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The Island of Lost Girls (2015) is Manjula Padmanabhan's sequel to the feminist dystopia introduced in Escape (2008). The books follow the lives of Meiji, a young girl, and her caretaker and father, Youngest, whose escape from the Indian subcontinent following a civil war that resulted in the brutal and engineered genocide of all women in the region has now led them to the complexities of the outside world. Struggling to comprehend what being a woman means, having been raised in a world where women no longer exist and where her caretakers are inadvertent gatekeepers to this knowledge, Meiji has difficulty adapting to her new life on the Island of Lost Girls.
Hena Mehta is a grad student who has recently moved to North America without a clear idea of how she got there. Ask her about “chai tea” at your own peril. You can find her tweeting about her dog and bad Mahim church jokes at @woh_battameez.
Samira Nadkarni's publications trace her interests in postmodern poetry and performance, pop culture, hermeneutics, ethics, and digital texts. Her creative writing has been published in New Writing Dundee, Grund Lit, and Causeway Magazine.
Shashi Mike is between things right now.
Hena Mehta: These books were wonderfully unsettling in so many ways, I quite liked them, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend them because of how stressful the actual experience of reading both Escape and The Island of Lost Girls was! Escape follows our young protagonist Meiji, who has been chemically kept in a prepubescent stasis, kept hidden away from the Generals—the fanatic tribe in Padmanabhan's dystopia, modeled extremely closely on the Khap Panchayats in North India (traditionalist quasi-judicial bodies in a collection of small villages and towns that often pronounce judgements and punishments based on regressive social customs)—till one day she has to run away with Youngest from the estate she’s lived in for so long. We hear of Khap Panchayats in the news that decree "chow mein"(i.e., Chinese food) causes young men to rape, or that the jeans that women wear are so alluring, they are basically inviting assault. For many of us in our cities and comfortable cosmopolitan lives, such news stories are little more than punchlines (often conveniently glossing over the fact that there really isn’t a big difference between regressive Khap logic and our alleged cosmopolitanism). What we often forget while also (rightfully) mocking such ludicrous reasoning is that Khap Panchayats hold immense power in rural settings, and as illogical as their decrees are, they will be enforced, oftentimes violently so. Khap Panchayats operate on the Molotov cocktail of fear, toxic hyper-masculinity, and casteism. It doesn't seem that big a jump that in Padmanabhan's rendering of this community in Escape, the Generals are "clone brothers" who only ever refer to women as "vermin," "filth," and "scum"; that the minute this community had access to reproductive technology, women were slaughtered. In fact, in this universe, families that "offered" their women to be killed off—often publicly and with excruciating violence—were rewarded with "droneries" (cloning technology that was used to manufacture an entire servant class, specifically rendered deaf and nonverbal, defanged from the very start). It is understood that the family Meiji is from was probably one of the first collaborators; that their sprawling estate, and however many drones, were paid for with blood; and that one of her uncles has sired her in secret (we don't know which one for sure, but Youngest claims she's his for the better part of the second book). In this complex landscape where women have been disappeared, where an entire class of "humanlings" are bred into servitude (more on this later), Youngest and Meiji have to escape, before the Generals catch wind of Meiji's existence, so that they can't murder her and punish her family.
Despite the bleak setting, there was something comfortingly familiar in Escape that I found entirely missing from Island of Lost Girls. It's almost as if Padmanabhan had set out to write a dystopia with a specifically South Asian audience in mind. The thrill of discovering any number of cultural references was more than enough to distract me from all the other stressful stuff going on in the background. For instance, while Youngest and Meiji are on the run, they come across a forlorn stationmaster manning a railway station through which trains don't even go anymore. This man is very reminiscent of Arun Kolatkar's station master, who waits for trains and timetables in Jejuri. Then we see old men who remember what women were (and of course romanticise and eroticise them, even in hindsight), who meet, smoke, and reminisce together about this lost Eden of theirs in small dhaba-like places. It's quite clear the drones are Padmanabhan's satirical take on caste-based labour; it works so perfectly in this dystopian world, where certain kinds of disabilities are prized, so a nonverbal drone is considered ideal, since they won't rebel or even talk! While it's definitely problematic that these drones are created as non-human or sub-human, and while it's definitely at times a repetition of caste endogamy, the fact that this is done to deliberately discomfort the Indian reader, to forcibly confront these narratives as specifically dystopian while being repetition of caste-based narratives of presumed hierarchy, does suggest that the novels are working at a deeper level than simple reproduction of these ideas for an upper caste reader's horrified titillation. The familiarity of such plot devices and characters instantly put me at ease, even as I was constantly worried about the Generals finding and slaughtering Meiji. In retrospect, Escape was, in many ways, an almost pleasant read, particularly given how overtly violent huge chunks of the Island of Lost Girls got. As pleasant as a book about genocide can get, that is.
Samira Nadkarni: I felt similar things. I can't really say that I enjoyed the books, but I thought they were really amazing, interesting reads. I loved being able to see a dystopian world that I could recognise as specifically Indian and whose machinations didn't need a lot of exposition for me. There were parts of it—for example in Escape where we find out that the men we're introduced to "gave their women up voluntarily" for honour—that rang so strongly for me because it does become about men's survival and their honour at the expense of women's lives. I remember pointing out during our discussions of the book that this moment reminded me so strongly of the 2003 movie Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters), which is an Indo-Pakistan Partition narrative and in which women are expected to voluntarily jump into wells and sacrifice themselves, or be forced to do so by the men of the family—because that was how "honour" could be maintained. This locating of honour in the dismissal of women's lives felt very culturally rooted in how our nations broke apart and formed. So the creation of this Forbidden country by these deaths felt like a deliberate evocation of that moment—women screaming and being hunted down, the men bearing violent witness. The very idea that women can carry both honour and impurity for these narratives is horrific, and the books do so well to lay that out for the reader.
Moreover, the very way women are talked about worked really well because it's the reproduction of the sort of violent language women have to put up with all the time here (on a sliding scale of violence). So Meiji's struggle to understand the changes in her body—and her reference to herself as a monster because she feels abnormal in her difference—work really well, since that's what can happen when there's no counterpoint to being othered so utterly and decisively. The portrayal of men as the gatekeepers to knowledge and control of women's bodies was way too real, as is the fact that there's no longer a frame of reference from which to talk about these things. I found the idea of not having the language needed to describe it beyond words we've always taken for granted to signify particular meanings (like "woman") now utterly divorced from a context really compelling, and likewise the idea that language itself wasn't adequate to this task. Call me macabre, but it reminded me a fair amount of the Persian myth of Akbar's language experiment. As per the myth, in order to discover whether language was innate or acquired, and whether there was a divine language, newborn children were raised in silence. Akbar's discovery was that there is no innate language, but the idea of these children having no context for language itself, once they emerged from the serai, really resonated for me with Meiji's experience. She's lived, and to an extent is still living, in a cordoned-off world, and she has no context for what it means to be female, let alone feminine, in this world, or what the words even mean. And now she's been taken out and forced to confront it and she doesn't have the language for it. So she calls herself monster because monsters don't fit, monsters are shaped differently, monsters are supposed to be killed off. It's the first moment we see her internalize the discourse we're all growing up with—that women are "different" and men are the "normal."
This is complicated because with cloning now the norm and women savagely exterminated under the new laws, her uncles have chosen to halt her physical growth before puberty to disguise her more effectively while also keeping her hidden in an underground bunker with only themselves and a drone as her caretakers and companions. As a result, the books imply that Meiji doesn't actually understand what the difference in her physicality entails despite spending time bathing with Youngest. Fairly quickly after the first bathing scene, we see Middle fit Meiji with a synthetic penis to help disguise her as male once she is given, and chooses, the option of proceeding with puberty. All of these events help compound this early confusion as Meiji seemingly associates this synthetic penis with safety and survival, with the similarity to cis male bodies, while being aware that it is synthetic and therefore not originally part of her body.
