The Apocalypse and Garden Eggs: Ripe for Interpretation

In Nigeria, garden eggs are what Americans know as eggplants. They are cooked in many Nigerian dishes. Yet, it is garden eggs in their raw form which are most relevant to the “apocalyptic” novel Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. Instead of being a delicious component of a meal, these raw garden eggs are harbingers of the end of the humanity Lagoon’s characters had known—but they are not harbingers of the apocalypse. 

I want to take my definition of the word “apocalypse” from Andrew Santana Kaplan’s article, “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought,” which analyzes the potential for an apocalypse which ends the all-consuming modern system of whiteness. According to Santana Kaplan: 

“Blackness…is the messianic remnant of modernity. This means that following Paul’s model of being a slave to the Messiah today calls for contemplating the unthinkable: “being” a slave to Blackness—that is, “being” a slave to the Slave of modernity. This does not amount to raising the Black to a sovereign position, but instead entails “abolishing sovereignty” altogether (Sexton 9, as cited in Kaplan Santana 78).

Sovereignty here indicates a system of power in which one group restricts the autonomy of the other. An apocalypse is, therefore, not simply change. Instead, it must totally reverse the social order, defying all forms of power so that systems of sovereignty can be destroyed rather than living on in another form. While Santana Kaplan is writing in order to address the idea of the Black messianic, an idea which is specific to the overturn of whiteness, I want to expand their understanding of the messianic to an interpretation of Lagoon. That is to say, I want to consider whether or not Lagoon is an apocalyptic novel based on whether sovereignty is overturned within it. 

After Ayodele, the extraterrestrial ambassador to Earth, sacrifices herself, her essence causes everyone in Lagos to develop a craving for raw garden eggs. This change is unprecedented, as the extraterrestrials usually only alter people in order to give them what they want, if they are not acting defensively. A craving for garden eggs is so characteristic of the extraterrestrials, as they have different tastes from humans, yet is such a mundane trait to pass onto them. However, the fact that people develop this craving reveals the fact that humans fundamentally do not control the impact of the extraterrestrial visitation. They are not in control save for when they start attacking—they are changing due to the extraterrestrials whether they want to or not. They are therefore rapidly losing sovereignty. One might assume that this loss of human sovereignty, and therefore the disruption of known order, is indicative of an apocalypse beginning within the novel.

However, even though humans are losing sovereignty, sovereignty is not abolished, but rather replaced. While the extraterrestrials state that they are “guests who wish to become citizens,” and attempt to use their power without hierarchy or dominion by giving people what they want, they are also becoming political actors (Okorafor 111). Ayodele tells the people of Lagos that “We come to bring you together and refuel your future” (Okorafor 113). The extraterrestrials do so by usurping extant human power, such as that of the president, healing him and conferring with him. Of course, the healed man remains in power rather than dying and leaving a power vacuum in his wake. He uses his resurrected position to declare that the Nigerian people should accept the extraterrestrial influence, and that he will be working alongside them for the sake of the country being “powerful again” (Okorafor 272). It seems that rather than abolishing sovereignty, the extraterrestrials are willing to reinforce it alongside the president.

In this course, titled Black Apocalyptic Fiction, we are reading about various forms of the apocalypse as they are imagined by human authors. These apocalypses generally explore ways of thinking about power. The contradiction between the extraterrestrials’ good intentions and their sovereignty suggests that the audience question the nature of the change in our world. The extraterrestrials are kind, and they change Lagos drastically, but even they become entwined with the human concept of sovereignty. Even post-visitation, there is still a clear political hierarchy, one which is now more inhuman than non-existent. Even when our world fundamentally changes due to a force beyond human control, it is difficult to remove sovereignty from even a fundamentally altered world.

Dead Ted: Head (of State?)

