Send in the Clones: Two YA Novels' Treatment of Race, Gender, and Cloning

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

People of color are often seen as the exceptions in predominantly white societies' mass media, like US literature. Let's look at race and gender in two dystopic young adult scenarios in which the exceptional group is not people of color, but clones they've created.

House of the Scorpion coverIn Nancy Farmer's 2004 YA novel The House of the Scorpion, the government resolves immigration debate issues with slavery. This book would be a timely read these days, given this week's hearings and the on-going discussions and hearings over the new immigration reform bill, which would create a long, winding path to citizenship for people who enter the US illegally. The House of the Scorpion begins 100 years after the United States and Mexico took a drastic approach to immigration. In the book's world, thousands of people from Mexico attempted to cross the border into the United States seeking jobs. Sound familiar? But, instead of working towards comprehensive (or even not-so-comprehensive) immigration reform, a much more sinister proposal is enacted. An alliance of drug kingpins propose establishing farms across the US-Mexico border that would act as a net for all border crossing attempts. Would-be migrants are rounded up by farm patrols and given brain implants, removing all free will and turning them into slaves who can do only one task (such as plant or harvest opium). They must be told when to drink and when to rest or else they will die of dehydration or exhaustion.

The story itself centers on a Mexican boy named Matt who lives in an isolated farmhouse with a cook named Celia until the day he discovers he's actually a clone—a human raised to provide organs for a drug kingpin in case the bigwig ever needs a transplant. Almost all the characters in the book are Mexican and there are several main female characters, though they're all defined solely by their feelings about and relationship to Matt. Perhaps because this is a story told from Matt's point-of-view, the reader has no sense of what the women feel or do outside of their relationship to Matt. For instance, did the woman who takes care of Matt all his life ever feel lonely, stuck with just a small boy for company? Did she ever yearn for adult conversation or time to herself?

The one exception is Rosa, the servant assigned to care for Matt after he comes to live with the family of the drug kingpin. Unlike Scorpion's other women, Rosa displays aspects of her (unlikeable) personality outside of her disgust about Matt. She flirts with the doctor who visits regularly to check on Matt's health. When the doctor grows tired of Rosa (presumably after sleeping with her), she confronts him about his decreased visits. Given that Scorpion is written by a woman, I'm surprised by the flatness of her female characters. But then, even some of her male characters seem like caricatures of mob bosses and kingpins. 

The Lost Girl cover

Now let's contrast The House of the Scorpion's treatment of clones and gender with Sangu Mandanna's 2012 book The Lost Girl. The Lost Girl has a similar concept—an "echo" is created from human cells to replace the human if she dies. As in Scorpion, echoes are treated with disgust; they are also threatened by hunters who track and kill them. In some countries, such as India, echoes are illegal; if found, they are killed. Ironically, the humans whom they are created to replace are the ones called "others." 

Unlike Matt, The Lost Girl's fifteen-year-old Eva has always known who and what she is. From an early age, she has been forced to study Amarra, her "other" in India, so that she can, if necessary, replace her. Like Matt, Eva was originally named after her human. Unlike Matt, however, she chafes against her name. After reading the Indian epic Mahabharata, she tries to rename herself Draupadi: "After all, she, too, had been born differently, even abnormally. She had stepped out of fire, a gift from the old gods to her father the king. There had been no Hindu gods involved in my birth, but the loose parallels gave me a delightful sense of grandeur."

Her English guardian (and later love interest) is dismayed by her proposed name change—not because an echo renaming herself is against the rules, but because he insists that no one (of the English people who care for her) will be able to pronounce it. He has no problem with the name she finally chooses—Eva.

Eva and her guardian Mina Ma live in Windermere, perhaps the only Indian women in the small English town. One year they celebrate Diwali with lamps and noisy firecrackers. "Our neighbors hated us that year," Eva remembers. Then Amarra is killed and Eva is sent to Bangalore to replace her.

Unlike the women in Scorpion, Mandanna's women are multi-faceted. Eva is no submissive violet. When the town kids corner her, she hits the kid who is twice her size. (Eva reflects that her other would have walked away: "I don't think she fights against something if she doesn't like it; she has this soft, sensible way of accepting it.") Mina Ma, too, doesn't shirk from fighting: when a doctor refers to Eva as "it," she chases him from the house with a rolling pin. "She can make a grown man cower with a single look," Eva describes. "I learned to be fierce from her."

Both Scorpion and Lost Girl were written by women, so why the dramatic difference in how they shape their female characters? Is it the gender of the protagonist then that makes such a difference? How much does the ethnicity of the author play into it? Readers, what do you think?

Read the rest of this series on race and gender in dystopic YA!

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Have you read Away is a

Have you read Away is a strange place to be? That book features an African American girl and is set in the future.

I LOVED 'house of the

I LOVED 'house of the scorpion' when i read it--but i was in middle school at the time and if there was any flatness to the female characters i did not notice..

I read this Scorpion when I

I read this Scorpion when I was in middle school.
I loved it--if there was a flatness to the female characters I didn't notice.
In general, I've never felt disappointed by Farmer's books--still, a re-read is probably in order

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