Shashi Mike: Because of the content of these books I was unable to read them myself. My contributions to the discussion are largely commentary on the treatment of gender and caste. As you both suggested also, there are points that upper caste cis woman readers might miss. It seems to me that Meiji doesn't actually need womanhood to validate her identity. In this sense, despite women being absent from her life, she's made aware that she isn't a boy, but it remains that patriarchy itself, specifically in the context of a book so reliant upon its horrors being taken to an extreme, is reliant upon a system of binary opposites. Even without women, "feminine" behaviours would still be stigmatised within a patriarchal society as these are perception-based performances. And while Escape does attempt to imply that there is some form of biological essence to Meiji's femininity—often linking this to her smell or the feel of her skin in particular—these aren't necessarily things that are gendered in reality the way the book takes for granted in its exposition. Femininity as performance remains present, and would be penalised within a patriarchal system of the nature that Padmanabhan sets up.
Hena: I loved that all through Escape and Island of Lost Girls, Padmanabhan keeps pushing back on this idea of what girlhood and womanhood should feel like. Meiji finds a mirror someplace and peers at her genitalia for the first time—after a few "corrupted" drones (that is, drones who've had human DNA spliced into their systems, but more on this later) slipped her a porn magazine from the Time Before, she understands that women have different bodies, but this is the first time she sees evidence of this difference, as it were—and is promptly horrified, simply because she has only ever seen men's naked bodies as natural (it doesn't help to realise these men were all her uncles, and Padmanabhan certainly doesn't shy away from problematising Meiji and Youngest's supposedly pure filial bond). As you say, "monster" becomes her choice of identification, rather than girl or woman. In Island of Lost Girls, Meiji is asked to disrobe ("to let go of patriarchal shame"), and to see a live birth, and she literally can't stand it. It was immediately recognisable in relation to the discourse which European-American feminism has fostered in the past three decades, about the narrative of taking pride in one's body, and particularly the idea that one must be "comfortable" in one's body in ways the West understands as emancipatory. I remember Eve Ensler coming to talk at my undergraduate college in the heart of downtown Mumbai, constantly talking about how important it is that we women understand our vaginas, and feel free to wear skirts, for if that isn't a true victory of feminism, what is. And this took place in a room where most of us were wearing salwar kameezes or pants. Meiji cannot reconcile the reality of her body with the one she has grown up understanding as "normal," even on an island populated only by cisgender women who are extremely comfortable in their skin.
It's almost like there is no one, or no ideology worth saving in this world. The Generals are the enemy, yes. In Island of Lost Girls, we spend most of the time with one of them. He has forced Youngest to undergo vaginoplasty (become a "transie" in the terminology of this world, a point we'll discuss in more detail later), specifically to shame, humiliate, and break him; because, following their logic, "being a woman" is obviously the worst thing a man can be reduced to. It doesn't help that the General specifically engineers it so that Youngest can hear his voice in his head (through a microchip embedded in his jaw); that the General understands Youngest's supposed "femaleness" as an open invitation to rape him repeatedly. At the same time, the people who are supposed to "save" Meiji and Youngest are no better: they also rape Youngest (but it's totally cool, because they get him to orgasm! He's learning to love his altered body, so it doesn't count as a violation, you guys), and they ritually force Meiji and others in her group to be forcibly "comfortable" with their naked selves. The fact that this is all done cloaked in the language of feminism and emancipation makes it all the more heartbreaking. Youngest and Meiji are hopeful at the end of Escape that outside of their country where women aren't being slaughtered, they might find some respite. We find in Island of Lost Girls that a broken world cannot be mended by another splintered world.
Shashi: I'd like to point out that there are major problems with the way Youngest's body is discussed within the books. Despite the fact that this is never articulated by a character we're meant to trust in the novels, it's important to state that sex reassignment is about more than just genitals, and being a woman is not just having a vagina (some women will never have nor want vaginas). The details of precisely how complicated this surgery would be and the realities of maintaining his vagina even post-surgery are elided in this narrative under the broad and invisible assertion of some form of futuristic technology. Realistically, the post-surgery maintenance and health issues without hormone replacement therapy would be dangerous and make (vaginal) rape of him difficult if not impossible without his consent to maintain it.
Padmanabhan's choice to gloss over the amount of effort and time something like vaginoplasty would entail hand-waves away actual research into this subject as something unnecessary to the plot, despite the fact that the reader is expected to feel sympathy for Youngest on the basis of this event and its outcomes. Passing or trying to pass as a (cis) woman, which is how we're led to believe Youngest is externally gendered as, is such a complex, fraught, and traumatic experience for many trans women. That the book condenses these experiences to an essentialist metaphor about patriarchal hatred of cis women's bodies is an unwelcome reminder of how marginal trans lives and bodies are in both the books and real life. There are questions to be raised here: if this society despises vaginas as much as the books seem to assert, how likely is it that surgeons would still be trained to perform this surgery? Moreover, if the idea was to simply to "emasculate" Youngest, then why not simply castrate him? The emphasis on the General's need for a vagina to rape in particular (and in which to insert his painfully studded balls), and his pleasure in creating one for Youngest such that he would have access to two holes to rape, seems brutal and excessive by any standards of narration. The General's obsession with Youngest and his need to create him as female while revelling in this being the antithesis to Youngest's masculinity misrepresents trans experiences as a body horror fantasy for the titillation of the book's assumed cis readers. It means that this isn't about trans women, so much as it is about playing out a torture fantasy for cis readers without any of the actualities of real world needs of trans people, whether this is in regard to the physical demands of a vaginoplasty or living under threat for "deviant" performances of gender.
Notably, as far as I can tell from the books, "transie" as a term stands in as a catch-all for all non-binary identities and doesn’t seem genuinely intended to map onto specific real-world identities, although it is definitely put to purpose in The Island of Lost Girls to evoke trans woman realities. You could also replace "transies" with "hijra" and the positioning of hijras solely as "third gender" goes side-by-side with South Asian transmisogyny that refuses them any other space. You don't have to look far to find hijras self-identifying as women but who are disqualified as such when they contest elections or quotas. If "transie" means non-binary, but there is no accepted identity for binary trans people, this problematises it significantly as a term.
Samira: Additionally, the notion of reproduction as the only manner in which cis women have value is really relevant because it's so enmeshed in patriarchal and cissexist discourse. It's something we've seen over and over again in dystopian sci-fi, this idea that once cloning is possible, a battle of the sexes (in itself a cissexist concept) may follow and one entire sex would have to die.
Shashi: Personally, I dislike the term "battle of the sexes" because there are more than two sexes; there are millions of intersex people in India, and it is a cissexist term rooted in the idea that there are only two genders and all men have penises and all women vaginas. It also raises fairly fundamental questions about dystopian SF tropes of this nature, because you have to wonder how this genocide would take place. Would they strip every single human, regardless of perceived gender, to check they were killing "the right ones" first? Gendering someone is primarily based on clothed appearance and perceived alignment with masculinity or femininity. You can be certain trans women (and probably a lot of gay men and non-passing transmasculine people) would be among the first killed in such a genocide, as we already are, which is a fact that tropes that rely on cissexist binaries always elide. It bugs me because it implies trans women who haven't had bottom surgery would come out fine, because we're men really, right? And this is happening when we are right now living in a world where trans women having penises is one of the leading causes of our being murdered.
