Language and the Postapocalyptic World

October 1, 2015   •   By Jason Embry

INITIALLY, I was put off by the title of The Country of Ice Cream Star. I was wary Ice Cream Star seemed juvenile, either for a place or a person. After reading a few pages, this choice of nomenclature became less silly to me and more wistful. I am happy that I did not let my first impression stop me from reading this beautifully written book. Like many other postapocalyptic tales, such as last year’s award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison, the world in Newman’s narrative is in shambles after a devastating plague ravages the global population. The only survivors appear to be children under 18 years of age. Many other postapocalyptic stories use this convention to explore the social structure and governing bodies that are created after the outbreak; Newman, however, adds another wrinkle that elevates this novel above other stories that use this setting and these limitations: the survivors of the plague seem to be exclusively black.

Why does this matter? What makes this a better story? Not the reasons you might think. For me, the novel’s success has little to do with the increased awareness of racial tension that dominates the contemporary American media landscape — although I’m sure someone could write an insightful piece on these connections. The central reason I believe this text is so striking is its use of language. In publicity materials distributed by HarperCollins, Newman states that the novel was originally written in Standard American English, but as she continued to write the story, she became troubled by the idea that English would remain static during such a chaotic period. She also considered that “it would be unlikely that language would not evolve in the course of 80 years — especially among young people who were not connected to a centralized media.” Her concerns regarding the evolution of language have not always been shared to this degree by writers of fiction set in the future. In fact, because most authors of speculative fiction only nod at changing vocabularies — creating neologisms and nova for little more than futuristic local color and plot devices — her choice to focus heavily on the changes to English over the course of 80 tumultuous years is a welcome and engaging one. While this focus is not common in fiction set in the future, she does have a handful of predecessors that have embarked on such an ambitious mode. Novels like Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) likewise spend the time to construct languages that so thoroughly complement the worlds within their books that these novels can be counted as some of the most artfully rendered texts of their respective times. I would argue that The Country of Ice Cream Star should join A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker on the relatively short list of future fictions that interrogate the value of the vernacular in creating a believable yet challenging image of our possible future.

The primary language spoken in the novel is a patois of African American Vernacular English and French. The protagonist of the novel, Ice Cream Star, is a 15-year-old black girl living in western Massachusetts with her older brother, Driver Eighteen Star, and about 40 other children of varying ages. Ice Cream refers to these children as Sengles, and they have been living in the Massa Woods since they migrated from the Chesapeake Bay region. Ice Cream and her group speak this patois because they are Senegalese, whose native language would be French. Their ancestors lived in the Chesapeake Bay region, so they would likely have learned African American Vernacular English as they learned to speak. What this combination produces is a wonderfully energetic and metaphoric language that is absent from many postapocalyptic tales that grapple with the management of a world turned upside down. These Sengles have no formal schooling; they spend their days hunting in the Massa Woods, stealing from a nearby army of child soldiers, or trading with a polygamous Christian settlement run by an 18-year-old prophet, who is dangerously close to his term-limit. The Sengles mate at age 12, raise their children for five years, and die at 18 from the disease that killed everyone else in America.

This world is rich enough among these three settlements to constitute a compelling story. The all-male Army is highly focused on bravery and violence. The Christings are agrarian and devoted to the prophet around whom their entire village revolves. The Sengles are scavengers, nomads, and thieves who value raising their young to survive in this harsh world and name each other after qualities or lost items (e.g., Asha Badmouth and Ice Cream Star). Because these three groups have to deal with one another daily, they share a common vocabulary: “mally” for malicious, “prettieuse/cautieuse” for pretty/cautious, and “bone” for good. But what is truly inspiring is the interior meditations of the protagonist, Ice Cream. Set against the other contemporary female protagonists in postapocalyptic literature, Ice Cream is a welcome change. She is strong when she needs to be, weak when no one is looking, quick on her feet, and in love with two very different men. She seems a lot like Katniss Everdeen at first, but she is much more honest with her emotions and her descriptions of these emotions, probably because her world is smaller and more joyful than Katniss’s despite the daily struggle for survival and the inevitable death at 18.

The size of the world and the joy Ice Cream feels living within it are important to the set-up of the novel. At the outset, little is known about what caused this great collapse. The causes do not matter, because the children live in the moment. Thinking about the past is a waste of the little time these children have; they must survive. They must raise the littles. They must adhere to the agreements set down between the Army and the Christings. Because the world is small and their needs are immediate, Ice Cream and her fellow Sengles are happy. They hunt, play, thieve, and smoke, because little else needs doing. This simple life is reflected in their language. Technobabble and political jargon are absent from their vocabulary. They lack knowledge of history and literature, so the descriptions of events that transpire are immediate and grounded in the moment. Ice Cream uses nature and weather imagery to depict complex emotions like love and pain.

This world starts small and grows as the narrative progresses while retaining the intimacy of its opening section by never wavering from Ice Cream’s simple-yet-insightful perspectives on religion, race, citizenry, class, and war. While survival and family dominate the earliest section of the novel, the story is complicated by the arrival of a 30-year-old white male that the Sengles refer to as a roo. The roo’s appearance eventually expands the narrative to include lone-wolf Russian soldiers who promise a cure for the disease that all children carry in exchange for soldiers who can fight for the Russians in their wars across the globe. The slow discovery and explanation of “roos” in the story reveal that the Russians might have been the creators of the virus that wiped out the non-black global population. The imminent threat of Russians drives the small band of Sengles to run from their home in Massa Woods and discover two more surviving bands of Americans and their distinctly different language development: the Catholic Spanish-speaking citizens of what was once New York and the southern drawl of the Marines of Quantico. With each new group, more intrusions into the patois of the protagonist appear to create a wonderful tapestry of futuristic speech that is, at times, more interesting than the actual plot. Despite these additions, Ice Cream remains consistent; she is loyal to her family of Sengles and always tries to put their needs first. As the world grows, her world remains small and focused. She learns Panish (Spanish) and Rooish (Russian), but her discussions of these new-found groups and her views of these groups are always rooted in her native patois and cultural experience. While this return might speak to her character’s naïveté, Newman is careful to keep Ice Cream quick-witted, honorable, and grounded as her world is expanded, transformed, and ultimately destroyed.

Like many postapocalyptic stories, this text shares an interest in tearing down modern civilization so that the cornerstone of that civilization might be inspected. Unlike many recent offerings, Newman designates communication as that cornerstone, and in so doing, tells an intimate, provocative, and beautiful story about the end of our world. Other recent texts consider what new governments or religions might arise in the wake of chaos. While these considerations can be found in the novel, I think what might set the text apart from others of this ilk is its attention to language. When children are the only ones who survive an apocalyptic event, the new world becomes more intimate, not more primal. Other authors might oversimplify this world and the child-protagonists as a result, but Newman manages to balance a youthful innocence and an inevitable worldliness that is often hackneyed or absent in other postapocalyptic and dystopian novels written in the last decade. In The Country of Ice Cream Star, what looks like African child soldiers battling for supremacy in the northeastern United States is actually a beautifully nuanced meditation on the way that language is a manifestation of basic human concerns: hope, fear, love, and loss. By stripping away the ideologies that many contemporary readers feel choked by, this novel imagines a fresh look at what makes us human and how we express this humanity through language.


Jason Embry is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College outside of Atlanta.