Grounding Myself in Any Way I Can

I was reading Katie’s post, entitled “In a Course Called “Metropolis,” I Almost Thought the Setting Didn’t Matter: Confessing, Reflecting, and Trying to “Do Better,”” and I thought “not only is this so eloquent and thought-provoking, but I actually have the exact opposite experience.” So, I decided I should document it!

In the first few days we read Zone One by Colson Whitehead, we were told to cluster in small groups and talk about what, in the reading and in course concepts, we could ground ourselves in. Even though I have read Zone One before, I still thought to myself, “how am I supposed to ground myself in a zombie novel?” 

That being said, I *have* read Zone One before. Last semester, I read this book in an entirely different context for another one of Beth’s classes, Topics in Literature: Literature, Medicine, and Racism. So that was a check on the familiarity list. I was familiar with the plot and the characters and I knew exactly what was coming, but reading the words in an entirely different context has its own new set of challenges. I found it surprisingly difficult to force myself to forget about old concepts from my previous class, and rather focus on the “now.” I found myself constantly remembering course terms from the other class and applying them to every part of Zone One.

Katie also reminded me how important geography is to Zone One. Unlike Katie, I am from Long Island, and therefore was easily able to ground myself in many of  Whitehead’s descriptions of New York City. On the first several pages of the novel, Whitehead goes on and on setting up the landscape of the city, where the zombie apocalypse has taken place. Mark Spitz “squinted at the slogans cantering along stairwell entrances, the Day-Glo threats and pidgin manifestos…” “Pieces of citizens were on display in the windows, arranged by a curator with a taste for non-sequitur: The splayed pinstriped legs of an urban golfer putting into a colander; half a lady’s torso, wrapped in a turquoise blazer…” “He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows.” (Page 6) Not only is Whitehead’s use of language remarkably impressive, but every word is valid. I wrote (several times) within the margins of these few pages, “this is literally NYC.” Katie’s post helped me realize that my identity is so tied to Long Island (and, in extension, New York City), similar to many of those who spoke in the credits of When The Levees Broke. I feel a sense of pride when people ask me where I’m from, and even if they can’t relate or don’t understand where that pride comes from, I could spend hours explaining all the little intricate details of what makes New York, New York. Through Whitehead’s narrative, I was able to perfectly envision certain street intersections and stores, and it felt like I was almost in on a “secret” that Whitehead wanted residents of the area to understand.

But I don’t think Whitehead wrote with that “secret” in mind. Rather, I think this novel is set in New York City because of it’s familiarity in our world. Whether or not people have any connection with New York, it’s a location that most people know of. Most people have some sort of image that comes to mind when they hear the words “New York,” maybe recalling it from a film, or a tv show, or a news story. It’s a trope that’s constantly used.

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