Saturday, February 4, 2012

We Paved Paradise

“What is the apocalypse but an everlasting snow day? An excuse to tear up all those college applications, which suddenly aren’t going to determine the rest of your life?” 
 Scott Westerfeld, author of The Uglies

Recently, my online young adult literature class paved over paradise. Two of the novels from the course feature dystopian societies: Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now and a contemporary classic, Lois Lowry's The Giver. To spark discussion about the texts, one of the "simple" activities I had for this week's discussion board challenged students to do the following:

Part One: Create a vision of your “perfect” community, giving it a name, a system of government, and a physical description, and accounting for how its people spend their days. What problems in society will you remove? Gossip? Lying? Intolerance? What if we sterilized all cheaters? Discuss how that community would change and grow. Post a picture from Google images or other sources to go with your writing. (It must be at least 150 words.)

Part Two: Partner up. Choose someone else’s vision of utopia from the class. Write a fictional passage where something goes wrong in this utopia. Your job is spoil paradise. After you post your fictional response, you and the rest of the class may dialogue about the results.

What I couldn't have anticipated is all the ways this might go wrong.  What I failed to recognize was an underlying cruelty in my own assignment.  I was in essence asking them to create something beautiful, ordering another to destroy it, and then asking them to dialogue about how “they felt.”  It must be part of the joyful sadism that goes with the educational process.  In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t fiction writers create characters whom we love and then send them on a journey to hell?  It sounds a little like some days in the classroom for me, online or otherwise.

Most students took it well. Since this is Minnesota in January many of the blissful utopias envisioned were set in tropical locales with sugarsand beaches and tourmaline waves. One by one the utopias fell--the peaceniks society undone by a serial killer, the vegetarians by diseased coconuts, the socialists by a deranged history teacher named "Ned." In one society that banned lying and gossip, a woman mysteriously became pregnant and gave birth to a demon baby with the power to rain down fire from the sky. The students delighted in creating a paradise, but it was the wreckage which truly inspired them to new creative heights.

Some say art springs from a desire to reclaim paradise.  In an article published in The Writer's Chronicle, author Tim Weede even proposed calling it “The Domaine Perdu,” the lost country.  He claimed each one of us carries a lost country around inside of us, a longing to return to an Eden we no longer know. Our Eden, our lost country, may have been the childhood we have left behind or it may be an actual physical place, a cabin at the lake our family once owned, a farm in the country where our grandparents hosted Thanksgiving. He said this domaine perdu embodied “the Eden myth; [which] has tremendous resonance in every culture” (66).

I remember Eden, can touch it again with my imagination.  I know that a longing for this lost land informs my historical fiction and even my next novel, set in the recent past, but if this return to paradise inspires authors, so do visions of its destruction.  We can’t help craving that apple of knowledge, are not complete as humans unless we know sin and suffering. We have to leave the garden behind if we are to grow and change.

The current dystopian trend in young adult literature has many explanations.  In a short series The New York Times recently published, “The Dark Side of Young Adult Literature,” several authors debated wide-ranging reasons for this trend, from pure “escapism” to the out-of-control aspects of our own world.  As Scott Westerfeld points out you need look no farther than a typical American high school to understand why such books are popular:  “Schools are places where teens are subject to dress codes, have few free speech rights, and are constantly surveilled, where they rise and sit at the sound of a bell. Is it any wonder that dystopian novels speak to them?”  I am not sure about you, but when I remember high school, it's not Eden that comes to mind, and it’s easy to see why this literature will remain popular for generations to come.

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Nicole Helget said...

Great lesson, Tom. If and when I teach Krakauer's INTO THE WILD again, I can see elements of this working for me. I'll have to check out that piece in WRITERS CHRONICLE. Teenagers, no matter how much freedom they have, have to rebel against the way things are, the norm. It's part of their maturation and self-actualization. I think it's interesting and predictable that your students found so much of their creativity in the dark destruction element of this assignment. I think it wonderful that you provided them an outlet for this very real and very predictable and normal need. Teenagers and young adults must deconstruct to be healthy.

Tom said...

Hi Nicole,

You'd love the full article, which is primarily about historical fiction and fantasy and the importance of setting in fiction. The full title is "Accessing Eden: Novelistic Landscapes and the Domaine Perdu" by Tim Weed. It's from the December 2008 issue of The Writer's Chronicle. If you don't have an AWP subscription let me know and I'll find you a copy.