In the apocalyptic worlds of Wild Seed by Octavia Butler* and American Desert by Percival Everett, “disability” is an inherently different designation from that of late 2oth-21st century American society. Both of these novels imply that a new type of person will inherit the Earth: In Wild Seed, that “type” is humans with extraordinary abilities, and in American Desert, it is a headless man who is incredibly resistant against physical destruction. Both of these novels explore the value in a body, and therefore each relate to the question of whether a body can lack value in these societies. In Wild Seed, Doro and Anyanwu, the most powerful and long-lived people known, create new definitions of ability and disability in part because they cultivate and breed a group which has abilities they favor. In American Desert, Ted’s mere existence ontologically challenges disability in his universe, as it reverses the association of closeness to death with powerlessness and liveliness with power. Despite Ted’s revolutionary potential, he ultimately decides to die rather than continue unliving in such a distinct way. While his existence fundamentally creates a problem for ableist society, I believe that he resolves it himself. What I am wondering, through my exploration of these texts which challenge Western notions of disability, is at what point do these challenges become revolutionary? What backing would these new ideas need in order to overcome the katechon of ableist social structures?

In 21st century America, we define disability socially and physically. It is easy to think of examples of how being physically disabled can impact someone’s life. For example, someone who has nerve damage in their hands might struggle to write or type, two skills which are often mandatory in office jobs and in schools. This particular problem can be mitigated through a tool such as voice-to-text technology, which has become more accessible during this century. However, accommodation technology is not always widely available, either due to to its non-existence or how expensive it is to produce. People in America often live with chronic pain and barriers to various environments. Therefore, it is prudent to claim that disability takes a physical toll on disabled people at the moment.

The American/Western concept of “health” is not only defined by this physical toll, but on an individual’s appearance. People can outwardly show traits which can make others view them as disabled, regardless of their actual medical needs. Rather than being accommodated in public, many visibly disabled people are treated very poorly. People in wheelchairs, for example, are quire visibly disabled. Strangers who might be well-intentioned often push people in wheelchairs in order to help them move. Sometimes, people may exploit the fact that someone is in a wheelchair and physically or sexually assault them. Visibly disabled people can also face barriers to employment, bullying, and other forms of discrimination. This hatred goes beyond these public displays. Instead, hatred of disabled people is deeply rooted in “Western” countries such as America, Canada, and Germany to the point where the right of disabled people to live is often disputed. A common response to the existence of visibly disabled people is that of eugenics. Eugenics is when a society rejects the existence of disabled people, and anyone who is physically considered to be “undesirable”. Eugenics can look like the Nazi party massacring disabled people, but eugenics can take other forms. Notably, eugenics is often perpetuated through reproductive control. In Canada, Indigenous people are still sometimes forcibly sterilized. In the 1900s, the U.S. Supreme court permitted forced sterilization of disabled people in the case Buck v. Bell. Sperm banks generally require that their donors be above 5’8, “intelligent,” and in good physical health. It is therefore clear to me that health is an important marker of class within “Western” society, and that the definition of disability is inherently tied to what the ruling class values in a person.

While the society which Doro is breeding into existence in Wild Seed does not specifically value health, it also does not engage in efforts to accommodate physically and visibly disabled people. This lack of accommodations seems to stem from apathy rather than antipathy. Doro breeds people because he feels “utterly alone, forever alone” in his abilities and immortality (372). He wants people to match him in both aspects. There are people in the world with some abilities, but none which match his own. In collecting and breeding them, their abilities can evolve and grow in strength. It is easy to assume that this system might create a society in which there is an easily identifiable caste system based on one’s adherence to Doro’s standards. However, Doro does not care much about the people in his colonies, save for their ability to birth long-lived people with extraordinary abilities, such as the ability to see into another’s mind. While the people with abilities, his breeders, are prized by Doro, they are only necessary for producing the next generation. After they have served their function of reproducing, or even during this process, should Doro choose to inhabit their body, they are often killed. The breeders are quite vulnerable to Doro, as he finds that he takes the “greatest pleasure” from consuming people with abilities (370). Indeed, there are no groups which I can think of that are more likely to be culled, as Doro claims that “age, race, sex, physical appearance, and except in extreme cases, health, did not affect his enjoyment of victims” (370). This lack of care, while being eugenicist in the sense that Doro is creating a society which might eventually breed out powerless people, largely lacks the forms of ableism which are present in Western societies today. Doro states that many of his children have “hideous bodies,” whereas Anyanwu’s children are all “beautiful” (294). This passage is vague about the exact definition of “hideous” and “beautiful.” I take Doro’s apathy toward disability, combined with Anyanwu’s assertion from early in the novel that her children have no “‘forbidden things’ wrong with them,” a category which includes “almost any deformity,” to mean that Doro’s children are visibly disabled, and Anyanwu’s are not. Doro does not seek to cause harm to his disabled children in particular, nor does he attempt to breed out the disabled bodies he produces.

