In her novel Orleans, Sherri L. Smith “connects the past to the future by imagining Hurricane Katrina to be the first in a series of extreme weather events leading to a post-Apocalyptic New Orleans” (Coleman 1). Smith’s post-apocalyptic New Orleans, however, disproportionately exposes women and Black individuals to devastation. Smith’s imagined world thereby examines gender and race relations and how these systems of oppression operate in a future world that has been devastated by a series of natural disasters and where blood type functions as yet another form of oppression. Specifically, in the novel, the Institute of Post-Separation Studies “ha[s] an interdisciplinary goal of understanding social bias and hate crimes” (74). This institute asks, “if people [divide] along medical lines, [does] race or gender matter?” (74). Throughout Orleans, gender and race exacerbate the impact of the hurricanes, which, in turn, causes women and Black individuals to be more vulnerable to the devastation caused by natural disasters.
To begin, women are more exposed to danger in the post-apocalyptic New Orleans due to their potential role as a mother figure. When Fen finds Lydia during the attack on their tribe, she remarks that Lydia has been “betrayed by that baby” because “[i]t coming right now, whether she ready or not” (40). Lydia is betrayed by Enola’s birth because she is debilitated by it which leaves her entirely open to attack. She is further endangered when she has to give birth in the forest, leaving both her and Fen unable defend themselves against any potential danger. Fen is similarly exposed to danger when she is entrusted with Enola’s care after Lydia’s death. As Fen begins caring for Enola, she notes that “babies don’t know how to hide, how to stay quiet” (61). Fen is frequently forced to quiet Enola or risk attack or capture, rendering Enola’s presence a danger to Fen. Ultimately, being a mother, and receiving no male support in child-rearing, places the women in Orleans in further danger.
Further, the blood harvesting Fen is subjected to by the man in the big black hat is closely linked to rape, to which women are disproportionately exposed. Martin Munro describes a trend in Haitian literature written since the 2010 earthquake which features an increase in prostitution narratives, asserting that, “it is as if the earthquake has stripped back two hundred years of history and recast the Haitian women in particular as an enslaved object, living in and still through the body” (382). Smith’s series of hurricanes seems to put young women in a similarly vulnerable position, as Fen is pressured to live with and obey Mama Gentille. Fen is sold both as a blood and sex slave, although these forms of oppression are inextricably linked. Before the man in the big black hat first harvests Fen’s blood, he “run[s] his hands along [her] knees and thighs and over the insides of [her] arms” (96). The man idealizes the fact that Fen appears to have never had her blood drawn, which, in turn, merges the concept of virginity with blood harvesting. Fen is thereby raped by the man in more ways than one. Because she is female, in the context of this novel, the man is sexually attracted to her. Therefore, he takes her blood, but when she can no longer provide this service to him, he rapes her. In this way, Fen is repeatedly violated as a direct result of her gender.
Similarly, in Orleans, race affects the level of devastation experienced by the series of hurricanes. Because Hurricane Katrina is placed at the epicentre of the text, it is worth discussing the details of this natural disaster. In their analysis of Hurricane Katrina, Jean Ait Belkhir and Christiane Charlemaine argue that race, gender, and class are inextricably linked (1). While the consequences of a natural disaster are, in part, environmental, the impact of such disasters is exacerbated by the aforementioned systems of oppression, especially in the case of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, Belkhir and Charlemaine assert, “is one of [the] cities within the United States most heavily marked by the internal wall that separates the affluent from ghettoized [Black communities]” (5). This separation is made unequivocally clear through the social factors that contributed to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. As a result of the city’s decision to redistribute the funding for levees to the war in Iraq, the deployment of the Louisiana National Guard to Baghdad, nonexistent evacuation plans for vulnerable communities and slow responses to the disaster, poor Black populations were disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina (2). The government’s lack of preparation and slow response to the disaster combined with the lack of resources among poor Black communities resulted in Black individuals being disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrates the way in which race affects the devastation experienced by natural disasters.
Moreover, conforming to the post-racial trope espoused in and by Young Adult dystopian literature, Smith’s Orleans implicitly suggests that blood type is the basis of oppression and segregation in the future New Orleans. In support of this suggestion, Daniel says “[f]or the most part, the rules of blood make race irrelevant. Blood types cross all ethnicities” (207). In doing so, Daniel dismisses the role of race in Orleans and instead presents blood type as a new form of racism. Prior to the series of hurricanes, however, New Orleans was a racially diverse city. Cinnamon Jones tells us that the people in New Orleans were “black, and white, and yellow, and brown, and pink” (35). After the disasters, though, White people in New Orleans are a rarity. Fen explains this point in saying that the “smuggler be white, whiter than you see in Orleans anymore” (77). White individuals, then, were able to escape the hurricanes and find refuge elsewhere. The disempowerment of Black individuals, on the other hand, forced them to remain in the midst of the hurricanes and thereby experience great amounts of devastation. Because the Black population in the novel was more vulnerable to the devastation caused by the series of hurricanes, race is reinforced as a system of oppression in the post-apocalyptic New Orleans.
In another way, race exacerbates the devastation caused by the series of hurricanes in Orleans through the way in which some groups of people are more susceptible to being infected with the Fever than others. Fen speaks to this point in saying, “[w]hen the Fever hit, all the Asians in Orleans moved over here. The Fever ain’t take to Asians the way it did the rest of us…Folks in Orleans all be mutts except for the Asians” (144). As a result of their relative immunity to the Fever, Asian people are presented as somehow superior to other races. Their relative immunity also reduces the devastation they face as a result of the hurricanes whereas other races are more susceptible to this devastation. While we are unsure of the effect the Fever has on all races, in Fen ambiguously saying “the rest of us,” we are sure that she is referring to a population that includes Black individuals. In this way, race presents inequalities that affect how individuals experience the devastation caused by natural disasters.
In Smith’s Orleans, gender and race play an integral role through the ways in which the characters in the novel experience devastation caused by a series of natural disasters. While the novel suggests that blood type is the new form of racism, this suggestion is questioned through the struggles women and Black individuals face. As a result, Orleans demonstrates that systems of oppression are always inextricably linked.
- In Smith’s Orleans, Daniel suggests that race is irrelevant and blood type is the new form of racism, yet the level of devastation experienced as a result of the hurricanes is exacerbated by race. What should we make of this paradox? What does it say about the post-racial worlds created in YA dystopian literature?
- While in this course we have focused primarily on the constructions of girls and girlhood, constructions of boys and boyhood are equally important to consider, especially in terms of how these constructions interact with one another. In what ways does Smith engage with traditional constructions of boyhood and girlhood? How does Daniel conform to or challenge traditional constructions of masculinity?
Belkhir, Jean A., and Christiane Charlemaine. “Race, Gender and Class Lessons from Hurricane Katrina.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 14, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 120-152.
Coleman, Micah-Jade. Decolonizing the YA North: Environmental Injustice in Sherri L. Smith’s “Orleans.” MA Thesis, The University of Southern Mississippi, 2016.
Munro, Martin. “Fallen Nation, Fallen Women: Disaster and Prostitution in Makenzy Orcel’s Les Immortelles.” The Romantic Review, vol. 105, no. 3-4, 2014, pp. 381 – 396.
Smith, Sherri L. Orleans. Penguin, 2013.