Samira: I agree that it's really problematic that this is set up in that particular manner, and particularly that neither Escape nor The Island of Lost Girls goes into any detail about this other than the brief historical overview that women were killed. We're not actually told about whether or not intersex people were part of this genocide, though, as you quite rightly point out, this is something that's currently the cause of a huge number of deaths and assaults of intersex people in the world today, and in India in particular. The fact that this dystopian reality is based on our own contemporary Indian ethos suggests quite strongly that this violence would likely have pre-existed the genocide of women, but would not have been seen as fundamentally horrific to this particular society. And that in itself is horrific.
In addition to this, the fact that the General is linked originally to corporate consumerism and sees no value in cis women once the issue of reproduction has been dealt with says so much about how capitalism and nationalism can go hand in hand, and the violence of those moments. He's saying things that are very recognisable about how women make society "passive" and "feminised" and basically weaken the nation. This is stuff that isn't just specific to the Indian subcontinent—I've been reading Susan Faludi's updated 2006 edition of Backlash for another project, and its description of how 9/11 was partially attributed to the seeming weakness stemming from sexual equality is a startling parallel here as well. It's worrying how much of the General's rhetoric is similarly coded with this idea that the presence of women in a nation makes it weakly feminine instead of strongly masculine, and the books take this to its logical extreme. If Escape shows how this local culture could result in this sort of dystopian setting, then The Island of Lost Girls depicts the way that misogyny and prejudice also exist on a global scale. The Zone has women as violently abused sexual objects, women are largely living on small feminist islands while participating in problematic rehabilitation projects, and this is still the "better" world.
Hena: Absolutely. In Padmanabhan's defence, I don’t think an actual better world would be at all believable. I am assuming the reproductive technologies the Generals helped usher in to the country were available in other parts of the world, in some way. Alia (another "transie") in Island of Lost Girls is surprised to encounter the drones, so we know the drones were particular to the Indian context. As I said above, it is extremely fascinating that in this dystopia gender and caste are inextricably linked, and I think this is intentional satire. The drones are what the Brahminical supremacists wish Dalits would be—lifelong servants, without any physical recourse to change their circumstances. At one point in Escape, Meiji and Youngest encounter a dronery owner called Swan, who has chosen to specifically breed his own DNA into the drones, thereby instilling a part of his own perverse identity in them. At this point in Escape, Meiji is disguised as a boy, following Youngest around pretending to be his little brother. We are told soon after meeting Swan that he likes raping young boys while making their older brothers watch—remember this is a world without women. Padmanabhan seems to be suggesting that without women to fuck, men's sexual deviancy would have no outlet, which is a rather grim perspective on both contemporary male and female sexuality. Queer masculinity, while present, is never really explored in a positive manner (as we discuss later). So we see Youngest making a similar exchange with Swan and Swan gets the promise of raping an adolescent girl, gets to sexually abuse Meiji, and, in the process, Youngest kills him. Swan's drones don’t quite believe he has died of natural causes, and they end up killing a couple of the men at the dronery who were also similarly abused by Swan, and leaving Meiji explicit pornography, seemingly to remind her that they know what she is.
A couple of things about this subplot jump out at me: the whole town around this dronery knows that Swan is up to horrors and they can do little to stop it. What they do instead is constantly complain about the "quality" of the drones, and how they're "sickly," "feeble," and "wrong." We are told this before Youngest makes his way into the dronery, so we already anticipate that these drones will be "wrong" in some way. It is significant that drones who have a modicum of free will are considered faulty, especially if understood within the confines of caste-based labour structures. Significant also, that such intermingling of human and drone DNA and blood would necessarily lead to such an uncontained perversity (and by extension, intercaste unions will always bring forth something so sinister). Now this narrative doesn't even sound remotely dystopian: it could very well echo India in 2016.
Samira: While I hadn't made the link to a caste narrative for the drones or the sudden shock at "drone culture" being even possible, I found the eugenics narrative around the drones really disturbing yet realistic. The idea that there would be "wanted" versus "unwanted" disabilities, because the former make the drones more acceptable to their masters, was a really horrifying realisation. For example, it is said that drones should be deaf so they can't hear conversations and thus be used as spies, but a drone missing an arm cannot work in the fields—the way these characters discuss these disabilities chilled me. And yet, this is stuff we've grown up with in the background of our mythologies. I mean, the silenced caretakers in Akbar's story were purposefully used, and I remember that as a child I calmly read stories about kings who would castrate and blind servants in their harems so that only they could look upon their women. This was utterly normal to me. It was horrible to recognise this in Escape and see its cruelty further played out in The Island of Lost Girls . . . because you're right! It is a caste narrative and it's one in which these cruelties were—and are—considered acceptable because they're happening to a drone "serving class" whose job is to be most suitable to their masters. It sounds naive to say I didn't originally see it in the mythologies because I did; I just hadn't had it brought home to me that this is part of the stories we're still telling ourselves and others without any self-reflection. That's terrifying to realise.
I read just a few days ago that the U.S. is now bidding on technology to grow human organs inside pigs, and it ended up sending a chill down my spine thanks to these books. With your suggestion of the caste narrative, it's been really interesting to go back to the parts of the books which talk about which animals are acceptable to use to breed drones (cows, sheep, pigs) and which are intended for the seeming master class (gorillas in sterile rooms) and see the undertones there. There's a clear distinction here between animals that are seen as servile, dirty, or both being used to breed drones versus the gorillas housed in sterile rooms that breed the better, cleaner, smarter master class. This is already a reference to the class system, but it also works per the caste system because cows, sheep, and pigs are also more likely to eat what is available, as compared to the well-housed gorillas raised on a vegetarian diet—the latter pointing to the assumed Brahminical ideas of being better bred, cleaner, and smarter than those lower in the caste system. The idea that these drones can be customised to preference plays into this as well, as the drones are created as absolutely servile, unable to think for themselves and so utterly reliant on the master class telling them what to do; they are also created without genitals and with an extremely simplified digestive system that is capable of only digesting a thin gruel that then passes from their single excretory hole, and they are made nonverbal. These are all horrible, dehumanising narratives that are already in play in the caste system in India where people of lower castes are often forced by circumstance and poverty to eat meagre amounts and to not speak to their supposed betters; they're reduced to being dependent on the whims of people from the upper castes in order to earn enough to survive. The system is incredibly abusive. Wealthy upper caste people often have servants, usually from these lower castes, who live in their homes and on meagre salaries too small to live on, who are to be available at any time of the day or night to serve the whims of their employers, and are often provided with the dregs of the dinner table for their own consumption.
Additionally, sexual abuse is rife, so the fact that Escape talks about unusual drones being interbred with their owner’s DNA as a transgressive experiment references not only this abuse and the violation of it, but additionally references the fears of the upper castes about this sort of "interbreeding" since these drones being capable of independent thought makes them dangerous to their masters. We see this very fear played out as the drones attack and kill the men who have taken over the role of master in their house, seemingly unwilling to obey new masters. It's easy to recognise in this not only the fear of retribution and violence from a serving class, but also the fears of a land-owning upper class whose occupation is placed in jeopardy by these drones. We move in Escape from a drone that Youngest leaves to die by the roadside—as easily as a disposed-of meal—to this violent scenario of "interbred" drones at the dronery near the station, and then on to the drones in The Island of Lost Girls—who are horribly mutilated and tortured by the General, including a scene where he uses them as chum for sharks simply to see what will occur. We've yet to hear a drone say a single word. And it's telling that even the protagonists of these stories don't really notice this; for them, the story is about Meiji and her survival, and this is participating in really interesting historical and contemporary connections in Indian feminisms with regard to upper caste Indian women and their refusal to address caste itself and their ongoing complicity with this system.
