Nina Avallone-Serra, Engl 111 Final Self-Reflective Essay

In my very first semester of college, using Beth McCoy’s ENGL 111 Expulsion & Housing Crisis course as a guide, I took my first ever dive into one of the defining events of my generation: the housing market crash of 2008. Coming from a family fortunate enough to avoid the fallout of this crisis, I grew up with no knowledge of it at all. In fact, I only found out about it in my mid-teens when I caught a showing of the film adaptation of The Big Short which did little to improve my understanding as I struggled to keep up with the large cast, the fast pace, and the head-spinning financial jargon. 

But at the end of the semester I am marginally older and wiser and can explain with some certainty what The Big Short was trying to communicate. The housing crisis (or the subprime mortgage crisis) was a devastating market crash which resulted from the offering of loans to unqualified applicants by predatory lenders. These loans were high-risk, meaning that those who received them had poor credit and were unlikely to pay back the lended money, but investment in these loans was encouraged and even launched a secondary market for repackaging and selling these bad loans to large Wall Street banks. This caused a “bubble”, with homeownership reaching a “saturation point” in 2006 according to Investopedia. After this point, the value of houses purchased with these bad mortgages plummeted, leaving millions indebted to their lenders, unable to pay back mortgages they should have never been able to afford and unable to sell the homes purchased with these mortgages without losing money. This triggered the worst recession seen since the Great Depression, the effects of which can still be felt over a decade later.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the final text of the course, as a dystopian novel written about the effects of an impending climate crisis on the nation in future decades, may not immediately bring to mind the 2008 housing market crash. What does a science fiction novel written in 1993 about the socioeconomic and climate disasters of the distant 2020s have to do with the subprime mortgage crisis of the early 2000s? The surface similarities don’t seem to go very far, but placing Butler’s novel in the context of the crash, broadens the conversation about the 2008 crisis. 

Some of the most striking similarities between the two include patterns of expulsion, lack of access to housing, and extreme wealth disparities. Both the real life event of the housing crisis and the conditions described in Parable of the Sower forced millions out of homes, leaving many homeless and entirely without basic needs. The events of Parable of the Sower, when used as a lens through which to view the housing crisis, adds another dimension to it. In my own reading, I used Butler’s novel as a peek into a nightmarish world in which the outcome of the market crash was truly dystopian, using the similarities between the novel and the crash as a way of magnifying the fallout experienced by those who lost their homes and livelihoods in 2008. 

In our study of the subprime mortgage crisis, one of the aspects that I found most striking was the isolation of rich and poor from one another and the extreme wealth disparity between the two. I learned from Michael Lewis’s The Big Short and articles like Joe Nocera’s “What the Costumes Reveal” just how insular the world of investment banks and mortgage servicers is. In the firm of Stephen J. Baum (who represents multiple large mortgage lenders), the office culture revolves around the mockery and degradation of those who are faced with the loss of their homes. There is a shocking lack of empathy and so little regulation that businesses like this were allowed to cut corners everywhere, free to terrorize homeowners as they pleased. The main players in The Big Short were similarly contained, enjoying lavish Las Vegas lifestyles and protected from the consequences of their business. Lewis writes about the aftermath of the crisis: “A few wall street CEOs had been fired for their roles in the subprime mortgage catastrophe, but most remained in their jobs, and they, of all people, became important characters operating behind closed doors, trying to figure out what to do next.” (pg 260, The Big Short)

This aspect of the market crash is shared by Parable of the Sower. Large corporations like KSF have a large background presence in the novel, buying up towns like Olivar and controlling the market for water. We see stark contrasts in access to wealth and resources between racial and ethnic groups in particular, the wealthy and prosperous town of Olivar offering residency only to white families. There exists, as in the case of the 2008 crisis, an insular characteristic to the wealthiest class in Parable of the Sower, their status enabling them to ignore the veritable apocalypse unfolding before their eyes. A great example of this is our protagonist Lauren’s fascination with the locals in Los Angeles who were able to enjoy a day at the beach simply for leisure despite the chaos around them. With the funding to acquire transportation, self-defense, food, water, and housing, rich people in Parable of the Sower were able to stave off a crisis and preserve their way of life in a manner reminiscent of the way in which corporate bailouts enabled elites on Wall Street to preserve their own jobs, resources, and wealth. Both the rich in the fictitious world of The Sower and in reality occupied a bubble untouched by the realities of the poor and middle class world.

