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BIRTHING THE NATION: REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS IN IRISH DYSTOPIAN YA FICTION

During the 2010s, dystopian fiction found renewed popularity within YA literature YA dystopia often features teenage girls at the forefront of their stories and, thus, emerges as a space to explore gender anxieties and empower female characters. In the Irish context, YA fiction experienced a boom in recent years, helmed by Louise O’Neil’s Only Ever Yours (2014), a dystopian narrative of female subjugation reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The publication of YA in Ireland has only grown since, and authors have significantly experimented with speculative fiction in order to interrogate the regulation of the female body. In post-apocalyptic scenarios, these writers extrapolate attempts to control women's bodies in the name of ensuring the future of the nation and reflect historical and contemporary struggles with reproductive rights in Ireland.


Historically, in time of crises, such as the establishment of the Free State, Irish women have been given unfavourable positions in a feminine/masculine power dynamic where they are assigned more conservative roles as mothers and nurturers. This is, in part, due to a postcolonial struggle for national identity, where the colonizer is viewed as masculine and controlling, and the colonized is, in turn, feminine and vulnerable. (Smyth 55) This dynamic was intensified by the feminization of the nation during the independence struggle and the influence of Catholic ideology during the establishment of the new state. If women are reduced to the role of mother, they become solely responsible for the “birth” of the nation, which explains why the state attempts to govern their uterus. Though there was a prolonged engagement with abortion rights in 1983 (see Bracken 9), these were not enshrined in Irish law until after the successful Repeal the 8th campaign in 2018, which sought to abolish the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution. This ongoing battle is reflected in dystopian literature as authors imagine a society ruled by a conservative authority that wishes to make decisions about women’s bodies, notably on motherhood and sexuality.

Book cover: a clawed hand reaches mountain-like towards the sky, figures walking across it.
Image from publisher's website.

In Peadar O'Guilin’s The Call (2016), the Sídhe, fairy folk based on the Tuatha Dé Danann myth, return seeking vengeance against the Irish who banish them to a nightmarish land. They cut Ireland off the map and summon (“call”) Irish teenagers into their world, the Grey Land. In the real world, only three minutes pass, while a full day goes by in the Grey Land, where teenagers are haunted and tortured by the Sídhe. Once teenagers survive this – and most don’t – heterosexuality is compulsory. A lesbian character ponders what that means to her: “It’s just...it’s just I think the State’d make me marry some guy. And I’m not...you know. I’m not cut out for it.” (O'Guilin 250). Reproduction is the main purpose of surviving women. Duo to the high rate of mortality, most girls accept that if they are lucky enough to survive, heterosexual coupling and motherhood are unescapable. That is, even if they menage to do the impossible and survive their supernatural capturers, their own people will subjugate them in the name of preserving the nation. Their value lies in their ability to reproduce, as further demonstrated in the case of a male teacher at the survival college where teenagers are trained: he is shown to be deeply depressed because his wife died after being refused care by the state duo to having “passed childbearing age” (O'Guilin 48).


Book cover: a winding road.
Image from publisher's website.

Likewise, Sarah Davis-Goff's Last Ones Left Alive (2019) offers a dystopian society where women are tasked with procreating for the sake of humanity’s survival. Ireland has been overtaken by undead creatures called the skrake. Sheltered and isolated in the island of Slanbeg, Orpen is raised by her mother Muireann and her partner Maeve. After her mother passes away and Maeve is bitten, she is forced to leave in search of the rumoured last stronghold of civilization: Phoenix City. In the last city, however, women are stripped from their reproductive rights and agency over their own bodies. They are oppressed and unfairly divided into banshees (Amazon-like warriors who fight the undead) or breeders (self-explanatory). As established later, Maeve and Orpen’s mother were banshees themselves and were forced to escape Phoenix City not only because their romantic relationship threatened the heteronormative survivalist discourse, but also because Muireann was forcefully impregnated, despite not being a “breeder”, suggesting that even unjust laws do not protect women – they can be upheld or broken always to their disadvantage.


Dystopia can offer a critique of the historical context framing the dystopian author and their society. (Baccolini 115) O'Guilin’s and Davis-Goff's texts are indicative of Irish YA writers’ ongoing engagement with gender issues. Ultimately, they may be turning to dystopia, but their final message is one of hope: it is by imagining the worst possible future that we can avoid it. There is radical potential in young people reading about protagonists who resist an unjust world order and disrupt those in power.


References

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Vintage, 1996.

Baccolini, Raffaella. ““A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past”: Memory and

Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling”. Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. Edited by Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. Routledge, 2003, pp. 113-134.

Bracken, Claire. Irish Feminist Futures. Routledge, 2015.

Davis-Goff, Sarah. Last Ones Left Alive. Tinder Press, 2019.

O'Guilin, Peadar. The Call. David Fickling Books, 2016.

O'Neill, Louise. Only Ever Yours. Quercus, 2014.

Smyth, Gerry. The Novel & the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction. Pluto Press, 1997.


Biography

Gabriely Pinto holds a MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin, which she completed as the 2018/2019 recipient of the Maria Helena Kopschitz Scholarship. Her thesis examined post-Celtic Tiger representations of the nation and adolescence in Irish YA dystopian fiction. She also holds a teaching degree in Portuguese and English Languages and Literatures from Federal University of Rio Grande and has extensively worked as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher. Her research interests include contemporary Irish young adult fiction, speculative fiction and gender studies.




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