Hena: Right: it's Alia in Island of Lost Girls who fully grasps the cruelty of drone culture, essentially because she's an outsider. I had a similar moment of fully understanding this in Island too, specifically when Meiji gets a chance to get on her genetically engineered whale-ship-ride (whales whose lungs and sides have been modified to accommodate the sharing of air and body-space for a human rider) called Noor. She relates to this creature in chains instinctively, but she has never regarded the drones with anything akin to sympathy. This is why it's really difficult to like anyone in these books! Everyone is wrong and twisted and broken in such different ways. It's kind of amazing that Padmanabhan builds two books around entirely unlikeable people and worlds, and still manages to keep me engaged enough to know I'm going to pick up the third, if/when it comes out.
Shashi: I struggled to accept the underlying ideas here. The drones are created as non-verbal and pre-programmed with the ability to perform certain tasks. They're openly coded as less intelligent, except in the cases where there's an intermingling of DNA with that of their human "masters" and that's specifically coded as perverse and dangerous. There are a few issues here that are seemingly swept aside within this setup, one of the most important being the complexities of manual labour and the intelligence it requires. This isn't the same thing as a performance by rote, and its implication as such within the book is (possibly unintentionally) casteist despite any attempt at satire. Additionally, despite the drones being non-verbal, this does not and should not preclude the assumption of intelligence because otherwise it functions as an ableist myth with regard to muteness. The drones clearly understand language enough for instruction to be given and would have to find ways to communicate and plan so as to perform manual labour in fields and the like; the fact that this is left unexplored in the books reinforces hierarchies that already exist. That the books correlate these in order to show the creation and emergence of what might be loosely termed "drone culture" is less critical satire, despite its use to make evident the horrors of the upper caste humans in this narrative, and more repetition of the very narratives that are currently used to disregard the lives, rights, and work of Dalit/Bahujan people. Despite its attempts to draw attention to the suffering of drones and the horrors of their being constrained within this system, it remains that the focus of the text is primarily on Meiji and Youngest, two people closely identified with Brahminical supremacy. The titillation provided from Dalit suffering and death is not radical, it is casteist. How is this any more of a step up than Victor Hugo romanticising the poverty and violence that working-class Parisian sex workers lived with in Les Misérables?
As disturbing as these ideas were to read, what concerns me is the message the reader is supposed to draw from this narrative. The genocide of women at least offers the survivors a voice and a chance of resistance with Meiji, which is something a female reader can at least hold on to. But what hope is given to a Dalit or Bahujan reader in either Escape or The Island of Lost Girls? Were we intended to read these books at all? When resistance by drones is seen as abhorrent and possible only because those particular drones have been granted partial "intelligence" by introduction of (assumed savarna or upper caste) human DNA, it offers no hope for a wider resistance: its existence would be contingent entirely on becoming partially savarna, and thus human. The emphasis on the voicelessness of the drones and the manner in which, if read as a caste narrative, this participates in erasing centuries-long and continuing resistance by Dalit/Bahujan people, troubles me and raises questions with regard to not only Padmanabhan's audience, but the very purpose of these books. The voicelessness of the drones is a particularly jarring narrative especially when juxtaposed with current events like Una or the movement following the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, which were built around a very vocal response to atrocities. The narrative in these books is even more reactionary than real life because it presents Dalit suffering for savarna voyeurs without allowing a voice for dissent. It begs the question, is this satire or just Brahminical fantasy itself?
Samira: I think I'm so conflicted because I think the books are doing something really interesting, and yet I can't help but see some cracks in the façade because of issues of this nature. The shift in tone from Escape to The Island of Lost Girls was very distinct, and I have no way of knowing how much a third book in this series will overturn any readings I posit for these first two now. In Escape, even in this horrific world, there was an element of hope because there were boundaries to the fallout and though things couldn't be redeemed within it, maybe there was the possibility of a better life once Meiji and Youngest got out. And this was really heavy with all of this cultural history because not only are you seeing all of these themes of abusive patriarchy, sexualization, caste, and horror taken to their extremes, but you also end up with the narrative that's fed to you constantly as an adult in a postcolonial nation like India—go abroad. It's better. They treat women better. You can live a life that you can't live here. It resonates heavily with the fact that Meiji's safety in these settings is so gendered: she has to become a woman and not an adolescent there where it's safer and "more equal" (though this question of when exactly she shifts from "girlhood" to "womanhood" and becomes a sexual being is challenged repeatedly within the book, mostly through Youngest's problematic desire for her). It's a migration narrative and one I've grown up listening to, even outside of the extreme dystopia Padmanabhan sets up.
But then you get to The Island of Lost Girls and this narrative is totally torn down because the outside that the characters have struggled and sold themselves to get to isn't any better; it's just broken differently. From what I can tell, Meiji and Youngest are moving from the Indian subcontinent across into Europe, and the book makes clear that this new space has its own problems: it isn't any more utopian than where they came from, though some of the conditions are better for some people. It was compelling because, I think, I'd been assuming from Escape and its use of seemingly "outside world" journalist interviews that even if we were looking at an outside world that wasn't a utopia, it would be only as much of a dystopia as the one we as readers inhabit right now. It would be a bearable dystopia because we're inured to it. But that really isn't the case (and, of course, it never could be) because this is a world that's seen a cataclysmic event and been touched by it. I'd sort of assumed that the rest of the world in The Island of Lost Girls would be untouched by the events outside of the ban on the now-Unspoken Country because, honestly, that's how the world works when it comes to horrors in the Global South. And that's why the choice to include details like the spread of the cement rot that took the cities and the drastic change to cartography after the destruction of the Suez Canal made sense, because they provided a reason for the outside world to really care about this narrative of people from a forbidden world that has sealed its borders to the outside.
And so, by this point, this shift is really stark because while Escape is literally a book about compelled migration, The Island of Lost Girls is the diasporic narrative of loss for an immigrant who can't return. The Meiji from the first book who'd spent her whole life underground and trembled underneath the huge weight of that limitless sky is now the sort of person who regains a sense of self by sitting out in a field under a simulacrum of a sky and feeling it, for the moment, as freedom. There's something beautiful there that draws itself out somewhere between the desperation of fleeing a country where you have become illegal—not what you do but your very body, your very existence is illegal—only to become somewhat illegal at the border again and be taken in under complicated agendas couched in humanitarianism. The fact that these books are talking about and complicating narratives of people smuggling speaks so much to what we're seeing in terms of refugees and migrants—it's not simple and we're not always supposed to like the people involved, but when it comes down to it, the bottom line is really about survival.
Hena: That's interesting. I noticed a stark shift as well, but I think that change in tone is partly because Padmanabhan stepped outside of India and went global, literally and figuratively. At the end of Escape, Youngest and Meiji decide that Meiji will possibly have to continue alone, since the rest of the world views men from this country as always already criminal, because they allowed and helped their women to be slaughtered. Which, for me, is extremely similar to the xenophobic rhetoric in the Global North that all Indian men are rapists, especially after the horrific Delhi 2012 gang rape and its media coverage; the idea that there's something innately violent and misogynistic about Indian masculinity. When we get to Island of Lost Girls and we find that Youngest has been forced by the General to undergo vaginoplasty, we see him humiliated in the transit into this country with bodies of dead rats plaited into his hair—a moment extremely similar to the ways in which Indian hijras are often humiliated here. He befriends Alia, a "transie" and a sex-worker (in this world, all transies are sex workers, which is again similar to the way Indian hijras are coded as sexually available to anyone who deigns to want to fuck them, regardless of whether they reciprocate), and decides to "auction" Meiji to this island of feminists, as predetermined by the General in exchange for letting them both live. As you said, we're going from India to Europe, and to some parts of Africa, and in this flight we lose all the things that made Escape so uniquely Indian. It feels like Padmanabhan is writing to a different audience in Island of Lost Girls, people who cannot parse the references we find everywhere in Escape. She explains things that would be extremely obvious for South Asian audiences, and in all this explaining, she lost my attention. That said, I still think both books are doing incredibly creative things with the idea of refugees, womanhood, feminism, and bodily autonomy.
