Hugo Spotlight: The Devastating Alternate History of Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation

In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel, young adult, and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

2018 was a damn good year for young adult fantasy. Granted, it was also a really bad year for letting Black women authors tell their own stories. Of all the YA fantasy published last year, only four—FOUR!—were by Black women. Lucky for you, three of them, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, and Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, are nominated for the Hugo Award’s Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book. The fourth, A Blade So Black, is frakking great and you should go read it right after you finish reading this. Until then, let me squee at you about how much I loved Dread Nation.

Dread Nation is the first novel in Justina Ireland’s young adult historical fantasy/alternate history series (the second book, Deathless Divide, is scheduled for 2020). The basic premise is this: the Civil War ended not because the Union was victorious over the Confederacy but because the dead rose from their graves on the battlefields at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and started eating people. But this is no simple zombie horror story. There is plenty of agonizing deaths and splattering brains, but that’s just the dressing on the side. The real meat of the story is so much worse.

Teenage Jane McKeene is about to graduate from Miss Preston’s, a prestigious combat school in Baltimore. As part of the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, African American and Indigenous children were forced into institutions to learn how to fight the undead. White children are exempt from supernatural warfare, so much so that the wealthiest hire Attendants, Black girls who act as both maidservant and bodyguard. If Jane is lucky, she’ll get a cushy job as an Attendant and spend the rest of her life being alternately ignored and belittled by rich white women, with the monotony occasionally broken up by a wandering walker. But Jane isn’t so lucky. Her adventurous spirit and brazen disregard for the school’s racist rules get her and her childhood nemesis Katherine shipped off to middle-of-nowhere Kansas.

As bad as it was in the South and North, Jane and Katherine find the lawless Midwest infinitely harder. Racism and sexism collide with the undead in a hellscape of unending awfulness. Death comes fast and frequent, and Black and Indigenous bodies are little more than cannon fodder for white colonizers. Terrible truths about the combat schools, Western society, American exceptionalism, and Jane’s own past explode around her. What happens when the real monsters aren’t the cannibal corpses but white supremacists? Jane, Katherine, and their Lenape friend Red Jack, are about to find out.

In my review of Dread Nation, I couldn’t help but reflect on the insightful and incisive ways in which Ireland explores through the lens of alternate history what it means to be a queer Black woman. Jane, like Ireland herself, is bisexual and biracial while Katherine is, like me, light-skinned enough to pass as white and falls somewhere under the asexual/aromantic umbrella. We see how racism, sexism, and queerphobia form the foundations of the systems and laws of this alt-history version of the US, just as they do in the real world. Crucially, we also see how the intersectionality of those ‘isms and ‘phobias uniquely impact queer Black women.

Intersectionality, for those who need the reminder, isn’t the intersection of different identities but of the systems and policies of oppression people with multiple identities face. It’s understood that there is oppression in being Black and in being a woman, but there is also a specific kind of oppression in being a Black woman. What happens to Black women in the novel is different than what happens to white women and Black men, and how Jane and Katherine process those situations through their queer perspectives is different than how the other heterosexual characters of any race do. Fiction, especially YA fantasy, doesn’t often give us that amount of social and cultural nuance. To see it done so well here is reason enough for a Hugo nomination.

Ireland also tackles another issue rarely touched on in young adult fiction: colorism. Jane has a challenging relationship with being biracial. She loves her white mother dearly, but it puts her in a difficult position. She has privileges most other African American girls don’t—having a white mother is what got her into Miss Preston’s and what is supposed to guarantee her an Attendant position with a good family. But she is also trapped in the liminal space between two worlds, neither of which she can ever truly belong. She did not have to toil in the cotton fields but she has never truly been free, either. Katherine, with her even lighter skin, can and does put her Blackness in a box to wear the guise of a white woman. She does it not because she hates her ancestry but because it is safer to walk in the world as a white woman than a Black woman. Threats still exist, but they are uncomplicated by racism or misogynoir (the intersection of misogyny and racism against Black women). Having to discard your true identity to pretend to be someone she isn’t, someone she fears and even despises, that’s a personal hell Jane can never really understand. But it also grants her access to things Jane could only dream of.

Dread Nation isn’t perfect. There are valid concerns regarding how Indigenous characters and cultures are portrayed, as well as how institutions and systems created to oppress and “civilize” Indigenous people (specifically how Indian boarding schools influenced the zombie combat schools). The things I love about the novel don’t negate the troublesome elements or invalidate others’ complaints. I can reflect on both states simultaneously. But for me personally, the positives in Ireland’s novel are more than worth wading through the problematic. It was too intensely impactful and too immensely moving to not want to shout about how much it meant to me.

I love this book. I love it so much I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Dread Nation devastated me when I read and reviewed it last year, and all this reflecting back is dredging up those feelings all over again. Justina Ireland wrote a story about queer Black women and for queer Black women, but one with enough universal elements to make it compelling for everyone. Like the best speculative fiction, the novel holds a mirror up to our fundamental beliefs and exposes the brutal reality of what we try so hard to ignore. In twenty years I won’t remember half the YA fantasy I’ve read recently, but you can bet I’m still going to be thinking about Dread Nation.

Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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