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.

O, Genre, What Art Thou?

“What is genre in the first place?” asks novelist Kazuo Ishiguro during a conversation with writer Neil Gaiman, who reviewed Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant. Ishiguro continues: “Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?”

Ishiguro then makes an interesting speculation about focusing on genre:

Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry? I can see there’s a case for saying there are certain patterns, and you can divide up stories according to these patterns, perhaps usefully. But I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them, and that you should think very carefully before doing so.

As I have grown older as both a teacher and a writer, I have become both more interested in genre (as well as medium and form—the distinctions and intersections) and less certain, like Ishiguro, about the utility of the labels.

Over the past several years, in fact, I have stumbled over publishers labeling Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84 and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as “science fiction.”

While I love both books and authors, I am hard-pressed to define either novel as science fiction; in fact, I am like Gaiman confronting Ishiguro’s Giant:

Fantasy and historical fiction and myth here run together with the Matter of Britain, in a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love. Still, “The Buried Giant” does what important books do: It remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave, forcing one to turn it over and over. On a second reading, and on a third, its characters and events and motives are easier to understand, but even so, it guards its secrets and its world close.

Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it.

Just as many enduring writers do, Ishiguro, Murakami, Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and Kurt Vonnegut—just to name a few—weave genre conventions together, working within, against, and beyond the so-called boundaries of genre, medium, and form.

Unfortunately, formal education (and thus students and teachers) tends to remain trapped in the rote, the narrow, and the prescribed—or genre acquisition:

…GENRE ACQUISITION [is] a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way. The Five Paragraph Essay pedagogies, so common in North America, present a highly structured version of this genre acquisition approach. A much more sophisticated version, introduced in Australia but now popular elsewhere, has been devised by the proponents of Systemic Functional Linguistics (Christie 1991; Martin 1993; Eggins 2004). Using well-established pedagogies, practitioners follow a teaching/learning cycle as students are encouraged to acquire and reproduce a limited number of text types (‘genres’) that are thought to be basic to the culture (Macken-Horarik 2002).

However, for the skilled writer, genre awareness is part of the craft of writing, but not templates that dictate:

A quite different goal is GENRE AWARENESS, which is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts. Though there are few genre awareness curricula, for a number of reasons (see Freedman 1993), I will argue here that a carefully designed and scaffolded genre awareness program is the ideal for novice students – and for other students, as well.

Investigating Text as a Writer

For my first-year college students, we start the writing experience by cataloguing everything they have been taught about writing essays in school (concepts about introductions, bodies, conclusions, thesis sentences, and paragraphing, for example), and then we investigate the Prologue to Louise DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo.

That investigation asks students to consider how this piece of nonfiction compares to what they have been taught about writing in school, but we also examine what the term “memoir” means against other terms such as “autobiography,” “biography,” and the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy.

Now I will add this exchange that sets as rule one for writing memoir: “Don’t try to ‘fit’ the genre.”

Learning to write becomes a continual tension between what we think we know about text as that is confirmed and contradicted by what we read—as preparation for what we write.

Being a writer is inseparable from being a reader, but both are ways of being that are always evolving, never fixed just as no genre, medium, or form is ever truly fixed.

As Gaiman and Ishiguro discuss genre, and Gaiman explains, “I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel,” Ishiguro adds:

So we have to distinguish between something that’s part of the essence of the genre and things that are merely characteristic of it. Gunfights are characteristic of a western, but may not be essential to making the story arresting.

So there is where I am guiding my students as emerging writers and developing readers—to have the sense of purpose and awareness to recognize “essence” versus “characteristic,” to attain a level of sophistication that informs them in their writing and reading but doesn’t artificially restrain them.

For both the reader and the writer, then, genre is a question, one to ask continually and not a definition or a prescription.

And then, we must admit, the ultimate question remains: Was the text satisfying? That, too, becomes the source of even more debate, which, I would add, is the real essence of writing and reading because as long as there are readers the text always lives.

That, of course, if what every writer wants, to live forever:

NG I know that when I create a story, I never know what’s going to work. Sometimes I will do something that I think was just a bit of fun, and people will love it and it catches fire, and sometimes I will work very hard on something that I think people will love, and it just fades: it never quite finds its people.

KI Even if something doesn’t catch fire at the time, you may find it catches fire further down the line, in 20 years’ time, or 30 years’ time. That has happened, often.

See Also

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Art of Fiction No. 196. Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell