- "The After":Justina Ireland on Writing Zombie Literature1
I discovered Justina Ireland's award-winning YA novel Dread Nation (2018) when I was preparing a project on zombies for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Dread Nation was a must-read on my list because this New York Times bestseller imagines an alternate history in which zombies rose from the battlefields of Gettysburg to begin the War Against the Dead. Born two days before the Rising, the protagonist, Jane, an African American teenager, trains at Miss Preston's School of Combat for Negro Girls to become an "Attendant," a guardian to protect wealthy white women from zombies and dangerous men. Its sequel, Deathless Divide (2020), picks up where Dread Nation ends, expanding the story of Jane and her friends to the American West as they continue to fight zombies, prejudice, and their own demons. Though Dread Nation was penned in 2016, it shocked me with its prescience. The story was conceived before Trump's presidency, before COVID, before BLM came to mainstream prominence, but it addresses the core ideas of these divisive elements in our country today, lending credence to Ms. Ireland's claim that history just repeats itself, so we should read more of it. In our interview, Ms. Ireland discusses horror and zombie lore, issues of Blackness in literature, turning from scholarship to fiction, and a variety of other topics of interest for both scholars and creative writers.
Let's start with an easy question: where did you get your inspiration for Dread Nation?
Inspiration is never one thing. In any given moment, you can say this was the thing that mattered the most, but then you get some distance from the work. You start to see other things that have inspired you. The first thing that inspired me was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.2 Just the idea of affluent, British white women [End Page 81] learning how to kill zombies when they didn't even dress themselves, I couldn't get past that suspension of disbelief that we need as readers of fantastical tomes. So that was the beginning because I kept thinking that if this was America, it would be Black women fighting because… Black women were the domestics. They were really the power force…. If there was danger and if your biggest concern was zombies, who would we task to do that?
And, in some ways, Dread Nation is also kind of based on my time in the military…. There were a lot more Black women in the military than white women.…so it just reinforces that idea of who ends up doing the fighting. Especially in a country like the United States, it is the people of color. It is the people who have been suppressed economically…. When we're talking about issues of equality, I think it's really important to look at who does the work and who profits from the work. Dread Nation was really sort of pulling at a lot of threads, and that was one of them. That was really the impetus.
I also really like stories of manners because for some reason, as a kid, I read a lot of boarding school books. Now, I was never going to go to a boarding school; I lived in a trailer park. There's no boarding school from the trailer park. But it was always one of those things I liked to read as a kid.
And you have a background in education systems during Reconstruction. How did that factor into the story?
I think most people in academia will relate when I say I did a master's degree in history, but I didn't finish the dissertation because life happened. It's really hard to write a really a dissertation when you've just had a baby. The research I had done in my master's program was on systems of education, particularly during Reconstruction and the Progressive era, as not really education but indoctrination. The education system is created and structured by state and local governments, and it pushes forward a certain idea of Americanism...