A theme of expulsion represents another strong tie between Parable of the Sower and the housing crisis. The most significant outcome of the housing market crash (as the name would have one believe) is the massive amount of foreclosures on houses across the country, causing millions to be suddenly cast out of their homes. Houses were left abandoned and demolished in the wake of the mass exodus caused by the 2008 crisis. Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, another one of our texts, offers great insight into the effects of the crisis on middle and working classes. Flournoy describes the  abandoned homes and vacant lots, plummeting home values, and rising poverty and crime experienced in the months leading up to and in the months following the collapse of the housing market. 

The conditions in Parable of the Sower felt eerily similar to this. As I read further into Butler’s novel, mental images of burnt-out ruins in the world of Parable of the Sower started to mirror the depictions of streets lined with demolished and abandoned homes in Detroit in The Turner House. The characters in both books even responded to challenges in similar ways: the walls of Lauren’s home Robledo reminded me of the makeshift garage constructed by the Turner family to keep out thieves and intruders and the emphasis on building community and family in order to survive. The conditions of both novels demanded their characters adopt a strong sense of survival and resourcefulness in order to support themselves and their loved ones and this echoes an important message about the hardships real-life individuals had to overcome during the crisis of 2008. 

  The Turner House and Parable of the Sower also share similar themes about family, addiction, and faith. The internal familial tensions in both books act as a driving force for the development of the protagonists’ actions and beliefs going forward. In Parable of the Sower, Lauren forms many of the foundational tenets of Earthseed around discrepancies between her own beliefs and those of her father. Many of the practical aspects of Earthseed, however, she adopts from the training she received from her father, emphasizing self-defense, vigilance, community, and leadership. We see a similar dynamic in The Turner House, also with the patriarch of the family. Francis Turner’s own beliefs and fears (particularly in regards to the phenomenon of the haint) played a large part in shaping Cha-Cha’s convictions and his role as the leader of his family. His refusal to acknowledge Cha-Cha’s haint, his alcoholism, and his detachment from his children all became defining points in his children’s lives, either empowering their own beliefs, or wearing them down. These family dynamics, though fictional, reflect the real-life significance of family and community, particularly in times of hardship. The people around us are a huge determining factor in laying the groundwork for the beliefs that will carry us through life and in developing our ability to deal with difficult situations. These facts take on an even greater importance when family and community are threatened, and they certainly were in the housing crisis – with this mass expulsion occurring, families and communities were broken up in large numbers, harming these bonds and causing an even greater social and psychological impact on those affected. 

Diving into themes about addiction in both novels continues to broaden the discussion about the 2008 crisis. Addiction would exist with or without a housing crisis or an apocalyptic disaster, but exploring this particular issue and how it interplays with the poverty and crime resulting from events like these gives us a deeper view into their effect on the broader population. The Pyro drug in Parable of the Sower is the clearest example of this issue. The drug worked as both a form of salvation, either by abusing it for pleasure or by selling it for financial relief, and as an agent of destruction. This dynamic works similarly in The Turner House, addiction linking with poverty, crime, and housing instability. Using these novels as a reflection of the housing crisis, addiction becomes an important part of the context of the crisis and creates a clearer picture of how widely the effects of the crash reached. Using Parable of the Sower as window into the 2008 housing crisis, though it may not seem like the obvious choice out of all the texts in our ENGL 111 course, brings a depth to the matter that one may not get if they interpret it through strictly informative sources like The Big Short or “The Giant Pool of Money”. The effects of an event so devastating and transformative can be explored on a more precise and personal level, accounting for family, faith, addiction, poverty and can hit even harder when using Parable of the Sower as a magnifier. Using Octavia Butler’s work in concert with my own newfound knowledge of the nitty gritty of the housing crisis (CDOs, credit default swaps, big banks, etc.) added an element of humanity to my view and helped me to identify the 2008 housing crisis as something apocalyptic in its own right.

Final Self-Reflective Essay, ‘Parable of The Sower’ and The 2008 Expulsion and Housing Crisis

After engaging with ‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia Butler, and with the knowledge of the 2008 global financial crisis in mind whilst reading, I have found that many course concepts connect in different ways to this novel as well as the others we have read in the class. Concepts like trust and expulsion especially stuck out throughout the course. While many believe the 2008 expulsion and housing crisis to be caused by homeowners who “did not read the paperwork”, there are truths that lay beyond this. In Michael Lewis’s novel ‘The Big Short’, wealthy investors are seen playing a sick game with the homes and mortgages of many during this time. Grown men are seen betting against subprime mortgage loans and profiting off the little guys, homeowners. “The subprime mortgage machine roared on. The loans that were being made to actual human beings only grew crappier, but, bizarrely, the price of insuring them the price of buying credit default swaps fell. By April 2006 Lippmann’s superiors at Deutsche Bank were asking him to defend his quixotic gamble.” (page 90 of The Big Short). After encountering ‘The Big Short’, it’s clear to see where trust was broken for homeowners who were eventually expelled from their homes because of the corruption on Wall Street that directly affected the lives of real people. 

