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.

The Earth is Flat and Other Conspiracy Theories

By: Lidabel Avila, Madolley Donzo, Kendall Cruise, Lauryn Bennett, Marlee Fancett, Maddie Butler

When defining a word, it’s important to remember that understandings of words go beyond the dictionary definition and have societal notions that affect them as well. A dictionary definition is known as a “denotation,” which is, defined by Google, the “literal meaning/primary meaning of a word.” Meanwhile, words also have a “connotation,” which is “an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literary or primary meaning.” Also according to Google’s dictionary function, a “flat-earther” can be defined denotatively as “a person who believes that the earth is flat.” Moving to the “informal definition,” the connotations of this term can already be seen within the further definition of “a person who holds outdated or disproven beliefs.” Since their beliefs are often accepted as “outdated or disproven,” being a flat-earther is often associated with a lack of intelligence since they refuse to accept modern scientific findings and refer nearly solely to the Bible in understanding the shape of the world. In order to accept this worldview of a flat land surrounded by an impassable icy rim, flat-earthers often believe in other theories that can be labeled as conspiratorial, like—but not limited to—believing that multiple governments have collaborated to craft images of Earth from outer space. Characters within Mat Johnson’s novel Pym also interact with conspiracy theories, which is  foreshadowed in the first part of the book when Chris Jaynes says, “I should say here that, in America, every black man has a conspiracy theory” (89). Some of these conspiracy theories explored through characters in this novel include Chris Jaynes’ belief that Edgar Allen Poe’s story about Arthur Gordon Pym is true as well as Garth’s belief that Thomas Karvel is hiding out in Antarctica. As Chris says, though, these theories are actually “true,” and they function to reveal much more about the selfishness of the characters and how this greed leads them to develop false perceptions of paradise (89).

The tension of the intended meaning of the waving at the ending of Pym stems from the perspectives of the narrator, Chris Jaynes, as well as others in the novel in their differentiations between perception and intention, which can be seen most clearly from the characters’ in novels perceptions of personal paradises, which double as their own personal conspiracy theories. At the end of the novel Chris Jaynes and Garth Frierson finally arrive, with a late Arthur Gordon Pym, to Tsalal, which has been Chris Jaynes’ own personal paradise, and sees a man on the island who has spotted them waving at them. The tension with the connotation and denotation of the word waving is the many intended meanings it could have based on the motives of the one waving. Chris and Garth, we can assume based on the fact that they waved back and Chris’ earlier assertion of, “That’s what waving and shaking hands are all about: showing we have no weapons to attack with” (125-126), is that this waving gesture is one that is friendly. This is a flaw of their own narcissistic perspectives of their worlds, focusing in on their own preconceived notions of the world and projecting that onto those on the island of Tsalal, where as far as we know Western/colonial hands have not touched. To the Tsalal people, this gesture of waving could have a multitude of meanings such as a sign asking for help, looking for attention, an attempt to scare away Garth and Chris, or they could be interpreting it correctly as a greeting and showing of passivity. The character’s projected views on the waving is mimicked in the projected views a variety of characters have of their own paradises. 

In terms of Garth’s perceived paradise, Karvel’s dome holds dual habitation for Chris Jaynes’s Hell. Chris Jaynes tends to be prioritizing his own paradise, and as a result leaves any other perception of paradise in the dust. His reaction to Garth’s paradise is a perfect example of this: “In my terror I realized that this was not my heaven, this was Garth’s. This was my hell. I was trapped inside a Thomas Karvel painting” (234). Chris is not focused on understanding Garth’s version of paradise, but rather is only interested in his version and sees any other version as ‘hell.’ Chris’ egocentric view is a main factor in how he interacts with and views his world. In his mind he makes the subjective objective and projects his own comfort of his false paradise onto others, refusing to accept the separate desires and enjoyments they might have. In Chris’ description of Tsalal he goes on to say, “‘Tsalal? What do you know about Tsalal?’ Even if there was no world left above us anymore, did that make this goal of discovering Eden any less lofty…Tsalal was the world my crewmates and I were destined for” (213). He not only sees Tsalal as his final destination, but the one of his crew and of Dirk Peters, who he plans to bury there despite the man having had negative feelings about the island personally when he had been alive. This goes to show that Chris has no desire to see Tsalal in any purview that does not support his deeply rooted conspiracy of Tsalal being this uncolonized, independent piece of land that would take them in and welcome him gladly. This goes to show how Chris’s connotation of the wave given to him and Garth upon their arrival to the island could not be interpreted by Chris in any other way but as a friendly gesture, in conjunction with Garth who at this point is forced to believe in Chris’ fantasy after the destruction of his own paradise. This then explains why the both of them might wave back in a kind manner to the Tsalal people regardless of the Tsalal peoples’ intentions because they have preconceived notions that taint their view of the vague denotation of the action itself.  

