Shelf Unbound: You’ve written an extraordinarily literary dystopian novel. What drew you to a dystopian theme?
Sandra Newman: Well, technically, The Country of Ice Cream Star isn’t a dystopian novel. There is no one government in it, and thus no opportunity for a truly dystopian situation to develop. I mean, if you can just walk out and go to a society you like better, it’s not much of a dystopia. There are a lot of features that my book shares with popular dystopias like The Hunger Games. It’s an adventure story that takes place in a forbidding world, with a heroine who fights a war against all odds. But that war isn’t a rebellion, and in fact, Ice Cream Star grows up in a little clan that lives in almost perfect anarchy. Of course, my book isn’t alone in being classified as a dystopia when it really isn’t. Any post-apocalyptic novel is now often called dystopian, even if it takes place in a world without any governments at all.
As far as the post-apocalyptic setting goes, I’ve been drawn to post-apocalyptic stories since I was a child. The end of the world as we know it, however depressing, also involves a certain awe. Post-apocalyptic settings are also calculated to appeal to anyone who finds contemporary life a little suffocating. They’re for everyone who dreamed as a child about running away from home.
Shelf Unbound: You invented a language/dialect in which to tell this story. How did you create this language, and was it constraining to write in it?
Newman: When I invented the language, I was trying to imagine how English might change if left in the hands of teenagers and children, without any schools or mass media as a homogenizing influence, for generations. So I started by thinking about the kind of informal language teenagers use now. That led me to African-American Vernacular English, because it struck me (this is all in the first minute I was considering the problem) that a lot of teen slang comes from AAVE, even among non-black kids. And there’s just something about AAVE that seems more vital and poetic to me than other versions of 21st century teenspeak do.
From this point, I just started writing the language. It ended up drawing on a lot of other models that happened to be knocking around in my brain—I studied Russian at university, for instance, and patterns and idioms from Russian kept cropping up—but the process of creating it was mostly the same as the process of writing it. It came incredibly quickly and naturally, as if there was an Invented Dialect Generator in my brain that had been lying disused all these years.
Writing in it was very time-consuming at first, but it was never constraining. Really, I’d say it was liberating. It gave me the freedom to use poetic language without it seeming like the author doing an interpretive dance. So Ice Cream could use the phrase “before the sun be woken” to mean the hour before daybreak, and it would be clear it was just meant to be a common expression of her people.
When I try to go back to writing in contemporary English, it feels constraining now, because you can’t just invent new words and expressions; you have to work within the boundaries of the English you’ve been given.
Shelf Unbound: I like that Ice Cream Star is much more empowered than the typical pop culture female dystopian main character; she carries and uses a rifle, she smokes, she has sex, she chooses bravery rather than having it forced on her. How did her character emerge for you?
Newman: Some of her character is just how I imagine teenagers would be in the absence of adults. Clearly they would all smoke and drink. They would ride horses at a gallop and burn down houses. They would absolutely have sex—in fact, they would have to have sex at an early age in order for the human race to survive.
But I’d also conceived Ice Cream as a hero. I’ve been interested for years in the existence of real heroes —people who are capable of pulling history in a different direction. I’d initially thought of her as Genghis Khan, but good. That is, she’s a child growing up in the tiniest, most impoverished community of her time and place, who manages to become a world leader through sheer courage and brilliance.
Of course, apart from not being sociopathic, she’s also different from Genghis Khan in that she’s a girl. But she’s never aware of this as a limitation. She’s aware of being physically small, she’s aware of herself as a potential target of sexual violence, but because she has a heroic personality, she doesn’t conceive of these facts as fundamental limitations. Sometimes they become a problem, so she solves them however she can.
Shelf Unbound: The story takes place in a future America, yet there are still racial divides and homosexuality is, in some factions, still considered taboo. Why did you choose to bring these elements into the story, and do they reflect a pessimism on your part about America ever having real social justice and equality?
Newman: Actually, in my future America there aren’t any racial divides, per se, because there’s only one race. When they appear, white people are invaders from another country, so naturally they aren’t very welcome. It’s not about their skin color; it’s about the fact that they’re murdering people and taking slaves. There is some racial prejudice in Marias city, but it’s only very distantly related to racism as we know it. So really the novel doesn’t express an opinion on whether America could ever have real social justice. For the record, I’m a great optimist on this issue, and I think that (assuming we can avoid any apocalyptic breakdowns) it’s completely possible to achieve social justice.
As far as the homosexuality goes, I was mainly trying to be realistic. I don’t find it possible to write a novel without any gay characters, because it just doesn’t correspond to any world I know. In the context of the world of The Country of Ice Cream Star, it seemed too good to be true that there would be no homophobia at all.
Shelf Unbound: To what do you attribute the current popularity of dystopian fiction?
Newman: We live in a world that’s very regimented. From an early age, we’re herded into schools where we’re told what to do at every hour. Then we get jobs where we continue to obey orders through the day, at the risk of losing our livelihoods. This regimentation has given us a degree of safety and wealth which is unachievable in a system where people don’t show up to work on time and obey laws. But we still can’t help feeling a little suffocated by it.
In the meantime, economic inequality is rising throughout the developed world, so that feeling of suffocation begins to combine with a sense of injustice. And yet, we’re not at a point where violent revolution makes sense. Even if you’re working at a minimum-wage job, your life would almost certainly get dramatically worse if a civil war broke out.
That doesn’t stop us from dreaming about revolution. You might believe intellectually that change has to be accomplished gradually through elections, but there is nothing fun or emotionally satisfying about that as a fantasy. In a fantasy, you take up arms against your enemies, you don’t vote against their policies.
So dystopian novels magnify the oppression and injustice to a point that revolution makes sense. Then the forces of revolution are embodied in an ordinary person we can all identify with. Throw in a love triangle, and you have an unstoppable wish-fulfillment machine.
Excerpt from The Country of Ice Cream Star
My name be Ice Cream Fifteen Star. My brother be Driver Eighteen Star, and my ghost brother Mo-Jacques Five Star, dead when I myself was only six years old. Still my heart is rain for him, my brother dead of posies little.
My mother and my grands and my great-grands been Sengle pure. Our people be a tarry night sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.
We Sengles be a wandering sort. We never grown nothing from anything, never had no tato patch nor cornfield. Be thieves, and brave to hunt. A Sengle hungry even when he eat, even when he rich, he still want to grab and rob, he hungry for something he ain’t never seen nor thought of. We was so proud, we was ridiculous as wild animals, but we was bell and strong.
In my greats’ time, we come up from Chespea Water; was living peaceful by Two Towns until the neckface murderers come. Then we flee onward to these Massa woods. Here we thieve well. We live as long as Lowells—sometimes twenty years or twenty-one years. Every Sengle have a knife, and we together possess two guns. Driver got a gun that shoot, and Crow Sixteen a broken shotgun, still is good for scaring.
This day my story start, we been out scratching in the evacs. These evacs be house after house that face each other in twin lines. Houses shambledown and rotten; ya, the road between is broken through with pushing weeds.
From The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Ecco, harpercollins.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.