Even so, Doro’s society is absolutely not a place where people are cared for or accommodated. Doro does not care about the physical toll of the abilities he forces onto others. He pays close attention to Nweke, his daughter, as he believes that her mind-reading abilities will make her his “next Anyanwu,” a woman who will better than Anyanwu in her compliance and, possibly, in the strength of her abilities (374). However, Nweke never replaces Anyanwu; the agony of her transition to power causes her to become so violent that Isaac has to kill her. Doro is disappointed by this death. However, his disappointment is not because he is sad that Nweke has been crushed, an agonizing death, but because she had been “all Doro had hoped for and more” and is now lost to him (392). This lack of accommodations becomes particularly problematic because of Anyanwu, who does care about her children not being disabled. Anyanwu’s reproductive system is fundamentally ableist, as she is able to “look inside herself and control or alter what she saw there,” (111), an ability which she uses to ends such as finding a medicine to help Isaac’s heart (396). Additionally, she considers incest, a practice which often leads to physical illnesses and deformities, to be an “abomination” (262). While none of these pieces of evidence individually prove that Anyanwu’s children are “perfect” because she makes them that way, the control she wields over her body combined with her beliefs leads me to believe that this is the case. Anyanwu’s village is also not separate from the world; people arrive to it, and it is eventually connected to Doro’s seed villages. The juxtaposition between the disabled people from elsewhere and Anyanwu’s children is stark. Anyanwu’s beliefs about society do not have a larger impact than Doro’s, but she has an opinion on the matter while Doro remains apathetic. She is extremely powerful through her extraordinary abilities and eventual leadership positions. Additionally, she is the primary “healer” wherever she goes, and so the changes she makes to a person’s body are seen as positive ones. Her opinions therefore have social consequences. Consequently, I think that the social model of disability is present within the society which Anyanwu and Doro are building. Components of the disabled identity are changing as people are bred to have these abilities, but the category of “disabled person” remains distinct within this new world.

