March 8, 2015
“It’s too good, Ms. Mehra,” they said. “This one’s just too good.”
They were talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a five-page stunner of a short story with a dystopian premise that, though it was published in 1961, still feels all-too-imaginable. Set in 2081, Vonnegut imagines an America in which all are finally “equal,” an equality achieved through whatever means necessary by the United States Handicapper General. Any citizens with above-average strength, intelligence, or talent are weighted down (in some cases, literally) by handicaps that keep them from achieving anything beyond mediocrity. It’s a brilliant piece, and my Creative Writing students—seventeen high-school seniors—balked at the notion that they were being asked to imitate it.
“Don’t worry about trying to be Vonnegut,” I told them. “What I’m interested in seeing is whatever your vision of a plausible dystopian future looks like.”
Dystopia is by no means a new genre, but it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, particularly within the world of young adult (YA) literature. The Hunger Games series is the most well-known, with the Divergent trilogy close behind; Lois Lowry’s The Giver is older (published in 1993), but was recently made into a film. And there are plenty of others: the Legend trilogy, the Uglies series, the Delirium trilogy, Matched and its sequels, Feed, The House of the Scorpion, and The Maze Runner series are among the best.
Personally, I don’t think this popularity is an accident. Since my first year teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to eighth graders, I’ve been convinced that there’s something about our particular time period that creates the need for dystopia as a genre. All good literature is reflective of what is, of the truths of the human condition and human behavior, but good dystopia goes beyond simply holding up a mirror; it holds up the mirror and it issues a warning.
It may sound hyperbolic to say so, but I’m pretty sure the reason dystopia has become so popular is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between it and reality. A large chunk of Antarctica is melting, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and there are giant TV screens in Beijing that project virtual sunrises because the air is too thick with smog for residents to see the actual sun. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We could talk about the fact that, by 2016, it’s predicted that the world’s wealthiest 1% will own more than the remaining 99% .We could talk about the militarization of the police force. We could talk about the (lack of) internet neutrality and privacy. We could talk about our intense dependence on technology and pharmaceuticals. We could talk about species extinction. We could talk about human overpopulation.
I have received such wonderful feedback on “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” an essay I wrote for Guernica Magazine, which was linked to on NPR (!) over the weekend. People have written me to tell me that they saw their family in mine, their lived experience in our lived experience, and reading the piece was tremendously affirming; others have written to say that they found the piece confronting, and that reading it was uncomfortable and forced them to examine and reevaluate their own perspective. Both categories of response are gratifying, as I could not ask for anything more than for my words to both uplift and challenge. This is what I want when I read, so it is truly moving to hear that I have done this for others.
At the same time, I know there are lots of people—many of whom, I’m told, have made their opinions known in the public comments section the NPR website (I’ve followed the first rule of the internet and kept myself from reading any of them)—who want to write me off as an easily offended, holier-than-thou, fill-in-the-blank. This is the byproduct, I was reminded by a very wise friend, of “directing attention to things many, many people would just as soon ignore, and some will openly deny in spite of empirical evidence.”
My students rocked their assignment, like I knew they would. Because, contrary to popular belief, teenagers pay attention. They are keen observers—and critics—of the world around them, and the adults in it. I am heartened by their willingness to look at, and talk about, unpleasant things. I am inspired by their sharp-sightedness and ability to self-critique. Spending class time with them, reading their work—I am humbled and hopeful. Because nothing can even start to get better until we look the ugly stuff square in the eye.
I know this is ostensibly a food blog, and I still love—and love to make—food as much as I always have. But, let’s face it, NPR or no NPR, I have a very active two-and-a-half-year-old who wants to choreograph my weekend (“Dance, mama!” “Hide, mama!” “Run, mama!”) and I want to let him. I swear we could—should a windfall of extra cash magically appear—employ someone full time to do laundry and keep our house even marginally clean. There is always so much grading, and there are friends to whom I wish to give attention and none of this is a complaint, truly, rather an explanation for why you’ve got a picture for one, but not both, of the recipes mentioned here, and why I am linking to them like a lazy-bones instead of recreating them in my own words. Maybe next time?
The more important thing to know, though, is that I have made this ratatouille recipe twice and it’s brilliant. Aside from a lot of chopping, it’s very hands-off, as it cooks slowly in the oven and makes your house smell amazing. It’s dreamy with bread, of course, but also works well as a side to whatever meat you might be grilling or broiling or pan-cooking. Shiv liked it mixed in with “noo noos,” a.k.a. noodles, the beloved food of all toddlers.
Speaking of noodles, I had a half-container of mascarpone that a friend pawned off on me and wanted to use it for something savory. This baked pasta recipe proved a wonderful starting point for a few substitutions: first, I subbed in cooked broccoli for the mushrooms, and second, when making the sauce, I added a bit of flour to the pan after browning the onions but before adding the mascarpone, to thicken it and add a bit of body. Jill loves non-tomato-sauce pasta, so this was a big hit with everyone. I actually pre-made the pasta the night before we were going to eat it, let it cool, then covered it with foil and stashed it in the fridge. Heating it back up in the oven the next night made dinner very easy, and we had leftovers for a few days—always a win!