While it is not easy to see right away that the contents of ‘Parable of The Sower’ has much to do with the expulsion and housing crisis of 2008, themes and concepts are clear to pick out of this dystopian read. Expulsion is one concept I find not only the main character can relate to, but also those who reside outside of walled communities like the one Lauren has lived in. Early on in the novel, the picture is painted clearly of how life was for individuals who did not have the protection of walls and a tight-knit community with, apart from robberies, a reliable food supply. While out with her brothers, father, and four other kids, Lauren describes what and who she sees outside her walled community. “Crazy to live without a wall to protect you, Even in Robledo, most of the street poor- squatters, winos, junkies, homeless people in general- are dangerous. They’re desperate or crazy or both. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous.” (page 10). It’s clear in Lauren’s world that if you don’t have a safe home (walled community), it is near impossible to survive, much like how it is in our own world. “Then there were the pitiful, unwalled residential areas. A lot of the houses were trashed burned, vandalized, infested with drunks or druggies, or squatted in by homeless families with their filthy, gaunt, half-naked children.” (page 10). The people Lauren encounters outside of her community walls have been expelled from “luxury living” even though Lauren doesn’t consider her way of living a luxury, home is not something that is accessible for those stuck on the outside. During the expulsion and housing crisis of 2008, millions lost their homes, their source of safety and comfort. Much like how it’s difficult to place blame on the characters in ‘Parable of the Sower’ struggling to survive, the homeowners that took what loans they were offered in 2008 were merely trying to hold on to shelter and stability, and trying to keep their families generational homes. Many who were expelled from their family homes had to disperse, and with family living in different states, the feeling of expulsion was present in not being around those who have always been around. Lauren went through a similar expulsion when she had to leave her home behind. “It had occurred to me, though, that I should get back to my garage before someone else settled there. I wasn’t thinking very well It was as though that garage was home now, and all I wanted in the world was to be there.” (page 166).

After reading anything, it’s common to gain a better understanding by relating their own personal experiences to these stories. For me, when I read ‘Parable of the Sower’ it became clear that I could relate to the main character in a religious sense and, in a less severe case, her hyper empathy. After identifying this connection, I was able to see that I could understand, on some level, the expulsion Lauren had to feel and face. In the book, we get to know a lot about our main character, Lauren. We find how she has struggled with a disorder that came from prenatal exposure to a drug her mom used at the time. Lauren finds it difficult to travel outside the walls of her home because of the sickness, pain, and drug epidemic that affects the people outside. This is especially difficult for Lauren because through her hyper empathy she can feel what those who are suffering do just by looking at them. Although I don’t suffer from a prenatal birth defect, I have found that I tend to put others needs over my own, which is something that. A quote from ‘Parable of the Sower’ that stuck with me in this sense was when Lauren found out about her brother’s death, and how he was killed. “​​If hyper empathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people-couldn’t do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people.” (page 115). I suppose this quote puts into words the philosophy I stand behind when it comes to how I interact with those around me. As for how Lauren feels about religion I feel I can especially relate. Coming from a very religious family I’ve struggled with a lot of things that have to do with my faith, every day I am tested with questions that push me in every direction, just one example is wondering whether I should base my actions on what I think God would want or what I know people would want. It’s funny because in The Bible we (Christians) are told not to be of this world yet here we are. Circling back, I feel Lauren’s father and I share the same God, I also think her father and mine would get along great because of the similarities I see between them wanting to protect and prepare family for troubles to come. Although I can’t say I have experienced the trauma Lauren has, I do know that because of the religion I was brought up in, and the way I have always put others’ feelings before mine, I am influenced in a way that has made me feel expelled to some degree. I have found it difficult to gain my own understanding of having a “relationship with God” because of all that I have been conditioned to understand about Him from the congregation and from my family. This plays a big part in my need to please people, especially my parents, if I don’t stick to the moral obligation my religion demands from me, I’m not who they want me to be. All this makes it hard to feel a sense of security, in a way, I am expelled.

Because I feel somewhat of a personal connection to Lauren and the expulsion she has come to face throughout the novel, I am able to understand the concepts that are presented between the lines of Parable of the Sower’. The common theme of expulsion is one not to take lightly, how we understand the concept of being expelled will prepare us in truly recognizing the reason for the 2008 expulsion and housing crisis.