Teaching Contemporary Women’s Dystopian and Apocalyptic Fictions

Susan WatkinsMMUc

(Organised by the CWWA (Contemporary Women’s Writing Association))

Since the turn of the millennium the dystopian and apocalyptic genre has become increasingly popular with students of English Literature (who are mostly women) and other young readers and is a frequent choice of dissertation topic. The papers in this panel all examine the ethical issues raised by this genre’s popularity with young readers and ask how can we encourage their engagement with it in innovative ways.

Post-Apocalyptic Writing and Creative/Critical Interventions: Engaging BAME Young Adult Women (Susan Watkins and Rachel Connor)

Susan Watkins is Professor of Women’s Writing in the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University, UK.
Dr Rachel Connor is Director of Creative Writing in the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University, UK.

In many dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels the world has been rebuilt after a disaster along totalitarian lines to create a society where there is no individual freedom and women and children are subordinate. Although these novels’ strong young women central characters challenge the power structures around them and potentially begin to resist the idea of women as victim, they are ambivalent at best in term of gender, sexuality and race. This paper argues that we need to look to a wider range of critical / creative possibilities for young people in the context of the array of texts that are published each year in this genre. We explore our experience of organising an event for YA women students (age 15-18) from a predominantly BAME and Muslim girls’ school in Bradford. Supported by AHRC Being Human festival funding, and by our partners – the charity First Story and the Leeds Library – we encouraged students to question the assumptions inherent in much post-apocalyptic and dystopian writing, introduced them to new examples and new histories of the genre, and enabled them to take part as writers and creators of post-apocalyptic narratives.

Eco-Apocalypse, Decolonized Geographies, and Posthuman/Postcolonial Archives (Hope Jennings)

Hope Jennings is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures, Wright State University (Dayton, Ohio, US).

This paper will discuss my pedagogical experience and student responses to contemporary postcolonial and indigenous eco-apocalyptic texts explored in a graduate seminar offered in Spring 2020, Archive Fevers. This seminar focused on literary texts and theories that explore various manifestations of the archive, as a term that functions both literally and figuratively in cultural texts and spaces, and how the politics of the archive inform posthuman/new materialist theories and eco-apocalyptic narratives. Students interrogate the uses of institutional and individual archives in shaping responses to traumatic pasts and precarious futures, and the ways in which such responses articulate apocalyptic anxieties in the face of global climate and refugee crises, extinction politics, and histories of settler colonialism. Texts by Brenda Shaughnessy, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Alexis Wright, and Valeria Luiselli are used to prompt debates on collective memory and conceptual/material archives. This paper will assess the extent to which teaching contemporary eco-apocalyptic texts by indigenous and postcolonial writers offers opportunities to pursue innovative research questions that “unsettle” and challenge normative, dominant, and/or first-world Anthropocene narratives.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond: Women’s Speculative Fiction within the Educational Canon (Laura-Jane Devanny)

Laura-Jane Devanny is Head of English at Bosworth Independent College, Northampton and Associate Lecturer, University of Northampton, UK. She also runs The Write Approach.

Arguably, speculative fiction by contemporary women writers is a crucial site of critical engagement in investigating some of the more urgent questions posed by the intersection between postmodern politics, popular culture and feminist theory; these include the social consequences of projected technologies, anxieties over capitalism and the culture industry, apprehension about economic and ecological sustainability and the possibilities of changing embodiment. Increasing interventions by literary women writers have led to the genre gaining in prominence and credibility so it is, therefore, surprising that there remains a lack of such writers on the list of set texts for secondary exam board syllabi and sparse opportunity to teach women’s dystopian fiction at further education level.

This paper will explore how Margaret Atwood, as a canonical literary writer ‘slipstreaming’ within SF genre fiction, firmly established herself within the realms of literary education through her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. With the renewed momentum generated by the recent publication of The Testaments, Atwood continues to pioneer the transformative potential of women’s dystopian and apocalyptic fiction and cement its place within the educational canon.

Fri 2:00 pm - 3:15 pm