In Percival Everett’s American Desert, however, the world of ability and disability is sent into a crisis when Ted rises from his coffin, head stitched on. He is able to see memories with clarity. He does not feel pain. He can be shot and not be impacted at all (191). He has even had his personality changed in death, becoming more empathetic and at peace with his circumstances. All of these are traits we would associate with ability, not disability. Disabled people can experience, depending on their disability, memory loss, physical pain, and/or a lack of empathy. Therefore, Ted’s death has technically made him closer to ability. This is, in the language of Santana Kaplan’s Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought, an impossibility within our grammar. This text outlines the concept of Afro-Pessimism in terms of messianism. Kaplan posits that Blackness is “ontological death,” a of unbeing which allows the world of whiteness to spring forward into existence (73). Although I do not think that I could, or should, attempt to replace the “Blackness” in Black messianism with disability, I believe that disability also inhabits a social position of non-being. Disability is associated with death in the context of American social Darwinism; the “weaker,” or disabled, party will be beaten by the abled party, and the consequence for being beaten in social Darwinism is the inevitable unbecoming which is death. However, this idea is reversed in Ted’s body, as he indeed has transcended the life which is the ephemeral ticket of able-bodied people into their idea of supremacy. The fact that his death leads to his new, stronger form reminds me of how Kaplan describes Afropessimism. They specifically cite the philosopher Žižek, who stated in The Puppet and the Dwarf that “We are one with God only when God is no longer one with Himself, but abandons Himself, ‘internalizes’ the radical distance which separates us from Him. … [O]nly when I experience the infinite pain of separation from God do I share an experience with God Himself” (91). What Kaplan derives from Žižek’s words is that the messianic action of emptying the self of life, of giving oneself to death, makes death a path to becoming like God. Kaplan continues in their analysis, going on to claim that lynching is a reiteration of the death which came from chattel slavery, and that Afropessimists must “reconceive the messianic subtracted from the narratology of redemption” (76). I believe that this idea is fundamental to an understanding of disability within American Desert. Ted is not redeemed through death, and neither is his society. In life, he cheated on his wife; in death, she still cannot fully forgive him (209). His death does not redefine disability to anyone, himself included: when he sees the cloned Jesus Christs with their physical and cognitive disabilities, he feels moved by the “mere fact” that one of them (Jesus #19) offers to him “a response of sorts” (207). In feeling so moved, Ted is both demonstrating his assumption that the Jesuses would not be able to respond to him, and is moving beyond this assumption by feeling emotionally moved by this other undead man. The past consists of these forms of denial of justice. Ted’s life-in-death gives him the hypothetical opportunity to create a more just society by burying these ideas of what it means to be a living person. He does not have to return to his life with Gloria; if he so chooses, he can associate with Avery and the Jesuses. Clancy asks Ted to “imagine an army of men like you,” and I can, just not for the government’s sake (167). In taking up arms against the world, Ted, Avery, and whatever Jesuses he could create could render the association between disability and death incoherent through an unfathomable bloodbath, and then through a recreation of the dead.

Of course, this idea is unfathomable for Ted, which is why he never falls in with any of the zealots he encounters. He is incredibly powerful, but he would never commit to the “apocalyptic laying hold of gratuitous violence in the name of gratuitous messianic freedom” (82). Ted is not a revolutionary, and even if he were, there is no one following him. He consequently comes home to his family, but it is too late, as they have rejected him. Gloria feels anger toward him for returning from the dead when his family would have been better off without him. Without Ted, she could meet a better romantic partner, and the children would not have to be haunted by the existential problems which Ted’s unlife raises for them. She is correct: Ted cannot return to his family. In doing so, he devotes himself to the fantasy of living a redeemed life as a dead man in a fundamentally ableist society. Because he has not rejected the unjust world in which he died, he will never be able to find his place in life. Additionally, Ted is afraid of his revolutionary potential, claiming that “the idea that he could not be hurt became a terrifying thought” (259). He goes on to state that he now correctly fears power. Of course, he is the power that he fears, as he does not need to fear death, the fundamental threat of American society. The only way to resolve this tension between Dead Ted and a society which cannot bear his resurrection is for him to leave forever, and so he does. While Ted’s unlife is threatening, his final death returns the world to its former, life-conforming state. His family will get to feel that he is at peace, and move on with their lives without him. Therefore, American Desert appears to be a challenge to ableist patterns, but its real moral focus is with the individual family which Ted attempts to live with after he has already changed in a way which they cannot handle on top of his previous wrongs.

While both Wild Seed and American Desert address disability in incredibly complex ways, neither of them feature a society which outright rejects ableism. I would not expect either of them to. Both of these texts follow individuals, if powerful individuals, and the struggle against the ideals which have been ingrained into them is incredible. Additionally, while Doro and Anyanwu have the resources, time, family support, and ability to reconstruct society, Ted does not have access to the power structures they have built. Even though he might have outlived everyone except for Jesus #19, there was no actual possibility of him facilitating a revolution beyond the realm of philosophy. To me, these texts enrich the revolutionary premises which surround these characters, because they engage with the social complexity of being disabled during apocalyptic changes. My thinkING about how both Wild Seed and American Desert do not portray an apocalypse of ability enables me to wonder further about the compartmentalization within the apocalypses which are portrayed within these novels. Is an apocalypse apocalyptic if it does not entail the destruction of all social constructions?

