The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and where does our food come from?

17 05 2010

Last night I stayed up until 3, long past my usual bedtime, reading. The book was Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, which had come with raves from all around. A quick read, I was told, and I’m looking for quick reads because I intend to tackle C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen this month, and that thing’s a brick. A phone book. Somewhat intimidating.

The Hunger Games is set in a future North America organized into twelve districts, each responsible for the production of one type of resource required by the all-powerful Capitol. Each year, to remind the districts of its might, the Capitol requires a tribute from each district: one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, who will participate in the Hunger Games, a battle to the death televised across the nation. Participants are selected by lottery, and both participation and viewing are mandatory. To all but one of the 24 tributes selected, the Hunger Games are a death sentence.

The story follows Katniss Everdeen, the tribute from District 12, the poorest district in Panem, from decision to volunteer to participate in the games in the place of her 12-year-old sister Prim, to the end of the games. She’s resilient, creative, and independent, and her adventures are a thrill to watch. Collins also subverts the typical YA romantic structure in delightful ways, and that’s a structure that, especially after Twilight, could do with some subversion.
Reading the book, I felt a little like I’d gone out to what I thought was a gourmet restaurant, only to be served family-oriented franchise fare. You know, the food isn’t bad, but it is disappointing? I’ll definitely look for the rest of the trilogy, but I won’t rave about it the way I rave about, say, Parable of the Sower. Am expecting too much of a YA novel?

The story follows the logic of a reality TV show and, while the action is intense, it provides as little explanation of the background of the world as a reality TV show does. Temptation Island is a place where people go to test the strength of their relationship for the entertainment of the audience back home. It doesn’t have a history, and we don’t expect it to have one. Every aspect of a potential future North America, on the other hand, should be shaped by its history and unfortunately, Collins doesn’t connect these threads very well. While there are brief explanations of how the Hunger Games came to be, Collins doesn’t really explore how contemporary North American society might devolve into such brutality.

An aspect of The Hunger Games which fascinated me was Katniss’s skills at hunting and foraging. These are skills that she learned both from her father, and from necessity; she lives in a district in which almost everyone is hungry, and had she not learned to hunt and forage, her family would not have survived.
The question of how to feed ourselves in a version of North America without factory farms, without grocery stores, has come up in several stories that I have read recently.

In Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olmina, worried about the brutal society in which she lives, teaches herself how to hunt, and how to prepare nutritious food from native plants and animals. The gates of the community in which she grows up, weak protection against the desperate hoardes outside, isolate them, and leave them vulnerable to siege.

While the adults cling desperately to memories of a society in which good food was easily available, Lauren is much more pragmatic. She knows that the gates will not protect her forever, and that her food sources cannot be merely man-made and controlled. Nature will be her saviour. Her philosophy of Change does not allow dependence on the illusion of stability provided by the food industry, whereas adaptability, and knowledge of ever-changing nature will allow her and her community to survive.

In Nalo Hopkison’s Brown Girl in the Ring, where rich folk have moved to the suburbs and don’t venture into anarchic inner-city Toronto (and those who remain can’t venture out, nor depend upon imports), there are wonderful community vegetable gardens which provide sustenance to Ti-Jeanne and her family. And in “A Habit of Waste,” the older gentleman lives on what he can hunt and gather within the city – edible plants which are treated as ornamental by those who get their food from shops – instead of the mediocre nutrition the foodbank provides him with (I’m having trouble digging up this reference as I’ve passed Skin Folk on to a friend, but I didn’t want to leave this story out). He forages within the urban environment.

In these stories, the characters do not rely on the food industry, because they cannot. While it feeds those of us who are in a position of privilege, it clearly (and yes, this is true in real life), does not look after those of us who are not.

In these stories, we’re not dealing with some misguided, romantic notion that the food of the past, when processed food was not readily available, was inherently better than what we’re eating now. This is a trap that is easy to fall into, as we mourn the loss of family farms, and look at the deplorable, inhumane conditions in factory farms and slaughter-houses, consider how exotic foods are trucked across vast distances to fill our bellies, worry about GMOs, hormones, and pesticides, listeriosis outbreaks, E. Coli, the earlier onset of puberty in female children, and all that sinister science lurking in our food supply. These are legitimate things to worry about; it’s scary, thinking about what we’re putting into our bodies.