Samira: What really struck me was how specific they were about who was and wasn't an acceptable refugee. Meiji was prized because she’s young and rare and important thanks to her "unpenetrated" or virgin status, even aside from the shock of her emergence from a country where women no longer exist. And here, even with the women of this world, we're seeing this hard line about how bodies should be versus any sort of freedom to make decisions—their concerns are as much about her hymen as her existence, even though they've set up protocols in their own world to self-penetrate and erase the "virgin" trope. Her existence is both a threat to their discourses of what goes on behind closed borders (and closed doors in a largely male world) and confirmation of it all at once. Youngest, by comparison, is barely acceptable to them; is "false" in his role as either a "transie" or even in his role as male. This yet again is a segregation narrative, flipped from the Forbidden Country’s prejudice against women and femininity to the island’s prejudice against men and anything associated with masculinity, and complicated by its own biological determinism and prejudice. That really struck me as scary because this is how safety and acceptance is coded in a world that has as much prejudice but is "better" because its prejudice is verbal and structural rather than openly genocidal. And it resonated so much with refugee narratives because it becomes a story about forced separation and about who is "worthy" of saving, though fortunately this separation resolves itself eventually in the book.
Shashi: Even with prejudice rather than open genocide (which is itself questionable in the books because you have to assume that assault and violence would continue to be the norm, especially given Alia's life as described in The Island of Lost Girls), it's really a question of who finds this a "better" world (i.e., in this case, Meiji and the island's cis women) and there is the implicit assumption that trans lives matter less because no one in the book seems to question this at all or push back against this norm. This is not what "safety" looks like to me; it's what transmisogyny looks like.
Samira: There's definitely transmisogyny in play in the narrative, though I think we're specifically supposed to recognise this moment as transmisogyny. Youngest acts as our primary point of view in this scene and his fears regarding these women are at the forefront of his descriptions of them, particularly since their dismissal of his life has the potential impact of also dismissing Meiji's life. Here again there's a problem because the result is that Meiji’s femininity and her survival become the sole focus of the scene, and Youngest's fears are not so much to express the realities of TERF exclusion on trans women's lives so much as to express his worries that his child (Meiji) will not be granted access to their protection. Additionally, though we're unaware of this at the time and only informed retroactively, both Meiji and Youngest are fitted with kill switches by the General who is monitoring the situation through the communication chip embedded in Youngest's jaw. Their survival is therefore doubly paramount on Meiji's entrance into the island. As a result, the onus in this moment is placed upon cis identities despite its deliberate evocation of TERF violence, and it uses the nature of Youngest's parental obligation with regard to Meiji as justification, which is deeply problematic.
That said, as we're talking about stories with refugees and with these systems, the book is so invested in how naturalization works in these settings. If you're broken, then you must be "fixed," and control over how this works or why the process occurs isn't yours to question. You're sectioned away until you can be evaluated. You need to fit in. You need to be a good citizen and in workable order. Everyone, even the people you thought would rush to help you because you share with them the bond of humanity or womanhood, has an agenda. In some ways, reading this book was like reading the tearing down of hope—because it's a story about having to rebuild who you are without your roots, and that's incredibly evocative in these times . . . but it won't allow for an easy ending.
Hena: I know! Island of Lost Girls was particularly difficult to read—outside of all the raping and torturing—because of this loss of hope. Although I do think Padmanabhan has written herself into a corner with this one. I'll be super interested to see how she can even continue the narrative from this point onwards.
Samira: It was surreal to read the parts of these books that dealt with the islands of feminist women because so much of this echoed my experience. I've spoken to so many friends whose time in academia and social work echoes this problem—that often these Global North feminist institutions will come in, assess and make judgements without checking with locals already working on these things, and will inevitably draw resources or interest away from pre-existing work and later need constant restructuring. It's a form of colonial overhang almost—this presumption that there are pre-decided global values of what works best, and those lower in the neo/colonial cultural hierarchy don't understand what's in our own best interests. It sounds a bit harsh to lay it out like that, and it's not that local feminist projects don't have their own issues (they do), but it's also true more often than anyone likes to admit. The manner in which the women of the Island candidly admit that they know nothing of the Forbidden Country or the precise nature of Meiji's circumstances, but still presume to know what's in her best interests echoed this. Rather than wait a few hours to have a basic conversation to gather her assent or to gauge her willingness to have her memories wiped, to check if she is "broken" rather than pre-emptively assuming this, they immediately erase her memories in a manner that appears to be standard protocol. They have discussions about how she might "infect" the rest of the "scum" of broken women they've taken in to rehabilitate since she's been raised in a patriarchal culture. It feels very much like a castigation of this sort of radical, transmisogynist, imperial feminism, though much of the manner in which this is framed is less about the realities and effects of transmisogyny (despite its repeated use as plot device) than the manner in which this is imperialist as a project. They rename her Julie (or Joo Li, or Juli, as Meiji hears them) and expect to mould her to their needs, and Meiji rebels to the extent that she's able to within her heavily restricted options.
Hena: Interestingly, this rebellion for Meiji specifically means understanding their expectations of her, and then delivering as little as possible. This echoes with my experiences of women's studies classrooms in the Global North. Meiji learns quickly that if people think of her as a victim, she must let them; only then will she be allowed to stay on the island. She also learns that to express solidarity with a victim of lifelong sexual violation is more important than asserting that she isn't "broken" in the same way—which arguably is one of the most critical lessons of feminism, the politics of solidarity and positioning, even when one doesn't entirely agree with the other. She similarly understands her own alienation, that her culture is an enigma to these island feminists, and she is hindered by not remembering all of it, she doesn't have the words to describe her home and her childhood anymore. And that no matter how much she tries, these island feminists won't ever believe she was safe a long time ago with her uncles, loved even, in a land where women were systematically slaughtered. It's all too close to home, really.
Samira: The thing that really caught my attention was the contradictions in their own narratives. They paint Meiji as a broken victim who needs this erasure of her past, but they also suggest that she isn't a victim at all because despite being hugely at risk within her country's genocidal regime, Meiji doesn't understand womanhood and consequently doesn't identify within it. While Meiji understands that she needed to flee, her inability to self-identity as a woman and her presumption that she was male (or male-adjacent) means she isn't able to grasp the reality of her circumstance or the danger of it. They posit it as the refusal of a patriarchal construct because she's never known she was an other within patriarchy. I found it fascinating that this effectively tied Meiji's body dysphoria—so horrible and heart-wrenching in Escape, when she threatens to self-harm by removing her breasts—to a sense of empowerment in the eyes of these women in The Island of Lost Girls. The shifts in tone around discussions of Meiji's sexed but non-gendered selfhood are easily the best parts of the novels for me, because this isn't even about changes to her body that then affect her mental perception of herself. It's not like Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve (1977) or even Youngest's transformation—it's more that Meiji herself doesn't know what "herself" would entail and yet still expresses a distinct selfhood that isn't necessarily constrained by the same ideologies of performing a specific gender as those expressed by the island women or Youngest. And I know that will increasingly change as she navigates new contexts and her own choices, but the fact that this is a learned choice is stunningly well articulated in the novel. Her body is as much a revelation to her as her survival is to everyone else, and that's half-terror, half-life as she knows it. There's something so shockingly profound in that.