Similar to the obsessive nature of those convinced that the Earth’s shape is anything but spherical, the obsessions of Mat Johnson’s characters with their individual visions of paradise create lenses that impact how these people view and interpret others and their environments. These lenses, framed in personal or group conspiracies, are the root of ambiguity at the end of Pym. While Chris’s waving at the people of Tsalal can be taken at face value, we as readers are confronted by the waving’s possible connotations. Because Chris is waving back, we can infer that he understands their initial waving as a welcoming signal, but it is unclear as to whether or not it is. Both the readers and characters left at the end of the novel are left to wonder or assume all the possible states of the novel’s future. Being confronted with such an ambiguous ending, with a variety of possibilities for both the people and the world within the novel, forces readers to confront their own ‘lenses’ in which they view their worlds from. If these perspectives were to shatter, then the worlds we see them through would end as well. Chris, Garth, and the reader then must accept the world inside this apocalyptic novel does not end when Chris gets fired, or when the world at large experiences some catastrophic events, but rather the world ends at the end of novel as the false paradises of the characters within the novel are destroyed and shattered one by one. We, much like Chris and Garth at the end of Pym, are left searching for a place to go when the world we know too well comes to a jarring end. We are left to consider who will rebuild the world into something we are familiar and comfortable with, and not something we have to learn how to navigate by ourselves or from scratch. To better cope with apocalypse, one must let go of their ‘comfort conspiracies’: even if the idea of a round Earth seems terrifying.

Moving Beyond a Binary View of the Apocalypse

A month ago, if you asked me to define the word “apocalypse,” I probably would have said “the end of the world.” While this isn’t necessarily wrong, my understandings of how the world could end were certainly limited to media depictions of it. My very first thought may have been of The Walking Dead, which I was an avid viewer of for several years, and I would have mentally pictured Rick Grimes walking out of that abandoned hospital, seeing that discarded teddy bear on the ground and seeing the very first zombie, or what’s more canonically accepted as a “walker.” Now, if I hadn’t thought of The Walking Dead and the context led me more towards thinking of a destruction of the Earth, maybe I would have thought of The 100, in which nuclear bombs being set off across the planet prompt a society of people escape to and survive in space long enough for radiation levels to drop enough for the Earth to be survivable again. I followed this show for years as well and both certainly shaped my perception of an apocalypse as one of the greatest worst-case scenarios there could be. (I mean, the whole “the world is ending!!!” concept seems reasonably frightening.)

However, as we begin to familiarize ourselves with core course terminology and concepts, my understanding of the apocalypse is changing. Of course, there’s still this connection to the end of life as we know it but I’m wondering now if the connotations of the apocalypse were always as negative as I have previously perceived them to be.

There’s an important link between the apocalyptic shows I mentioned before that I think has prevented me from seeing an apocalypse as anything but “bad.” In The Walking Dead, we are introduced to numerous survivor communities, ranging in scale and power, as Rick and his crew travel across the country when disaster strikes their own community. Similarly, in The 100, the first season tells about “the 100,” a group consisting mostly of delinquents who were banished to the Earth in order to preserve oxygen on the ship and test radiation levels, and the “grounders,” who survived the initial nuclear fallout and rebuilt their lives on Earth. So, we have different communities or even societies developing in each show, which allows people to share their skills and knowledge with each other to heighten their chances of survival. However, many of these groups tend to be anti-social and isolationist, which leads to intense violence between them, entire groups being wiped out when others become paranoid or power-hungry. As Arkady Martine points out in their article What Really Happens After the Apocalypse, “Most of apocalyptic literature focuses on all the terrible ways that society goes wrong after a society-disrupting disaster” and how “while the zombies might be the initial threat, most of the horrible violence is done by surviving humans to one another.” This was one of the reasons why I stopped following The Walking Dead, as the particularly gruesome killing of a favored character by other survivors had me sick to my stomach for hours.

It was these characteristics of the apocalyptic media I have consumed that made me believe that an apocalypse was one of the worst things that could happen to society. But, as we read the Andrew Santana Kaplan essay “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought,” I began to consider that maybe an apocalypse could benefit society or, as Santana Kaplan seems to argue, it may even be necessary. If I am interpreting this essay—which I admit is far beyond my own scholarly abilities—as intended, the foundations of civil society are cast in error as it was built through the enslavement of millions of people of color. So, even as society has adjusted with the goal of equality and inclusion, these changes are just that: adjustments. If we were to imagine the nation as a house, we could say that the structures it was built on are extremely flawed but instead of tearing them down and beginning again, we instead continue adding additions to the house with hopes of making it better. Santana Kaplan argues that the house needs to be torn down completely through an apocalypse since “true justice demands the end of the World.” Again, this is just my interpretation of the article and I am not claiming this is exactly what Santana Kaplan is arguing in their literary work but rather that this is what I understand from it. My interpretation absolutely could be in need of re-examination and changing.