*online edition

Higher Than Hierarchy

Being a person is confusing. Octavia Butler does not hide that within her Xenogenesis trilogy. Oankali society is in a perpetual state of “trade” (Womb  5.) Throughout the trilogy, Oankali-human society is drastically transformed. It is at first divided between Oankali and humans, and then Earth becomes inhabited by constructs who are regulated by the older Oankali. Finally, there is independent life beyond the older Oankali. Even so, the changes this trade creates are broader. Individuals within Oankali society are limited because they cannot transform from Oankali to human or vice versa. Instead, they remain, for the most part, as what they were born. Although they change over time with new development, such as Lilith gaining additional strength with Oankali aid, no individual experiences a fundamental change which is beyond their personal limitations. This is what it means to be a part of the planting of the future, what it means to be the “tiny positioning movements of independent life,” but never its final position (Imago 16.) There is no final form of society, and therefore there is no ultimate, perfect person. All of us are a part of the blurry transition from one era to the next. This transitory Oankali society gets me to thinkING about my own life. Society is constantly changing around me. However, I am one person, and cannot adapt myself into the societally superior version of myself every five minutes. My task, then, is to reconcile the fact that I need to change and cannot change everything; that I am valuable but need the skills and actions of others. To commit to this reconciliation not only requires that I learn from others, but that I act in a way which allows them to keep their will and their autonomy. I do not want to move into the future only to press my outdated beliefs about what is morally correct onto others.

Continue reading “Higher Than Hierarchy”


“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not….Habit is persistence in practice. Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.”–Octavia Butler, “Furor Scribendi”

SUNY Geneseo’s environment is conducive to the development of academically appropriate habits and to continued learning. I appreciate the structure that college courses give me, and know that this structure partially molds my work. Even so, there is a tension between needing structure and needing to develop sustainable methods which work in lieu of the college. To continue learning for the rest of my life, my habits should not rely on grades or deadlines when those measurement tools are scarcer outside of the education system. Moreover, I do not wish to only be self reliant regarding tasks which are obvious and mandatory. It is my hope that by becoming intrinsically motivated (while continuing to be externally molded), I will gain the ability to thoughtfully choose activities which will extend my learning beyond the collegiate sphere. I intend on doing so by forging stronger interpersonal connections between myself and my peers.

Octavia Butler’s Dawn follows Lilith Iyapo as she adapts to life with the Oankali. After her time with Jdahya, her guide into Oankali culture, Lilith continues to learn. Kahguyaht “turned her over to the child, Nikanj” and states that Lilith “‘will teach [Nikanj] about [her] people and it will teach you about the Oankali’” (Butler 55). This imperative folds Butler’s “continued learning” into the structure of Lilith’s life. Imperatives help me to do work of which I can be proud. For example, with our discussion posts, the instructions are detailed: I know their due dates, that there ought to be a throughline in my writing, and that it should “[be made] clear how it connects to larger course questions and concepts” (McCoy). These rubrics strengthen my writing in the sense that I write consistently for these discussion posts, and generally know when my writing is adequate. I can edit my own work because I know what is being looked for. By this metric, I have long since developed a habit of writing, because I do the work whenever I have this scaffolding. My motivation is strong for these classes, as what I must do to succeed is obvious. However, this habit is weak in that I have been writing around these classes. I often find it difficult to be intrinsically motivated in spite of my habit of “write essay, submit essay” because I am often more worried about receiving poor grades than being proud of my writing. Since my writing process often feels secondary to my grades, SUNY Geneseo has become my academic bastion. Lilith is in a similar situation of being dependent on the Oankali, Nikanj in particular. 

Continue reading “Extrinsickness”