Shashi: I wonder, given that Meiji considers herself (or themself? Or himself?) as male or aligned with masculinity, whether it's possible to read Meiji as a trans man. While the books do seem fairly invested in having Meiji's bildungsroman be about their growth into cis womanhood rather an acceptance of a possible male identity, I still think there's enough within the narrative to posit that Meiji could be read as non-binary or as a trans man, particularly since this aspect is otherwise missing from these novels. Specifically, the scene where Meiji is horrified by the growth of their breasts and attempts to self-administer a mastectomy is an event that draws on the dysphoric experiences of many transmasculine people I have known. I also have misgivings about the likelihood of any person, surrounded by people with different genitals, simply not noticing the difference (especially when Meiji is given a synthetic penis and it brings them comfort). However, I am aware that I'm projecting a trans narrative onto experiences that were probably not intended as such but more as plot devices for later conflict with Meiji's femininity. It is a consistent issue here that experiences lifted from the lives of trans people (and other groups) are repurposed for a cissexist narrative, problematising trans readings. This is not even to mention the repeated assertion that gender is inherently linked to one's genitals and secondary sex characteristics and any alteration in them from a cisnormative model is treated as monstrous and pitiful: one's gender will only be respected in as far as it aligns with cis bodies.
Hena: While I agree with your misgivings, I now have to wonder as well whether the books aren't opening up some sort of possibility (albeit a problematic one) for Meiji to be read as transmasculine. If we consider that Meiji, even after having their memories wiped, associates safety and security with the wearing of the synthetic penis, and that they only choose to discard this penis upon being allowed (under the island’s procedures) to recover aspects of their memory, then it's possible to suggest that the recovery of these memories allows for the realignment of a selfhood that, within the books, has so far been depicted as potentially transmasculine or agendered. In this sense, Meiji only seems to accept themself completely after beginning to reclaim memories of their past within the Forbidden Country, and though we as readers can't positively assert what notion of gender this allows Meiji access to, we can state that it does seem to help stabilise them in this new space. And notably, Meiji continues resistance to the authoritarian control of these island women by refusing to report the true level of Meiji's progress.
Samira: I think I would be more likely to read Meiji as transmasculine if the books weren't so firmly set on gendering them as "her" from the very opening sentence, even if this "her" is posited within Meiji’s understanding as a free-floating signifier that merely signifies otherness. Even default descriptions use "her" versus something like "them," "they," "hir," "one," "ze," "sie," "co," "ey," all of which are used to communicate genderqueerness and could have made this effort more evident from the author’s perspective, even if the characters used "her" within the broader narrative. I'm also deeply conflicted with regard to the fact that, if the books do proceed to present Meiji as transmasculine, this might be posited as the result of significant trauma that's developed over the course of several years repressing femininity as being sexed as a woman is a death sentence. That wouldn't necessarily be any better than what we have now, though having Meiji as a trans male protagonist would be a significant step in terms of representation, albeit incredibly problematic given the issues we've already discussed. I'm just not sure how this could play out within the fairly rigid gender binaries of the books as they currently stand.
Hena: It's interesting that Meiji's dysphoria is presented so empathetically, but we don't see such care extended to Youngest. He's so detached from his body—for instance, he chose to not have nipples and a vagina that can feel arousal, because he knows that his new body is there for the General to violate. He feels betrayed that his body feels (coerced) sexual arousal once he reaches the island and the women descend on him, forcing him to orgasm despite his having chosen surgeries for his breasts and vagina where, as per the novel, far fewer nerve endings would survive and allow for sensations of either pain or pleasure. He continues to identify as a heterosexual man, and is initially attracted to Alia because he can pretend that she isn't a transie. We are told how his spirit is broken, he doesn't understand himself or his body. We know that the island only takes him in because he presents and passes as non-masculine, or at least as transie, and that moment isn't interrogated. And yet, we do have Alia, a character who has long articulated herself as a transie, not a woman. And at the same time, Padmanabhan is doing some form of erasure to trans bodies and narratives, intentional or otherwise.
Even in Escape, we see a similar moment of slippage. Since the women have been eliminated, men have taken to fucking each other (and in Swan's case, children and drones). It's a forced homosocial and homosexual world, which essentially translates to Youngest and other elders who do remember women from Time Before romanticising their sexual trysts to the point of reverence. Heterosexuality is tied in with the population’s memory of women; and this by extension positions heterosexuality as the norm, and homosexuality and other kinds of queer identities as merely the byproduct of this catastrophe. This doesn't bode well for the tone or the precedent the books set when it comes to queerness and queer bodies.
Samira: Exactly. At the same time that the books are doing all of these incredibly complicated things, I find there are points at which they discomfort me in ways that don't seem intentional. The creation of a world in which being trans (in multiple ways) is an accepted identity that is problematized through existing narratives is definitely a story worth telling, especially if it's one that's engaging quite specifically with trans identities within Indian subcultures, but the problem that arises within The Island of Lost Girls in particular is that actually existing trans identities aren't ever presented. We're not even told that they were wiped out, as cisgender women were in Escape. It's a violence of its own that existing frames which could provide a subculture for this narrative aren't something that the book presumes exist. We don't even have any of the words that we currently use—hijra, aravani, kothi, kinnar, jogappa, shiv-shakti—mentioned, which suggests that this is a completely new culture of "transies" with no relation to this huge ongoing cultural past.
I was disconcerted that this erasure was present without explanation, and that the seeming reasons that "transies" began to emerge in the book was specifically due to the lack of women. It implied, inadvertently or not, that there needed to be a cataclysmic event for the "transie" identity to emerge and I'm still on the fence about whether that's part of the book's dystopia or just a horrific way to rewrite trans origin myths in a novel-world, drawing so strongly on issues in the contemporary world at large and the Indian subcontinent in particular. I think I'm leaning more towards the latter because so little in the book supports the former—no genderqueer characters exist, trans characters only exist on the transfeminine spectrum with no transmasculine characters represented at all (unless we count the possibility of Meiji, though Meiji's current positioning within the text suggests eventual cis womanhood), and the entirety of the transfeminine characters' presence is tied to their role as de facto "false women" for sex work. Despite my hope that I'm wrong, I do believe that The Island of Lost Girls is the sort of feminist storytelling where being a cis woman is paramount to its purposes, and which doesn't leave a lot of room for trans people outside of that. And that is violence and erasure.
Hena: I know Barthes will roll in his grave or whatever if we link what we know of the author to their work, but having read Padmanabhan's Three Virgins (2013) and The Harvest (1997), I feel like there's a larger point she's gesturing to with all this queer and trans erasure. Or maybe that's what I'm hoping is the case. But regardless of her intentions, there's absolutely a faction of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF) that believes that one's "female" biology is inherently connected to one's experience of femininity and female oppression, and that seems to resonate with the island feminists in The Island of Lost Girls. In the novel's world, because they've seen other women in different parts of the world particularly targeted because of their gender, they've developed this reactionary armour that excludes anything that doesn't fall strictly within the purview of cis womanhood. This reasserts the realities of TERF propaganda that justifies violence against trans people because of the violence cis women suffer within patriarchy, ignoring the realities of how much worse this violence is specifically for trans people. The island feminists prize the biological act of giving birth above everything else, which is striking in a world that is rife with reproductive hybrid technologies. Despite the fact that the novels make evident that we are not to invest in or trust these island feminists or their agenda in the least, it remains a fact that trans and queer people in this narrative seem like an afterthought, at best, and only a reaction to this biological determinism at worst.