Now, considering this argument, surely an apocalypse could be a “good” thing for society. But there’s one more piece I haven’t mentioned yet that could change this perception as well. Quoting from Giorgio Agamben’s The Signature of All Things: On Method, Santana Kaplan introduces that “The paradigm is not merely a particular phenomenon, nor is it a universal, but is rather a ‘singular case that is isolated from its context only insofar as, by exhibiting its own singularity, it makes intelligible a new ensemble.’” This suggests that an apocalypse isn’t necessarily society-wide but can be personal, individual. After all, apocalypse “primarily means to un-cover” as Santana Kaplan also notes. This means that an apocalypse means a revelation of something that can happen on an individual or collective level. On a collective level, Santana Kaplan suggests that it could lead to “true justice” but on an individual level, it could mean many different things since each person would experience it differently.

To explore whether an apocalypse could be “good” or “bad” on an individual level, I will now turn to course texts since, so far, we have seen several instances of characters experiencing personal catastrophes.

In Wild Seed, numerous characters experience apocalypses, especially those who go through transitions in their adolescence, which is a span of time in which those believed to have special powers begin to truly develop them, often through seeing and feeling the lives of others. I’ll focus on the main characters, Doro and Anyanwu, though. As disclosed in Book Two, Doro went through transition at age thirteen which revealed to him “that he was both more and less than a man” and he “discovered that he could have and do absolutely anything.” As Doro can preserve his consciousness while jumping to other bodies, he has the power of immortality, allowing him to accumulate resources and power over time as he develops the goal to create others like him. While this power could be desirable by some and considered a great revelation, Octavia Butler also expresses in Book Two that Doro feels “utterly alone, forever alone, longing to die and be finished.” So, even though some part of Doro seems to be satisfied in the divine worship he receives from his followers who are mostly people with powers like him, he’s also extremely lonely since they all live mortal lives and die. 

Anyanwu is one of these followers of Doro, but not by choice. Doro first seeks her out when he senses her abilities while looking for missing members of his own family. When he does find her, Doro threatens her children and grandchildren in order to pressure her into moving to colonial America with him with the goal of creating children with powers as great as hers, perhaps even long-lived or immortal children. This is expressed in Book Three as Butler writes “He made it sound as though her choice had been free, as though he had not coerced her into choosing.” Aside from not giving her a choice, in Book Two, it is also relayed that Anyanwu “remembered her sudden panic when Doro took her from her people,” which was an apocalyptic event from her since the world, as she knew it, ended and she was forced to learn the language, values, and practices of a new one. 

In American Desert, the main character, Theodore Street, also experiences an apocalypse after his head is severed in a car accident and is stitched back on so that his body can be presented at his open-casket funeral, where he proceeds to wake up and exit his coffin. Within the readings so far, this is where we see the most influence of media depictions of apocalypses as Percival Everett writes that “Ted’s resurrection caused a stir, a terrible riot which spread from the church and into the streets, resulting later in the arrest of seven gang members who saw the shocked, enlightened mass as prime targets for robbery and their general entertainment.” Despite the reactions of the public, it is also noted in the novel that on a personal level, “Having survived death hadn’t erased his painful assessment of himself as a person” and that he even became “impressed by his capacity to feel such overwhelming and disparate things, his intense love of his family, his need for knowledge of their safety and his dread of the dangers which awaited them beyond the walls of their house.” Based on these lines, amongst others, it seems like Ted’s resurrection has brought him more knowledge, both of the disparities in society and also of the kind of man he wants to be and how he wants to treat his family. Now that I’ve explored my prior understandings of the apocalypse, Santana Kaplan’s argument, and personal apocalypses from the texts we’ve read so far, I feel more ready to make my hypothesis. An apocalypse to me, right now, doesn’t seem “good” or “bad,” one or the other, but rather a both/and. There can be good and bad. Greatly, this is possible because of the ability of an apocalypse to be personal since, at its root, it is a revelation. It doesn’t have to be on grand-scale to the entirety of society, the whole world. It can be on grand-scale for one person, the entire world as they know it. I look forward to seeing how future literary texts will interact with this hypothesis and how they may, to me, support it or prove it false.