Fiction Gets Woke
The idea of being ‘woke’ isn’t so much new jargon, but a way of rebottling old wine with new subtleties. The word, which is African-American in origin, concerns the perceived awareness of issues concerning social, feminist and racial identity but is expanding to include all consciousness-raising matters. One can trace the racial use back to the US in 1962, but other key texts include ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge, an unflinching, angry look at race in the UK, and the biography of Malcom X.
But in another sense, ‘woke’ novels have long been with us long before it became specifically about race. Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ offers one such scenario from a 1930s viewpoint in which the populace become factory-farmed drones, while Ira Levin’s version, ‘This Perfect Day’, has us all run by a happy-pill dispensing supercomputer. Inevitably such novels usually use an everyman – and in one rare instance, an everywoman in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – who blindly goes along with the world in ignorance until the scales fall from the eyes and they get woke. And what they see is never good.
The godfather of woke novels before its new usage is clearly Orwell’s ‘1984’, wherein Winston Smith’s consciousness rises almost without him noticing, until he’s gone a step too far and is renting a secret room in the Proles’ neighbourhood. In this sense, Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone In Berlin’, although a true story, is also a woke novel, as the married couple who start writing anti-Fascist postcards act without really becoming aware that they are rebels and therefore traitors. George Blake, the former British spy who worked as a double agent for the Soviet Union, described this process of being forced to act with one’s moral conscience when he went to trial, although many feel that his woke self remained blinkered to the reality of his actions (ie. the deaths of agents).
One of the best examples of awakening is Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, because although it presents a future American society where books are outlawed and firemen burn any that are found, the book is as much about the rebellious feelings the fireman Guy Montag experiences when he sees how slavish his own wife has become. It’s a rebellion of the spirit, of which book burning is a symptom of docile conformity. Ironically, the book itself subsequently slipped onto the banned books list in the US.
An early graphic piece by Richard Corben entitled ‘How Howie Made it the Real World’ encapsulated the whole woke experience, with the happy Howie one day awakening to the gruesome truth about the gone-to-hell world around him, much as it was portrayed in ‘The Matrix’.
Likewise, ‘Get Out’ is the first racially-aware horror film I’ve seen, although the first two thirds play out more as a social comedy before the truth is revealed. Here the formula is different, as the hero Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is already woke and has been for a long time prior to the start of the story. He knows what to expect from liberal white folks in their awkward treatment of race and is inured to it.
There are other new stories to be told here, and it will be interesting to see where it takes us next.