Samira: More than that, these trans characters seem to be situated only as a counterpoint to Meiji's complicated identity and her body dysphoria. And while Meiji (who, I would argue, the novel intends to position as cis despite several indicators of transmasculinity) gets to be complex with a life that has its ups and downs, pros and cons, almost all of the trans experiences in this book seem to be horribly traumatic. The existence of trans people functions more as world-building within the book—an explanation for how sex would work with a populace with pre-existing homosocial and homophobic behaviours—or a description as "punishment" for men, but it feels largely like traumatic backdrop to underline the dystopian regimes. Unlike you, I didn't have a backdrop of Padmanabhan’s other work to reassure me, and aside from the erasure of actual trans cultures in the Indian subcontinent, so little of this book made it possible to connect any sort of positive emotion to the trans characters presented. In Escape, the one trans character we're introduced to turns out to have a "sneaky" agenda and works as a learning point (a plot device) for Meiji. In The Island of Lost Girls we see Youngest is forcibly gendered as a transie, as horrific and ongoing abusive punishment, but he is still a cisgender man. Alia, the other major trans character in the book, does identify as trans, but has spent her entire life being tormented by abusive men and, at one point in the book, accepts that she will die without one person in the world caring for her. Alia is probably the only outlier to this framing of a trans identity as solely the product of dystopian regimes, and while I do think she's part of an effort to talk about trans cultures and relations to sex work, I still found the manner in which this occurred—setting her up to take Youngest's place and suffer for it—really horrible. The books have multiple characters, male and female, identify trans women as "false" women. No trans men exist. When cis characters are provided with a range of emotion and experiences—good, bad, and everything in between—then the lack of this same extension to trans characters does suggest transphobia in terms of mobilized ethos.
Shashi: The creation of media by cis people like The Island of Lost Girls that assert seemingly inevitable misery for a trans character, despite the so-called "acceptance" of their presence in these worlds, is part and parcel of the marketing of transphobia. There are so many sub-narratives that are transphobic in this novel, from trans people being constantly unhappy, to trans women always being sex workers, to the idea that trans people will die alone, be murdered, or get raped. This is transphobia because of the repetition of violent narratives without any corresponding positives or any hope of happiness or acceptance. Even with the notion that this is a dystopia, this is simply repetition of violence trans people face every day, treating our lives as metaphorical canaries in the coal mine, there only to illustrate the seedy, violent underbelly of a world.
I found it hard to relate to some of the characters positioned as trans because they aren't identifiable as such, they're some warped cissexist cliché of what a trans person is supposed to be. I am deeply suspicious of Alia as a character, as her positioning as the sole "authentic" trans character in the books (a "transie") who is very clear in her rejection of femininity and masculinity seems to posit trans existences as only possible when non-binary. This isn't to delegitimise non-binary genders (or lack thereof), but when working alongside an essentialist narrative that consistently implies binary genders are only allowed for cis people, it falls into the familiar rut that many cis South Asians force hijras into: a "third gender" permitted only because it allows cis people to distinguish themselves as the only authentic men and women (and to essentialise genitals to gender). Alia's character, then, carries with it a vein of transmisogyny.
A positive depiction of transness would entail centering it (and normalising it) in the narrative. It would necessitate decentering cisness. This is why the idea that gender has been destabilised by science fiction feels laughable. It seems clear to me that it hasn't even managed to destabilise cisness. Consider instead what we'd be reading if this narrative was about a trans girl growing up in a society where women no longer exist. Would this not be a perfect occasion to have a trans girl as a protagonist, to centre trans girlhood and explore how femininity and sexuality have reshaped themselves in such a society, without having to use trans and queer people as disposable tools for world-building? Would this not provide us with a far more nuanced understanding of how gender has adapted to a genocidal cis male society? Instead, it feels like the author has gone to great lengths to centre a cis = girl as the protagonist, even at the risk of distorting the internal logics of her world and the marginalised groups she has had to use and cast aside to keep this distortion afloat. I wonder why it is so imperative that cis femininity, even if problematised, be centred no matter what, and what this implies about womanhood having to be cis and essentialised to genitals, to be valid and worthy of discussion.
Hena: I couldn't agree more. It's worrying that this comes from myopic and gender essentialist world-building, though this doesn't minimise the damage in any way. I think Padmanabhan missed an important opportunity with the transies to draw from the various aravani, hijra, and humjinsi trans identities across South Asia—the culture and language around them already exists. Save Alia (who the narrative positions as possibly Iranian with her family’s knowledge of Farsi), we don’t see a single complex, full portrayal of queerness. And as you point out, Alia's life up until this point hasn't been easy. Even when the narrative sets her up to be Youngest’s replacement with the General on a ship near what I think is the Arabian Sea in this reassigned geography (to be raped by him as a temporary substitute for Youngest), it's a specific moment where at first the General rejects her because of her lack of patriarchal femininity because, in his eyes, Youngest is sexually enticing only because of the contradiction of his cishet identity with his coercively modified body which is violently sexually abused by the General in increasingly graphic ways. It is this submission to the General's violent and sadistic impulse despite his cis masculinity (for his own sake as well as Meiji's survival) that arouses the General. When Alia presents herself as transfeminine and uses language identified in the text as trans-specific lingo (problematically conflated with baby-talk), the General violently rejects her. Only when Alia presents herself as weaker, vulnerable, and submissive within what the General understands as patriarchal feminine norms does he seem to take any interest in her. It's extremely disconcerting to see her purpose is to simulate something that she isn't, and worse, doesn't ever want to be.
By the end of Island of Lost Girls, there are many instances where the General ups the ante on his violence toward her, and she forges a connection with the drones aboard the ship (while Youngest is away attempting to locate one of the underwater feminist islands that Meiji is aboard, on command of the General who plans to attack them), because they are similarly abused by the General. We are meant to sympathise with this solidarity forged on the margins, but at what point do these alienated groups come together without being forced into it by horrific violence? And what does that say about this world that an alternative isn't possible at this moment?
Samira: Agreed! The manner in which this played out reminded me of what felt very close to homophobia underlying the events in Escape. We're told repeatedly that Youngest prefers women and, as a consequence, although Escape has a few scenes that described sexual encounters between him and a man, not one of them seems even remotely positive. It was simply something he did. This by itself wouldn't have been a problem for me—people are straight, after all—but the book then went on to have other male/male scenes that were also essentially rape and pedophilia played over and over. And the implication in this wasn't that sex itself was messed up—Youngest provided a few happy memories of himself with women, notably one supposedly loving sexual encounter between himself and Meiji's mother (only told from his point of view, so we can never be certain of this)—but that sex with men somehow overlaid itself into this morass of duty and rape. There's a similar amount of tension played out in The Island of Lost Girls though this is, again, about Youngest's cis heterosexuality in a body that he feels no comfort or pleasure in, and his and Alia's sexual abuse at the hands of the General.
