ideal entry point into investigating genre. Zombie narratives are a specialized sub-genre and blending of horror and science fiction.

Since zombie narratives in print and film have been in U.S. pop culture for about 8 decades, teachers can expect students at all levels to come to class with some existing assumptions about what zombies are and what zombie narratives entail—in other words, the conventions of zombie narratives as a genre.

As a writing teacher, I ascribe to Johns’s emphasis on building genre awareness (as opposed to genre acquisition) in developing writers and readers. Here, then, I want to outline briefly how to use zombie narratives as part of fostering genre awareness in students.

First, I would have students in small groups identify their own experiences with zombie narratives—naming what they have read or viewed. From that, students would then construct “what we know about zombies.”

This focus on starting with what conventions students already possess helps generate engagement and context for the larger lesson on genre awareness.

Next, I would ask students to read Gay’s short story (or another that is age appropriate since Gay’s story is for older readers) as a model text for comparing how that story matches or contrasts with the “what we know about zombies” list each group has created.

Finally, I would share Anderson’s article above in order to have a discussion about the concept of conventions—how expectations for a certain type of writing (or film) are shifting but bound to a time and place. The concept of zombies is much different now than in its origin.

Since superhero films are now also all the rage, a companion activity to support helping students investigate the concept of conventions and genre is to allow them to research the many different versions for key superheroes—such as Spider-Man or Batman—that have existed over the 50-70 years of mainstream comic book superheroes.

Some key caveats about fostering genre awareness are helpful for designing and implementing many lessons such as the one above:

  • Fostering genre awareness as part of the writing and/or reading curriculum is an ongoing process. You can never “finish” that process, and all students at all levels need to be engaged continually with the questions of genre, form, and mode. Above, for example, asking: What makes a short story, a short story, or what makes Anderson’s essay, an essay, and how might the public piece of hers compare to a scholarly essay on zombies?
  • Genre awareness helps students build their own emerging and developing “rubrics” about how to tackle a writing project or interrogate a text. For example, a student learns to start with “what I know about X,” and then while writing or reading to use that to inform how she/he proceeds in making meaning through composing or reading.
  • Conventions serve communication as fluid frames that texts conform to or break; in other words, the structure helps create meaning, but the specifics of that structure are not as important as the structure itself.

“It’s a call to memory because the zombie – the actual zombie – reminds us of something very important,” Anderson concludes:

It reminds us to remember – who we are, and where we came from, and how we came to be – individually and collectively – especially for those of us whose personal and community histories are caught up in the blanketing fog of cultural amnesia. The zombie reminds us to taste salt.

Anderson’s meditation on the shifting conventions of zombies, I think, speaks to the power of conventions themselves since how we construct our genres and what genres we embrace in pop culture are as much about us as about the narratives themselves.

Ultimately fostering genre awareness is about helping students know who they are as well as about the world in which they live.

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