Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hunger Games: Factual Fiction

This blog is reproduced from The Road Less Traveled By, a blog written by Augie Lindmark.

When I was young—for me, young is defined by overalls and crayon usage—numerous fictional books found their pages turned by my curiosity. My adolescent years were full of The Chronicles of NarniaLord of the Rings, and the Redwall stories. If my younger years embraced fiction, my time as an adult has been buttressed by facts in non-fiction text. Because the majority of the books I read today touch on topics like health care and liberation theology, I had no intention of reading The Hunger Games. That intention didn't last long.

While the story might be geared for a teen audience, it was hard for me to not grab a copy at the local library. When I walked in, an entire bookshelf sagged under the weight of hardcovers and paperbacks from author Suzanne Collins' trilogy. A week before, Netflix introduced me to the first Hunger Games movie so I decided to read the first book. And then the second. Then the third.
In a blazing fashion last week, movie screens around the world offered early releases of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. With the first weekend under the belt of this young blockbuster hit, its audience continues to expand.
For those of you displaced from the buzz, much like myself a few weeks ago, the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, lives in a world called Panem. Katniss hails from District 12, one of twelve forlorn districts that surround a pristine capitol. Years ago, a revolution organized by the Districts was stifled with deadly force by the capitol. Intolerable work conditions, marginalization from society, and as the series' title suggests, hunger, are all epidemics of life in a District. The capitol, on the other hand, sits in luxury and profits from the Districts' labor. With regard to quality of life, the capitol is a diamond in a landfill. The crux of the story exists in the retribution for the Districts' uprising—each year the capitol forces the twelve communities to send two tributes, children between the ages of 12 and 18, to the capitol where they fight to the death. Amidst the blood and gore, one victor remains standing. Welcome to The Hunger Games.
The storyline contains your familiar themes of love, good versus evil, and suspense at every turn. But underneath the fantasy and artfully crafted characters rests a story root that is anything but fiction. We might not live in Panem, but the Hunger Games are closer to home than we might think.
The canyon between fact and fiction is easily bridged.
Between the first two Hunger Games' books I supplemented my reading with Howard Zinn's, A People's History of the United States. In his work he takes a unique approach not found in general history books—he describes history through the lens of the oppressed. Starting in 1492, Zinn narrates our history into the 21st Century by highlighting the defects of a society focused on material gain and the increasing gaps between the elite and the forgotten. Starting with Christopher Columbus and the ransacking of America and bloody massacres suffered by Native Americans, to the barriers female Americans faced in the early 1900s workforce, the reader's eyes are pried open to the social structures of power and oppression ingrained in our history.
As I read Zinn's work, I was easily frustrated. I felt confined in the layers of oppression like I was running through a maze without an exit. At one point I flipped to the next page and half expected Katniss to jump out of the text. Instinctively, I closed the book and checked the cover. As you might expect, “Hunger Games” wasn't printed on the book's skin. I had crashed into the understanding that the text of a factual history book uncomfortably reminded me of the inequalities in Panem. The distance between Collins' fiction and Zinn's facts were two adjacent puzzle pieces of a larger picture.
Upon diving into the darker areas of U.S. History, you might think you were reading a novel; the facts of atrocity are hard to digest. In the case of slavery, a destructive need for constant growth and production made the oppression of a people based on their skin color a pragmatic approach for cheap labor and high returns. Racism, then, was a tool to keep the structure in place. It was a means to parry the effects of revolts and unrest. By creating an environment where the poor whites without land resented blacks held in bondage, there was a divide between the oppressed factions.  The separation of exploited groups—blacks, indentured servants, and women, among others—weakened their collective indignation and diluted the likelihood of an organized uprising against the land and slave owners of the 18th and 19thcenturies. A buffer against the highest echelon of society made the people forget who the real enemy was.
Howard Zinn reported on history; Suzanne Collins wrote fiction. Zinn took the view from below; Collins wrote from District 12. The style of writing between the two authors is night and day, but the themes are nearly identical. At one point in A People's History, the reader is reminded how financially fortunate individuals could avoid the Civil War draft by contributing a $300 offering. This 1863 Enrollment Act created a line between rich and poor where the wars—carried out for the interests of top officials—were fought by the poor. If you had the money, you were safe, if not, good luck. If you want a fictional take on the matter, look no further than the Districts of Panem. In Panem, you can apply for a Tessera if you are between the ages of 12 and 18. The Tessera provides a meager amount of grain and oil to combat a life riddled in hunger and poverty. But it comes with a cost: in doing so, your chances to be chosen as a tribute increase. If you are poor, your options are limited and the architects of the systems have an incentive to keep you there. Wars need soldiers. Massive accumulation needs workers. Somewhere buried the trenches of consumerism and production, someone takes the blow.

You might be thinking—but weren't these issues in the past? I wish I could say that Panem has one percent of its population controlling 40% of its total assets. Unfortunately, that fact is attributed to the United States. It reads like fiction, but sadly, it's our reality. 

So how can we use The Hunger Games to our real world advantage? A platform of country-wide readership and the silver screen has massive outreach. That reach is tailored to the generation most able to facilitate changes in our historically deep institutions. Our infatuation with the bold characters of which we read and watch must be used to galvanize young people to engage in what we see as unjust. The lack of access to health care; political elections as a monetary fist fights instead of democratic representation; and increasing achievement gaps across racial lines in our schools are urgent challenges that need to be faced.

But when we look at people that stood up to injustice, in fact and fiction, they rarely acted alone. A revolt in Panem wasn't feasible until the Districts united and fought as a unified force. Katniss had plenty of help in her survival. Historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony were fantastic leaders, but they were also individuals in much larger movements of people. When we place leaders on pedestals we wonder if we can ever reach that level. Instead, we must think off addressing the social cancers like racism, income inequality, homophobia, and sexism through movements of people with different talents, backgrounds, and ideas. When we move in concert with one another, we rise to a level of leadership that exceeds any metrics of measurement.

With the second movie titled “Catching Fire” I think about how sometimes we just need a spark of creativity or motivation to get the flames moving. If bringing needed change in our world is not the work of one person, we should ask each other about what makes us tick. What's your conviction? How do you define injustice? How do we address it? If we manage to identify the importance of constructive collaboration, dismiss the notion that our voices go unheard, and facilitate productive means of organization in our efforts, we'll be on the right path. When that day arrives, the odds will be ever in our favor.

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