Even though the book makes the attempt to suggest the destabilisation of gender, through the genocide of cis women (and probably intersex people, though the narrative never explicitly states this) in the Forbidden Country in Escape and with the transies that exist outside of the borders of the Forbidden Country (not within them, as identifying as cis male is paramount in that region) in The Island of Lost Girls, it still seems like being cis is paramount to the purposes of this narrative, with trans characters only present to reconfirm the inevitable violence of existing between the established binary. Queerness is hardly explored in these scenarios, and homophobia abounds in subtle but visible ways. Every time a man has sex with another man, it's a horrible experience or forced duty. The possibility of a gay character existing prior to the eradication of women is utterly absent in both books, which almost implies that homosexuality is a consequence of this genocide and not something that existed within these histories at all, penalised or otherwise. It’s possible to point to that and argue that this is a microcosm of what we might term "khap culture" in which homosexuality is made invisible, but its complete absence in two books now suggests that the series' feminist challenge is not about queerness at all despite its repeated use and presence, but primarily about using it to talk about only a particular type of womanhood. When rape by women is presented as less violating than that by men, and when heterosexual sex is fetishized and placed upon a seeming pedestal, then it's hard not to locate the narrative as one that, if not advocating homophobia, is passively representing or participating in it.
I find it incredibly hard to trust an author to overturn something that now feels strongly embedded in the narrative, though I dearly hope Padmanabhan does so in a book that follows this one. I know that I'd likely never recommend Island of Lost Girls to friends, particularly trans and queer friends, without a very carefully phrased boatload of caveats.
I felt a similar amount of discomfort with the manner in which the book talked about Africa as The Zone. I know that this is a dystopia and the book has to mobilize real-world apparatuses in order to destabilize them or draw attention to them, but this was the section that worked the least for me in the book. I expected that the introduction of the racist tropes and machinations within the Zone would be rapidly undercut in some way; that there would be more to this than "Africa is a battlefield on which rich nations enact power plays upon each other." But that seemed to be the be-all and end-all of that section. I can see how the book is gesturing to a deeper plot that will ensue in the next book, but it feels like this is less about the context of African history under colonisation, and more about its potential as a plot device to bring things to a head between the Forbidden Country (the Indian subcontinent; the area that Meiji and Youngest are from) and the rest of the world.
The book kept making reference to the "Red Tribe" in a space that used to be Africa, and the first mental connection I made was to the Himba thanks to the geographical location and the Himba's use of otjize. And that I think was part of my problem—the use of references that weren't meant to be there or were meant to be disassociated. The use of the colour red for the Red Tribe in The Island of Lost Girls was just supposed to signify carnage or threat, and wasn't meant to evoke an actual context, but given that Escape often appeared to make allusions, I couldn't immediately be sure if I was meant to make this connection or not and struggled with this. The sections about The Zone describe warring Tribes funded by the rest of the globe whose conquests provide territory and spoils to the Tribe in question, and stocks to the winning nations. It's a series of violent power plays between these Tribes funded by the rest of the world, and this is a really valid metaphor for imperialism. The win results in victory feasts which, for the winning Red Team that we're introduced to (the Dzingi or the Ning), feature cannibalism and the violent rape of women (the latter being a staple for all teams). The problem is that these are distinctly historical and specifically localized racist constructs being mobilized here—particularly cannibalism, but also the constant violence followed by violent and abusive rape scenarios (including, in one case, animals). Fairly late in the book there's a scene where it's implied that the Teams accuse each other of cannibalism and black magic as simply propaganda, but this felt really brief and was contradicted almost immediately by the brutality of the Red Team taking the head of the Blue Team's champion as their chosen trophy. And although the warriors who participate in the battles for the Zone come from all over the world, I don't think that overcomes the sheer magnitude of the history behind the anti-African sentiments being mobilized here, even if to a purpose.
That said, The Zone is likely to feature more in the next book in the series, and therefore this might be something that sustained engagement sorts out quickly. But based purely on its use within The Island of Lost Girls, it felt more like the use of racism without any actual undercutting of its presence outside of implying that not all the Tribe's warriors would be Black. I can't tell if I'm reading the book too harshly or if this was just something I'm meant to understand is inevitable for postcolonial continents like Africa in this new world order, and I don't think I can posit it as satire simply because it has yet to show any attempt at depth with its seeming purpose. At the novel's conclusion, we discover, as Youngest and the island women join forces, that the General plans to take his genocide of cis women and intersex people global, and that the island women intend to intervene in The Zone, but these are left unfinished as a lead-in to the next book. As a result, I don’t know yet how I'm supposed to read the General's plan to heavily weaponize this situation with firearms and bombs, or the women's incursion into this bloody and cultural hierarchy-fuelled warzone, in a way that says anything to me that I feel I haven't heard within centuries of colonial histories and (problematically) feminist humanitarian interventions—though admittedly the incursion of the General from a space that's recognisably postcolonial (the Indian subcontinent) is taking the narrative much further into histories of post/colonial victimhood and abuse.
Hena: I have similar mixed feelings about The Zone. Like you, I was struck by the spectacle of cannibalism and this need to use rape as a method of celebration and prizing militant masculinity. Given that this occurs in the geographical area that used to be Africa, it's a whole different equation of power imbalances and prejudices. I don't really think the narrative is going to shift much, especially if the General's plan to arm the Zone comes to fruition. One of the things I cannot shake off about this arc is the feminist islands that have remained neutral and hidden away, but now choose to enter the fray. They're not getting in the way of the Tribes, but their very presence in the Zone seems to mirror the militant turn feminism has taken in the past decade, where we see women's participation in warmongering as a "feminist" endeavour. Throughout the book we're told Meiji and her associates are "in training" and it is only revealed at the end that this training is to equip them to be on the site of war. This seems especially troubling because many of the girls "saved" by these island feminists come from slavery, sex circuses, and years of rape from the Zone itself. Sure, these girls' memories have been wiped (for their own protection, of course!), but it seems too callous that the feminist leaders choose to compromise their safety for their larger political agenda. Much like the ambivalence I feel with Padmanabhan's narrative techniques regarding queerness and trans characters, I do not fully gauge her relationship with this institutional feminism characterised by the island feminists. At times, it does feel like an acerbic parody, and yet, I wouldn't be able to tell you for sure.
Samira: Exactly! I want to think she's writing these novels as a sort of satire of dystopian feminism, but that's largely wishful thinking on my part. I waver between thinking it's intentional and deliberately discomforting, and being deeply discomforted because it feels unintentional. It feels like Schrödinger's feminist challenge—it paradoxically is and isn't at the same time, and I couldn't tell you which it was for sure. I feel we are supposed to be deeply suspicious of the island women and disavow their ideas (especially when they pay Youngest and Alia a hefty sum for Meiji's body after ascertaining that she has a natal vagina with an intact hymen), but we also see them willingly accept Youngest and Alia into their enterprise at the conclusion of The Island of Lost Girls and this conflicts with the manner in which the earlier TERF narrative was set up. I'm also leery of the fact that the novel seems at times to revel in its gruesome descriptions of sexual violence aimed at drones and trans characters, creating what amounts to torture porn rather than any form of genuine social engagement even within its dystopic setting.
If you asked me for a conclusion on these books, I'm definitely in favour of reading them despite the sheer number of problems we've noted. They're hard and complex reads, and I got a lot of information out of this discussion that I don't think would have been on my radar without the context of these books. But it's hard to recommend them because I think we're not supposed to "enjoy" them in the conventional sense of the term. How do you enjoy seeing your world taken to its extremes and knowing your choices in this dystopian future are to either be violently and sadistically murdered or raped as your only real outcomes? You can't really. But the books are incredibly compelling and I'd recommend them, with the numerous caveats that we've raised in place.
Hena: I don't know how to talk about these books to people; while they're doing such interesting and creative things around language, gender, and culture, the trans and queer erasure really weighs down these books in my experience. I definitely know that I wouldn't have made it through the books alone, and it helped immensely talking about them with you as we were reading together. I'd recommend them only if you keep pillows, pets, and your favourite comfort beverage handy. You'll need them all.