But many of us need not look further than our own family histories, in which starvation was a frequent cause of death, to realize that the way we eat now, for all its flaws, is better than the way we ate then. No, in these stories, what Butler and Hopkinson, and even Collins are considering, is how we will survive if all of these structures that we have built for ourselves, to feed ourselves, which are imperfect and fragile, collapse. And the answer for most of us is probably not at all.
I haven’t figured out where I stand on this issue quite yet, what action to take, but I’m happy to keep exploring it.

Currently Reading: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison

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Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson

12 04 2010

I love Nalo Hopkinson so much that it would be impossible for me to write an unbiased review of any of her books. Her prose is so vivid and exciting that even if I believed it were possible to erase the person from the critique and objectively evaluate the quality of the writing, I would leave my critic hat at home and just rave. Nalo Hopkinson is one of the most exciting voices in Canadian fiction these days.

Today I’m going to talk about Skin Folk, which is a collection of short stories loosely connected by the theme of skin. That is, the surface under which we hide our darkest secrets, the burdensome appearances that we maintain and shed, the external forces that confine us, and the way some people can see through these images to find truths that we aren’t yet even aware of ourselves. Many of these stories are about breaking free from the skins that we wear, that we have chosen for ourselves or had imposed upon us, or that have grown over us so quietly that we didn’t notice them until they had covered us completely. This is how Hopkinson introduces the book:

Throughout the Caribbean, under different names, you’ll find stories about people who aren’t what they seem. Skin gives these folk their human shape. When the skin comes off, their true selves emerge. They may be owls. They may be vampiric balls of fire. And always, whatever the burden their skins bear, once they remove them – once they get under their own skins – they can fly. It seemed an apt metaphor to use for these stories collectively.

This is a thick, delicious collection of stories, each concerned with very contemporary and important questions. In “Something to Hitch Meat To,” Artho, who edits photographs for pornographic magazines, airbrushing out imperfections, exaggerating models’ natural assets, is beginning to find human bodies – real, living human bodies – pretty creepy. Like when you say a word too many times and it loses all meaning, he has looked at and “corrected” too many bodies, and now the people he crosses in the street seem awkward and ungainly.

Artho was thinking of something to say to him, some kind of opener, when the man’s ears caught his gaze. They jutted out from the side of his head like knurls of deformed cartilage. There really was nothing odd about the guy’s ears – that’s just how ears were – but they still gave Artho a queasy feeling. With one hand, he worried at his own ear. He looked around at other people in the food court. All their ears seemed like twisted carbuncles of flesh sprouting from the sides of their heads, odd excrescences.

Unfortunately for Artho, whose life is about to change dramatically, an ugly little girl in a Spiderman backpack, who isn’t the least bit afraid to talk to him, follows him back to his office, and changes the way he sees things. No, this isn’t one of those heartwarming clichés where the little girl teaches the mean old man how to love. This little girl has glasses with jam-jar thick lenses, which refract and multiply her eyes, hair in dark medusa strands, ashy brown bumps of dry skin for knees, and her name is Nancy. Wrongs are about to be righted, but not in the way Artho had in mind.

Throughout the story, Artho finds that people’s real-world perceptions of him and reactions to him – often distrusting – don’t match up with the way he sees himself. People react to him with fear and distrust, and he absolutely can’t get a date. Who would want to date the guy who sets the standard of beauty and sexual attractiveness at a level that is unreachable to most people, who creates the images that make most of us feel ugly? Who would want to date a guy whose job it is to tell us that the beautiful bodies we already inhabit are not worthy of the camera’s lens? Nancy is about to sort this out, too.

Media images may not be the scourge of our generation (there was oppression of the powerless long before there was Maxim), but in this story, a Nancy fixes a little wrong with a little right, sending out a subtle corrective that just might spread, making the people in Artho’s world (and us readers, maybe) a little more comfortable in their skins.

There are fifteen stories in this collection, each as thoughtful as the last. My favourites are “Fisherman,” “Slow Cold Chick,” “Snake,” “The Glass Bottle Trick,” and “A Habit of Waste.” I may have a few more notes on these later on.

It occurs to me that if I’m successful at my project, I should (will) actually go to WisCon.

Currently Reading: The Female Man by Joanna Russ